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The Exigency of Resuscitating Multilateralism

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unleash it devastation across the continents, the great and the good reminds us of the significance of multilateralism and the necessity for preserving it. This pandemic has changed the character of international cooperation and highlighted the weaknesses and inherent faults embedded in the global institutions.
The western, or so called 'Atlantic system' that comprises of developed European nations and the USA apparently believed champions of multilateralism has failed to handle the pandemic or offer any meaningful direction in this unprecedented emergency. Across the system, when the need for multilateralism is more dire than ever, multilateralism is gravely eroding as countries become inward-focused directing their attention and plans towards enhancing domestic production capacities and reducing reliance on imports. Cooperation among the nations is of utmost necessity in order to curtail the spread of the virus, for developing effective and efficient medical treatment facilities and for reducing severe effects of prevailing recession.
Deepened by Pandemic
The malaise that racks multilateralism is an old one. The ongoing pandemic has brought this reality to limelight which for the past several years has been staring us in the face. The paralysis of three functions of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – transparency, dispute settlement, and negotiation – has been an indication of the deep-rooted malaise. Another recent indicator in this backdrop has been the severely undermined credibility of the World Health Organization. The fact is, the pandemic has intensified the multilateralism crisis, not created it. It has underlined two aspects – first, the challenges that the world is confronting today and also probably be confronting in future, are ‘cross-national’ in character. Neither these challenges respects national boundaries nor are they amenable to national solutions.
Secondly, nature of these challenges are cross-domain, with strong feedback loops. Thus, any disruption in one domain is likely to create disruptions in other domains also. For instance, the use of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers may promote food security but at the same time it is injurious to health, which undermines health security. Therefore, be it at international level or domestic, these inter-domain linkages needs to be comprehended and denounce policy interventions. This awareness is reflected in UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It was assumed that post-war multilateral system will contribute peace and prosperity. The great and good also assumed that it would increase economic integration and thereby enhance affinities between nations and contribute to peace. However, not all countries became part of this multilateral order. For instance, the Soviet bloc which followed a fundamentally different domestic system of governance in the Cold War Years refused to participate in this. Not one of those multilateral institutions was instituted for a world in which the ties of interdependence -- that were assumed to boost the well-being of all-- could themselves be "weaponized" for nationalistic profit, at the cost of other players. There are several loopholes within the existing rules which are often misused by countries like China (e.g. by way of intellectual property rights violations, forced technology requirements and subsidies) for acquiring unfair advantage in trade relations. Though since last few years this was already attracting critique, the pandemic has unfurled a few more alarming illustrations on extent of damage that weaponization of global supply chains can do.
When death tolls were rapidly increasing, mainly in the months of March, April and May, several countries were forced to bring in restriction on exports of medical goods and supplies. Owing to lack of adequate stocks, this had became inevitable then. Recognizing this dearth in medical supplies that several countries were confronting – ventilators, personal protective gears, masks etc. – to deal with the corona crisis, China stepped up to sell and provide assistance to the needy countries. For example, China agreed to provide assistance to Serbia at it’s request when export restrictions were put in by the European Union. But, Beijing’s diplomacy on coronavirus did not end here. When a complain came from India on faulty test kit exported by China to India, Beijing slammed it for ‘irresponsible’ behavior. Additionally, China also threatened Australia to have economic consequence when there was an indication of conducting an independent investigation by Canberra. Added to the risk and dangers of using faulty medical equipment, India and European nations observed another threat of predatory takeovers of their companies by China. With bitter experiences, the currently prevailing COVID-19 pandemic is teaching the countries across the globe that weaponised interdependence is not only a bookish theory but also a rapidly evolving practice which can have life & death consequences.
