Updated: May 9

The global health emergency resulting from the rapidly spreading COVID-19 and the failing global markets have reignited the debates on multilateralism. Although the rise of populism in recent times had reduced the significance of multilateral institutions, the brand new challenges resulting due to an unforeseen pandemic have made many experts reevaluate the role of global multilateral institutions.

Explaining the contours of multilateralism, Dr. Monish Tourangabam and Aditi Malhotra answer some pertinent questions on the functioning of important multilateral institutions in putting up a fight against the pandemic. Ms. Aditi Malhotra has answered the first two questions and Dr. Monish Tourangabam has given his insights on the last two questions.

Many experts have seen multilateralism with a critical eye as organizations such as the UN and EU have struggled to come up with a prompt response for the challenge posed by COVID-19. While many other experts are of the opinion that multilateralism is gaining momentum as the most powerful countries are expressing the need for assistance to deal with the pandemic in spite of the rise in populism around the globe in recent years. What according to you is the road ahead for the important multilateral entities? Could this lead to a resurgence of multilateralism, or are there any significant roadblocks that could derail the emerging multilateral spirit?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought back the focus on multilateralism. While some pay attention to the silver lining by looking at illustrations of cooperation despite rising nationalism, others highlight the deficiencies of multilateralism as it stands today. Overall, the reality is a mixed bag with instances of both successes and failures, with the latter more dominant than the former. The responses of the UN, the EU; e-meetings of the G7 and G20 are telling in this regard. Even as these multilateral organizations or groups have worked on some initiatives, they remain insufficient to either manage the pandemic effectively or address the impending economic fallout.

For instance, the UN has been working on the Global Humanitarian Response Plan to fight COVID-19, with a special focus on the vulnerable (51) countries. For this, the UN has worked on raising US$2 billion. While the plan may be hailed as a success story, there is no denying that this sum is inadequate to tackle the spread and severity of the pandemic particularly in countries that lack basic medical infrastructure. In the absence of overarching US leadership (due to Trump administration’s inward-looking policy), the UN has been unable to rally the support of its member countries to undertake coordinated responses, offer funds or even showcase solidarity. Instead, UN forums such as UNSC have become a platform where Washington and Beijing are attempting to settle political scores, thus delaying discussions on COVID-19 for months.

Similarly, the EU region – where countries such as Italy, Germany, Spain, and France have been the hardest hit – has been sluggish in its response. As EU members are grappling with their own crisis, they are naturally reluctant to share their resources or pool in for a regional response. The EU as an organization has played a marginal leadership role in the affair and the pandemic has only brought out internal divisions among the member states. Germany initially banned the export of protective medical equipment, which was overturned after facing a regional backlash. Even Italy has felt betrayed by the lack of bold steps from the EU and its members in helping it. Having noted that, it is worth highlighting some of the accomplishments of the EU such as the agreement of the financial rescue package of half a trillion euros. Even in this context, the differences are evident. While France, Italy, and Spain called for joint debt within the fiscal response, others such as Germany, Finland, Austria, and the Netherlands have been resistant. Further, the questions over how exactly will the bloc finance the recovery remains unanswered, which indicates the possibility of contestations and acrimonious discussions.

We also saw national considerations taking precedence in the virtual meetings of G7 and G20. Despite the need to showcase a joint front at this hour, the G7 failed to produce a joint statement because participating states rejected Trump’s insistence to term the virus as ‘Wuhan Virus’. That the US pushed its own considerations compelled other members to issue separate statements hardened the impression of fractures within the G7 group. In order to counteract the US, Beijing has gone all out to manufacture theories of the US military’s involvement in introducing the contagion in China. The US-China contestation was also visible in the G-20 meeting alongside the problem of the Saudi Arabia-Russia oil price war. Apart from the decision to inject a sum of $5 trillion into the global economy, there were no major landmark decisions. When compared to the swift, bold and coordinated response of the G-20 following the 2008 global financial crisis, its demeanor during the pandemic pales considerably.

In view of such developments and undeniable undercurrents of political contestations, multilateral responses and international cooperation are missing in action, especially at a time when they are warranted. Multilateralism in view of COVID-19 is plagued by the extreme nationalistic focus of most countries, unwillingness to offer information by some, and the absence of global leadership in view of US’ isolationist policy.

