Game of powers

Multilateralism at a crossroads

Questions are being asked in foreign policy circuits whether multilateralism is under threat today. This concern has arisen anew with the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the American presidency. The United States of America still is the only global power and when its president adopts the 'America First' slogan, projects his country as the victim of the international order that America itself has largely created, rejects globalization, walks out of vital international agreements like the Paris Agreement on climate change, hectors the United Nations and cuts funding, walks out of Unesco and snipes at the World Trade Organization, doubts naturally arise that we are entering a different phase in global governance.

In reality, any assumption that multilateralism has defined the working of the international system so far and that we are moving away from it for the first time today would be wrong. The UN as a universal organization embodies multilateralism, but it is flawed structurally and has been ineffective operationally in dealing with many issues affecting the interests of the international community as a whole. Power is concentrated in the UN security council in the hands of its five permanent members. So, both with regard to power equations within the security council and as between it and the UN general assembly, there are in-built inequalities that erode the practice of multilateralism. The veto power in the hands of the permanent members corrodes multilateralism all the more because any permanent member can defy the broad will of the international community to protect its parochially defined national interest. Multilateralism did not work during the Cold War when the world was divided into two camps and the nonaligned countries formed a third group. The two superpowers - the US and the former Soviet Union - engaged in proxy wars in third countries and created instabilities that hurt the interests of vulnerable nations. In nuclear and missile areas, a handful of countries have retained the freedom to possess and develop them, with tight restrictions imposed on the rest of the world so that global power equations remain in their favour. Multilateral negotiations, such as the non-proliferation treaty, have been used by these powerful countries to forge agreements that formalize their special status and privileges. Multilateralism has been ignored in forging cartels to deny access to nuclear, missile, dual-use or advanced technologies to countries outside the restrictive club, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement or the Nuclear Suppliers Group. When military alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization engage in out-of-area operations, and that too without the approval of the UN, it is at the expense of multilateralism.

Those perturbed by the America-centred approach of the Trump administration should recall the reducing of the importance of the UN and dismissive references to the need to obtain its approval for action by previous administrations, be it those of George Bush Senior, Bill Clinton, Bush Junior or even Barack Obama. Some of their ambassadors to the UN have been most abrasive about it, just as the current ambassador, Nikki Haley, is. Previous US presidents have publicly stated that the US would prefer to act with UN approval but would be ready to act without it if it was judged necessary. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the phase of US unilateralism began with regime change policies in West Asia, the aggressive promotion of democracy, the expansion of NATO eastwards and so on. After Vietnam, more recently, the US took military action in Yugoslavia and Iraq without UN approval. The 'Coalition of the Willing' forged to make war on Iraq was not an exercise in multilateralism. The US (and other NATO members) took military action against Muammar Gaddafi's Libya that exceeded the UN mandate. The US is involved in Syria with neither UN approval nor at the request of the UN-recognized government of Syria.

There are other significant areas where previous US administrations have abandoned multilateralism which its exceptional status as the foremost global power has allowed it to do without paying a price. It negotiated the Convention on the Law of the Sea but has not ratified it, just as it had negotiated the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty but did not ratify it either. It had in 2002 signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to "bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crimes known to humankind - war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide", but has not ratified it until now.

The outlook on multilateralism as the driving force of international relations remains unpromising. The UN is unable to effectively deal with the issue of terrorism that is plaguing the international community. It has failed so far to agree on a definition of terrorism and India's proposal of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism has been languishing for several years. China is driving its own nail into multilateral cooperation on the issue of terrorism by protecting Pakistan in the UNSC by opposing the designation of the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Masood Azhar, as an international terrorist. The international community is unable to forge an effective multilateral approach to the issue of containing the spread of Islamic radicalism, not the least because of geopolitical calculations. Multilateralism is receiving an additional blow because sanctions are being imposed on countries without UN approval. It is diplomatically confounding that a permanent member of the security council, Russia, is the target of a set of sanctions by the US, another permanent member. Russia, of course, favours multilateralism as a means of containing the arbitrary exercise of power by the US. As a permanent member with veto powers, Russia can make its power felt in the UNSC which it cannot do outside the UN system because the Soviet Union's collapse has weakened its global role. But the sharp deterioration of US-Russia relations makes the search for multilateral solutions to global issues that much more difficult. Iran continues to be subject to US sanctions in spite of the nuclear deal concluded between the P-5+1. Trump is now threatening to undo the nuclear agreement with Iran and impose a new set of sanctions even though a multilateral body like the International Atomic Energy Agency continues to certify Iran's adherence to the negotiated deal. Such a unilateral step by the US will affect the interests of countries at large, including India. In other areas that have become central to the global system, such as cyberspace, there are as yet no rules negotiated multilaterally to govern it. The US has a grip on the functioning of the internet globally and making internet governance more multilateral is a challenge before the international community.

Trump apart, multilateralism is also under threat from China's rise and the display of its ambitions to replace the US as the world's leading power. China's self-centred thinking, its territorial aggrandisement, the predatory nature of its economic policies, its authoritarian system, its military ambitions, its rejection of signed international agreements, all portend a blow to multilateralism which is based on mutual cooperation, respecting the rights of others, a willingness to compromise, accommodating the interests of all, and respect for international law.

The author is former foreign secretary of India;

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