A revival of Multilateralism, steered by India

  • IASbaba
  • March 18, 2020
  • 0
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International Affairs

Topic: General Studies 2:

  • Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests. 

A revival of Multilateralism, steered by India

The COVID-19 pandemic which has confronted the world has two aspects:

  • The disease is cross-national in character- it respects no national boundaries and are not amenable to national solutions
  • Cross-domain in nature: The diseases has strong feedback loops. A disruption in one domain often cascades into parallel disruptions in other domains.

What should be the underlying principle to tackle COVID-19 pandemic?

  • The intersection of cross-national and cross-domain challenges demand multilateral approaches. 
  • They require empowered international institutions of governance. 
  • Underlying these must be a spirit of internationalism and solidarity, a sense of belonging to a common humanity. 

Rise of Nationalism

  • Over the past decade and more, the world has been moving in direction opposite to that of multilateralism
  • There has been an upsurge in narrow nationalism, an assertion of parochial interests over pursuit of shared interests 
  • There has been increased competition among states rather than embracing collaboration. 
  • US-China Trade war, BREXIT, US coming out of Paris Climate deal, Rise of right wing parties in Europe and decline in WTO are reflection of this trend

The Present State of Play vis-à-vis COVID-19 Pandemic

  • COVID-19 has brought these deepening contradictions (need for multilateralism to combat the challenges vs rise of nationalism) into very sharp relief.
  • COVID-19 pandemic is a global challenge which recognises no political boundaries It is a health crisis but is also spawning an economic crisis through disrupting global value chains and creating a simultaneous demand shock
  • But interventions to deal with the COVID-19 crisis are so far almost entirely at the national level, relying on quarantine and social distancing
  • There is virtually no coordination at the international level. 
  • There is also blame game that has erupted between China and the USA which does not augur well for international cooperation and leadership. 

The long-term impact of the pandemic could follow alternative pathways. 

  1. Revival of Multilateralism: The more hopeful outcome would be for countries to finally realise that there is no option but to move away from nationalistic urges and embrace the logic of international cooperation through revived and strengthened multilateral institutions and processes.
  2. Intensification of Nationalist trends
    • Countries could begin to build walls around themselves
    • Existing multilateralism gets further weakened. 
    • Institutions such as UN and WHO which are already marginalised may become increasingly irrelevant. 
    • There could be a return to autarkic economic and trade policies and an even deeper and more pervasive anti-globalisation sentiment. 

An Opportunity for India

  • This is when the world needs leadership and statesmanship
  • Success of 2008 response: U.S.-led response to the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 lead to the birth of G-20 summit and a coordinated response prevented catastrophic damage to the global economy.
  • Since US and West have adopted nationalistic leaning, India which is a key G-20 country, the world’s fifth largest economy and with a long tradition of international activism should step into the leadership role by advocating the multilateral approach of tackling the pandemic
  • A leadership role in mobilising global collaboration would be in keeping with India’s traditional activism on the international stage.
  • India’s recent video conferencing with SAARC nation to collaborate on tackling the pandemic in the subcontinent is a step in right direction
  • This should be followed by an international initiative, either through the G-20 or through the U.N.
  • India should reaffirm its policy of seeking friendship with all countries – which is the underlying principle followed in our non-alignment foreign policy practised since Nehru time.


The COVID-19 pandemic presents India with an opportunity to revive multilateralism, become a strong and credible champion of internationalism and assume a leadership role in a world that is adrift – Shyam Saran (former Foreign Secretary)

Connecting the dots

  • India’s recent initiatives in Solar energy
  • BIMSTEC and SAARC – Which one should India focus on?

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