Reforming Multilateralism
The intersection of cross-domain and cross-national challenges demand multilateral approaches. They demand empowered international institutions of governance. But over the past decade the world has been witnessing an upsurge in narrow nationalism, a fostering of competition between nations rather than embracing collaboration and an assertion of parochial interests over pursuit of shared interests. The pandemic has only highlighted these deepening contradictions. The world is going through a crisis that does not recognises any political boundaries. This crisis is intimately connected to the entire pattern of high density food production and large scale distribution. Though this was only a health crisis in the beginning but as days are passing by the pandemic is spawning an economic crisis by playing an havoc with the global value chains beside simultaneously stimulating demand shock. This has turned out to be a classic example of cross-domain and cross-national challenge. Hence, this crisis cannot be dealt only by relying on social distancing and quarantine measures. It demands coordination, cooperation and vibrant leadership at international level. In other words, it is necessary to craft a multilateral rules-based system that has the capability of addressing the issue of the goals and values that underpin the rules. But for this a reformation in the multilateral order becomes obvious. But how?
First, there is dire need for reassurance and framing of policies which will reflect a renewed commitment to the raison d’étre of multilateralism. As nationalist trends are becoming more intense, states are moving towards building walls around themselves that is further weakening the concept of multilateralism. This leads to the fear of return of autarkic economic and trade polices which further gives a rise to pervasive anti-globalisation sentiment. Thus, a ‘retreating’ United States needs to demonstrate through its deeds and also by its words that in this global crisis autarchy is not the way forward and that it remains committed to global supply chains that are based on the promise of ensuring peace, prosperity and global stability.
Second, there's an urgent requirement for several tactical decoupling, handled smartly in cooperation with other countries that are like-minded. It is true that this will require some time to happen and also it is certain that it will cause substantial disruption within the already existing global value chains which will in turn shrink the global economic pie. But, in the long run it will also be more secure.
Third, a multilateralism that acknowledges the necessity for decoupling will necessitate closer cooperation. There would not be any universal membership in renewed multilateral institution, rather, a country will limit integration which such nations it shares first-order values – like liberalism, democracy, pluralism animal rights etc.
Role and Opportunity for India
For a country like India whose liberalism, democracy and pluralism have been often underestimated by the West, must utilise this crisis in multilateralism as a remarkable opportunity in reviving it. At an immediate level, there are multiple gains. First, this will make India a powerful and credible champion of internationalism and provide a stage for playing a leadership role in a world that is adrift. Secondly, a consistent reserve about a blanket entrenchment in global value chains has been maintained by India. Therefore, when some western constituencies seek a gradual decoupling from China, India will get the opportunity of serving them.
Thirdly, India’s cooperation with like-minded actors will play a crucial role for itself and for the provision of certain global public goods. In this context, New Delhi could work with the Alliance for Multilateralism which will help in shaping the alliance itself as well as reform the agenda at large. [Alliance for Multilateralism is an initiative launched by France and Germany]. This would be a great opportunity for India to amplify its voice while together with the developing and developed countries.
Nevertheless, beyond these immediate gains, India will have a greater role to play. Eversince Chernobyl disaster attracted global public opinion, it has lost as much faith in the integrity and competence of a great power as China has lost due to COVID-19 and the apparent opaqueness and malfeasance with which it has dealt with the crisis. Though it is certain that economically China will recover faster than most, its image as a reliable partner has suffered a huge dent. This trust deficit that has been created today between China and much of the rest of the world would not be easy to recover either through aid diplomacy or through unleashing of Chinese soft power. While prudence may demand gradual decoupling, China is not going to get isolated immediately; and Beijing’s turn towards revisionism could even be faster than it can be anticipated. Rather, in order to bridge this trust deficit India could lead a coalition through a regime of sanctions and incentives which seek to embed China into a more guided & directed socialisation into the rules of international framework. Clearly, this will also bring in a consonance between strategic and economic policies.
Amidst the terrific power competition presently underway, several fractures are becoming apparent over first-order values like democracy, rule of law, embedded liberalism and pluralism. The time is not very far away when it will be impossible to brush away fundamental difference under the carpet of love of globalisation and of trite declarations about shared material interests. Hence resuscitating multilateralism becomes inherently normative agenda and thus it is vital that countries like India, Japan, European Nations, along with other key players work together. Alliance with allies that share first-order values will be crucial in reinvigorating multilateralism.


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