Multilateralism in 21st Century: Challenges, India’s role


As the world is struggling to contain the current and next waves of the pandemic, the world order is undergoing a churn. The existing structures it seems are not satisfying to all the actors: Major, intermediate and minor. The US stares at a formidable challenge from China, and the other world tries to make sense of the current churn. Multilateralism and its manifestations worldwide are yet to find a clear solution to the current status of it. Let us analyze multilateralism and its efficacy in the current global affairs.


What is Multilateralism?

  • Multilateralism is often defined in opposition to Unilateralism. Strictly, Multilateralism is the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states.
  • The nature of cooperation where three or more countries come together on a common program of mutual interest and align their national policies in support of group behaviour is multilateralism.
  • So, it is not simply a question of the number of actors involved. It involves an adherence to a common political project based on the respect of a shared system of values and norms.
  • In particular, they guarantee all actors the same rights and obligations by applying themselves continuously.
  • Multilateralism is therefore both a method of cooperation and a form of organization of the international system a form of organization

History of Multilateralism

  • Multilateralism started with the formation of the League of Nations After the first world war. This experiment could not succeed due to no major power participation among other reasons.
  • The second world war and its destruction made the world think about multilateralism again and the United Nations was formed in 1945 with respect for the sovereignty of nations, mutual trust, and cooperation.
  • Since then there has been a proliferation of multilateralism. The Cold war period saw countries coming together on the basis of ideology and entering into security pacts.
  • The Specialized Agencies of the UN are examples of multilateral actions in the field of oceans, education, children, development, etc.
  • The Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty and global cooperation on climate change were some of the most important multilateral actions.
  • The trade multilateralism evolved from GATT to WTO which saw an evolution of a global agreement to an organizational structure that has specific decision-making powers relating to the global trade regime.
  • Various regional organizations based on multilateralism were formed such as SAARC, African Union, ASEAN, etc. These formed the basis for multilateral actions in the global south which were attempting to develop their economies along with political cooperation in respective areas.
  • But, the enthusiastic era of multilateralism seems to be in a tight spot as the leaders of this past multilateralism themselves are retreating.
  • With Revisionist China challenging the power dynamics, along with global threats like terrorism, climate change, economic slowdown, and recently the pandemic has garnered a mixed response from the countries.

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Why Multilateralism is under threat?

Failure of Multilateral Institutions

  • The highest body of multilateralism i.e. UN is facing a crisis of identity and legitimacy after 75 years of its formation due to lack of democracy, lack of proper functioning autonomy, and underperformance.
  • The WHO, the global health wing of the UN has been under controversy due to its handling of the pandemic situation and alleged cover-up of the Chinese actions during the initial periods.
  • The retreat of the US from major UN bodies such as UNESCO hampered its working with the leader of liberal multilateralism itself going for protectionism.
  • The WTO organization is under threat due to global protectionism trend and lack of credibility of its dispute settlement body.
  • The major harm has been done by the UN itself by going for a transactional approach and inward-looking policies. Its retreat from the Transpacific Partnership and Paris deal was disastrous.

Revisionist China

  • China, in recent times, has been staking a claim at every multilateral institution for a preponderant place. The friction between the US and China is rendering the multilateral for a more divisive arena.
  • Chinese entering into global forums is shrouded in secrecy and lacks credibility. It’s Belt and Road initiative is less of a multilateral arrangement and more of a geopolitical penetration with its infamous cheque-book diplomacy.
  • The trade war with the USA and its dumping policies is against the principles of WTO and western countries perceive it as a mechanism of creating instability in the economic sphere.

Regional multilateralism

  • Many regional associations are facing the heat of economic slowdown and the negotiations are long stretched.
  • India did not participate in RCEP because of its domestic compulsions and fear of the dumping of Chinese imports.
  • The Comprehensive TPP has not been able to move forward after the US withdrawal.

Supply chain misuse

  • Some of the developed countries are in control of the global supply chain of critical products such as the internet, rare earth materials, etc.
  • With the growing convergence of strategic interests and strategic goals, the supply chains have remained under threat of disruption.
  • The internet has been a distributed system of surveillance.