Even after the current crisis fades, its negative impact on the global economy will be enormous, which will require greater global coordination. If the current trends continue, it is likely to dampen whatever spirits of multilateralism have emerged so far. The way ahead for multilateral entities is to continue showing resilience while also using this opportunity for self-reflection. This crisis can act as an important turning point because it rightly highlights the need to undertake necessary reforms of the existing organizations in order to become more representative and develop ‘teeth’ to manage the challenges of today as opposed to that of the previous era.

In the recently concluded ‘Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit’, India called for reforming and strengthening multilateral governmental organizations. What role can India assume to step up the strengthening multilateral governmental organizations in the South Asian region?

India’s call for reforms and strengthening of multilateral government entities is pertinent and crucial given the inadequate multilateral response to the pandemic. That China suppressed information regarding the coronavirus when it originated in Wuhan, and did not share it with the World Health Organisation is another example of failed multilateralism. Also, organizations such as the UN, G20, G7 have become hostage to the China-US tiff. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that that member countries are bogged down by the pandemic at home, and are driven by national political considerations, which makes them unwilling to take the extra mile to prepare a global response. Therefore, PM Modi rightly pointed out that multilateral organizations are being used as “tools” to balance national interest rather than “institutions” to address global interests.

When it comes to India’s role in the South Asian context, the assistance that New Delhi has provided the region is largely bilateral in nature. Since the early stages, New Delhi assisted the immediate neighborhood by evacuating citizens of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal from virus-hit Wuhan; providing protective medical equipment; easing the export of hydroxychloroquine, etc.

India, given its economic potential, political clout, and size, is regarded as the actor that can provide overarching regional leadership and make multilateral entities (such as SAARC and BIMSTEC) more effective. Having noted that, its potential is constricted by a number of challenges. We recently witnessed New Delhi’s attempt at activating the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) with a video conference. During the session, New Delhi proposed for a SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund to address the pandemic and even pledged $10 million as its initial contribution. Expectedly, India-Pakistan acrimony has loomed large. Islamabad utilized the SAARC conference for political purposes by bringing in the Kashmir issue. Additionally, Pakistan’s contribution of $3 million to the emergency fund came with a rider that the funds be administered by the SAARC Secretariat, a condition that no other country touched upon. These developments provide a window into some of the challenges that New Delhi or for that matter the region faces when it comes to strengthening regional multilateral government organization.

The roadblocks towards achieving greater multilateralism in South Asia are similar to the challenges faced at the global level – national considerations and attempts at settling political scores. Adding to the mix is the lack of economic integration within South Asia, absence of regional connectivity, and the growing role of China in the region by way of economic dependencies of the smaller partners, infrastructural project and debt traps. Given the limits of regional cooperation and coordination in view of the above-factor, India’s role to push for stronger multilateral governmental organizations in the South Asian region remains limited.

However, when it comes to more extended regions such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), there is greater potential for New Delhi to play a productive role. India and other BIMSTEC members can take lessons from the pandemic and expand the areas of cooperation. As evident with COVID-19, epidemics or pandemics can overwhelm a country’s medical infrastructure. This pandemic has also brought home the reality that medical emergencies do not care for borders and therefore require a holistic and regional response. In light of this, India can encourage the organization to introduce cooperation in the medical sector. In the medium and long term, New Delhi can assist the BIMSTEC countries in capacity building and strengthening the medical infrastructure.

The organization can also work on establishing a pool of funds for this purpose. BIMSTEC can also work on establishing a regional center to impart information on medical issues, challenges, and solutions. Overall, a regional grouping such as BIMSTEC (i.e. India’s neighboring region minus Pakistan) provides New Delhi the conducive environment that allows it to take bold steps in association with the members. By addressing the gaps in the medical sector at the regional level, India can help strengthen multilateral governmental organizations and make them more effective in their response in case of a future medical emergency, no matter how big or small.

What role can organizations like BRICS and SAARC play in aiding the member countries in their fight against COVID-19? Also, Will India be able to assume a more important role in shaping the dynamics of the geopolitics of post COVID-19 world order?

