Multi-alignment: How Nations are Navigating the present era

by Malik Abbas

With the post-cold war “order” gone for good, and no alternative order in place given the flailing multilateral forums like the UN, something akin to pre-1991 Bloc politics seems inevitable. However, developing nations are playing these cards to their benefit and skillfully so.

The Long Decline

20 years have passed since Francis Fukuyama’s famous book on the “End of History” was published. Ironically quite ahistorical given the title, even a cursory glance at history might have led him to different conclusions. He might have even foreseen the brief nature of the supposedly perennial Pax Americana. That era–lasting for all of 15 years since that book–has long since withered away. Fukuyama can be cut some slack for his bold assertion because the factors that upended that “forever order” were dormant at that time: Russia was in shambles, China was attempting to get back on track after the Tiananmen Uprising of 1989 and India had nearly avoided bankruptcy. Other regional players were adjusting –politically and economically– to the new international environment, mostly in the form of regime transitions and free-market shock therapies. Washington had the whole wide world open to itself.

Yet, instead of using these years of unchallenged supremacy to create robust multilateral institutions which could deal with this new world, Washington went on a rampage. Starting with the first Gulf War in 1991, the US-led coalitions started a series of military interventions in ex-Yugoslavia (1995 and 1999), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). These conflicts sucked the US and most of its partners into multiple quagmires which distracted it from the emergence of alternative centres of powers like China, India and a resurgent Russia. Smaller nations created, or revitalised, regional commercial groupings like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Mercosur. The US-led western world order witnessed its primacy erode, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. A rising tide of populism in this crisis constrained the West’s ability to take ownership of this new world. By the time Brexit and the Trump election happened in 2016, the world had changed.

Lack of Alternatives

When we speak of a decline of some power or a predominant system, we tend to think of an alternative rising in its place. That might not be the best way to understand it. The said system might have ruptured or failed due to its own contradictions or decisions which lead to unforeseen consequences. A glaring example of this can be found in the US-assisted entry of China into global trade. This act alone contributed to Chinese ascension on the world stage. In such instances, a new arrangement is created which works in a changing environment, either through negotiated means or by force. Such rearrangements have taken place thrice in the past century. Treaties signed in the aftermath of WW1 created an order that lasted till the 30s. The post-WW2 settlement between the eastern and western blocs more or less sustained over the latter half of the 20th century. Post-1991 conditions were less of settlements and more of unconditional acceptance of US supremacy. The difference in the outcomes of the three is evident. Whereas the twin blocs negotiated and delineated their spheres of influence during the Cold war despite proxy clashes, the Post-WW1 rearrangements came crashing down in a bloody war. The Post-Cold war rearrangement was a positive one for the developing nations in economic terms. Yet, it left in its wake, a world rife with multiple poles of varying power and no new rules decided. That’s the world we live in today.

Multilateral institutions, like the United Nations, mirror this broken world. Its inefficacy in the face of an unauthorised invasion of Iraq led to a discrediting of the institution. The subsequent wars in Syria, Yemen and Ukraine due to political gridlock in the Security Council only added to its sense of impotency. Similarly, instances like the US withdrawal from multilateral agreements like the JCPOA (aka Iran Nuclear Deal) and the Paris Climate Accord reduced trust in multilateral agreements. The recent crisis of legitimacy that hit the World Health Organisation (WHO) amid a global pandemic was the latest iteration of this long trend. Clearly, there’s little stomach for global initiatives.

In the absence of a singular dominant system (US supremacy) or a collaborative multilateral system (UN), it’s quite natural for nations to veer towards the emerging poles of power. In other words, states would prefer order instead of chaos on the world stage. Yet, unlike in the Cold War, the world today is devoid of effective blocs. Russian imitations of Soviet alliances like the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and EEU (Eurasian Economic Union) have miserably failed. Russia acquired just enough economic and military leverage to disrupt the dominant order, not enough to become an alternative in itself. The Chinese have come the nearest in trying to present an alternative, but haven’t quite succeeded yet. India, while doing well enough for itself, was hemmed in by internal and regional challenges. In theory, this seems horrible as a pre-existing order, for all its flaws, withered away without any successive mechanism to claim responsibility. In practice, it didn’t turn out all that bad.

Multi-Alignment

Imagine you live in a neighbourhood where you share concerns over security with a few, and concerns over transportation with others. Do you get all of them together and work towards a solution for everything? Ideally, you would, but in reality, their different priorities would probably result in inaction. Instead, you choose to work with different sets of people based on your shared interests. Multialignment is not that different from some good old neighbourhood realpolitik.

In the absence of any coherent order, nations have found their own ways of dealing with their problems. They have managed to build issue-centric arrangements of smaller and more concise groups which have a narrow focus. This arrangement isn’t novel in its conception but the present global circumstances offer more avenues for its effective use. A nation’s ability to utilise this transitory arrangement is a factor of its geopolitical importance and state capacity. Both determine the extent to which it can enter into arrangements with competing powers. One cannot work without the other: geopolitical insignificance accrues fewer options for a nation and state incapacity leads to unencumbered interference by the greater powers. Together, these factors allow a nation to bargain and gain concessions. More often than not, such bargains are effective.

Three decades of globalisation has allowed a large majority of nations to grow in all aspects and accumulate national power. This strengthening, along with the shift in global economic power, entailed that such powers have greater leverage in a world with more options. Such nations no longer have to create a third bloc like the NAM to gain leverage. Both the unipolar and the bipolar moments have passed and developing nations find themselves in a better position to play the game. This can be seen in the creation of counter-BRI infrastructure financing programmes like the G-7 fund that was announced just days ago. Funds for development are replacing funds for military expenditures. This is a sign of the times and a good one at that.

No power encapsulates this approach as India does. Being one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, India is no stranger to this way of diplomacy. Long an advocate of not tying the nation to a bloc, India has charted a very cautious–often painfully so–foreign policy. This approach allowed India to have workable ties with adversarial powers simultaneously. The only exception to this principle was made when an adverse situation required, like in 1971. While the national power of India did grow in the decades after independence, especially in terms of military and technological terms, the 90s liberalisation accelerated that trend. It allowed India to accumulate significant economic strength by leveraging a vast market and qualified labour force. Engagement with India was sought by even staunch rivals and it engaged with vastly different forums. Presently, that policy is in full display when India is a member of almost rival organisations like the BRICS, QUAD, IPEF, SCO, INSTC etc. India has lessened the focus on gaining the membership of a dysfunctional platform like the UNSC and is working towards stitching these smaller and more cohesive groups where narrower issues can be tackled. India has shown the way to other nations when it comes to selective cooperation with even less-than-friendly nations.

It is still unwise to dismiss the utility of multilateral forums or the emergence of powerful blocs. Global phenomena like climate change and pandemics require global cooperation. Regions or mini-groupings do not have the capacity to deal with such eventualities on their own. A more effective and trusted UN would serve the world better than any issue-centric alliance. Multialignment is not a substitute for multilateralism. It’s a way to get smaller, doable issues resolved. The only hope is that this cooperation trickles up and builds a foundation for something more comprehensive and sustainable.

Malik Moin Abbas is a Master’s in Liberal Studies (IR) student at Ashoka University.

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