  • The pandemic tested the strength of multilateral cooperation and it has not been satisfactory. Just after the pandemic began, the world was divided by boundaries with trade and travel restrictions.
  • The failure of WHO to provide effective leadership, delayed coming together of countries in the fight against the pandemic, and the alleged role of China in intensifying the spread of virus made global leaders such as US confrontationist.

India and Multilateralism

  • India has been an advocate of multilateralism for a long time. A multi-polar, multilateral world order is in India’s interest. India’s foreign policy has been based on the philosophy of Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam.
  • India is a key member of major multilateral forums. India has been elected as a non-permanent member of UNSC, India’s Dr. Harshvardhan heads the WHO executive body.
  • India is a key member of G-20 nations with the world’s 5th largest economy and huge market.
  • India’s role in the UN and other conventions as an active partner and a responsible nuclear power has been well established.
  • India’s stance of the democratic solution in many international conflicts like the Korean crisis, Afghanistan, etc has been well received.
  • India is seen as a natural counter to Chinese aggressive policies in the Indian ocean. The formation of Quad is a form of security multilateralism.

What role can India play in the current status of multilateralism?

  • India has been a vocal supporter of reforms in the current structure of multilateralism. The PM recently in the UN ECOSOC session called for a reformed multilateralism. The PM emphasized that multilateralism needs to represent the reality of the contemporary world.
  • India firmly believes that the path to achieving sustainable peace and prosperity is through multilateralism.
  • The External Affairs Minister too called for democratization of multilateralism. He emphasized that it is the only chance for multilateralism to survive.
  • India has been pushing for multilateralism in various sectors such as the International Solar Alliance in Climate action, a Comprehensive Convention on International terrorism.
  • India can play a role in reducing tensions between the US and China. As a responsible democratic power in Asia, it has the credibility to play a critical role in many important negotiations.
  • It can work with Alliance for Multilateralism, an initiative by Germany and France for strengthening global multilateralism for the sake of peace and prosperity.
  • India has worked to gather the support of SAARC countries in combating COVID-19. It has worked to provide required medical aid in its extended neighborhood during the pandemic.
  • It can gather support in UN general Assembly for reform f the UNSC and other UN bodies like World Bank and IMF to reflect the realities of today.
  • India as the head of the WHO executive body can lead the fight against the pandemic by successfully implementing the COVAX initiative.
  • Also, as the world is looking to de-coupling from China, India can provide an opportunity and space to invest in India through its major reform initiatives and thrust on Make in India.

What is the way forward for Multilateralism to survive?

  • Multilateralism, especially the UN is the need of the hour as the world is staring at the second wave of COVID-19 as the economies are still struggling to manage in the lockdown.
  • The new cold war between the US and China, most visible in the technology cold war, is already underway. The multilateral initiatives like Alliance for Multilateralism can act as a buffer against the possible effects of the new cold war.
  • A reformed UN is the need of the hour. As the Indian PM says, the UN is facing a crisis of credibility. It is up to the UN to reform itself and depict the true picture of the world.
  • The WTO regime must work under fair mechanisms and the US and other powerful countries must not thwart any fair working of the Dispute Resolution Body.
  • It is important that the world successfully battles out the pandemic as the longer it will overshadow the affairs, the more protectionist the governments will grow.
  • The institutes of global governance must democratize itself. Main among those are the World Bank and IMF. The long-demanded reforms are necessary to take along the global south through affirmative action in the economic and political field.
  • India as discussed above can be a leading force in steering Multilateralism 2.0 which is more representative, more accommodative, and even.


As it is said that, in current situations, we need more of multilateralism and not shedding of multilateralism. A multilateral world order with power is decentralized between all the regions and all the economic strata is critical for any sustainable model of peace and prosperity to be gained. The UN and alike bodies must recognize the need of the hour and must reform or else they will perish in yet another set of protectionism, distrust, and possible large-scale military conflicts.

Practice Question for Mains

Multilateralism is the best possible solution for the world to tide over the current plethora of crises. Elaborate. (250 Words)

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