As the COVID-19 outbreak sends shockwaves across the globe, affecting countries of all shapes and sizes, bringing some of the most powerful countries to a standstill, the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) multilateral grouping, has been rather conspicuous by its absence. This grouping, largely spearheaded by China, has been mostly silent at the leadership level, as discussions shift to a post COVID world order, besides some reports on a COVID-related New Development Bank (NDB) loan and meetings of health officials from these countries.

China’s priority at the time is public relations management, to absolve itself of the allegations of inefficient handling of the health crisis in the earlier stages. It is engaged in a war of words and blame game with the United States and its military adventurism in the South China Sea continues unabated amidst the pandemic. The BRICS, as a grouping of rising economies, and reflective of South-South cooperation, has been relatively absent from the scene, perhaps, owing to the different priorities of the member countries. Moreover, the most powerful and resourceful country in the group, China, is engaged in a different tangent to prove its global leadership while the U.S. struggles to cope with the public health crisis at home.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to initiate the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) virtual conference, leading to a number of measures like the SAARC COVID-19 emergency fund and communication regarding Indian medical assistance at the disposal for use by the member countries. Among the SAARC countries, owing to India’s relative advances in modern and traditional medicine, a number of proposals have been set in motion that needs to properly implemented and followed through.

However, unlike what a number of analyses seem to contend in this matter, the focus is not on SAARC resurgence, but it is on using the available platform of the organization to combat COVID-19. Expecting strategic dividends from the virtual conference and the engagements for a cooperative and coordinated fight against the pandemic may lead to frustrations. As far as India’s role in shaping the world order post COVID-19 is concerned, too many uncertainties still cloud the emerging dynamics of geopolitics. India’s sights should be focussed on, being prepared, to handle the fallout of the U.S.-China great power competition, and what sort of challenges it will throw up in the near, medium and long terms.

The United Nations was established with the intention of increasing multilateral cooperation among the member countries. The organization turns 75 years old this year, and its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stated that the current challenge posed by the COVID-19 outbreak is “the greatest test since World War II”. Has the UN been able to successfully respond to the calls of the global community in this hour of need? How will the challenges posed by COVID-19 shape the future course of multilateralism under the UN’s guidance?

The World Health Organisation (WHO), being the specialized agency of the United Nations (U.N.), to deal with the pandemic has been at the forefront, through its Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. However, the WHO, and its Director-General, has been also called out, by many, for its failure to better inform and warn the world of the severity of the coronavirus outbreak. In some cases, it has also been at the receiving end of critics, who have questioned the kind of influence China has had on its functioning. More recently, U.S President Donald Trump decided to halt funding for the WHO, pending a review of how the health agency responded to the early phase of the virus outbreak.

The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres publicly lamented the announcement saying, “Now is a time for unity in the global battle to push the COVID-19 pandemic into reverse, not a time to cut the resources of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is spearheading and coordinating the global body’s efforts.” During a media briefing on the COVID-19 scenario on April 15, the WHO Director-General commented, “WHO is reviewing the impact on our work of any withdrawal of U.S. funding and will work with our partners to fill any financial gaps we face and to ensure our work continues uninterrupted.” The U.N. Secretary-General had also warned of the implications of the health crisis for global peace and security and commented that normalcy can be brought only with a COVID-19 vaccine.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the U.N. system is as good as its member countries, and more particularly, the most powerful ones, whose actions count the most in terms of how effective the U.N. and its agencies are to solve global problems, like the current pandemic. There is no other organization that can replace the U.N. as far as the global multilateral order is concerned. However, there is a need to align the optimism of such an order with the realities of great power competition and behavior that create anomalies in how the U.N. works. Strategic tussles and differing priorities among the most resourceful and powerful countries dents the multilateral system at the U.N. The COVID-19 and great power responses seem to be widening the gap among the priorities of these countries, rather than coalescing them on multilateral interest.

About the experts:

Dr. Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. He was previously an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C and a visiting faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A.

Aditi Malhotra is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Politics (GraSP), University of Muenster, Germany. Her doctoral research focuses on the evolution of India’s security role in the Indo-Pacific region. Her area of interest includes security developments in the Indo-Pacific region, India’s foreign and security policy, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear security issues.


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