Anatomy of Multilateralism

By Sakshi Jain 

In the words of Robert Kehone, “multilateralism is defined as International cooperation between two or more states and actions oriented towards the achievement of one common goal. The actions deeply rooted in a predetermined set of rules, designed after rounds of deliberations  between nations.” 

It was 19th century Europe that embarked on the journey of multilateralism by forming the concert of Europe for redrawing the boundaries of Europe, post-Napoleonic wars. In the second half of the 20th century, the seeds of peace and cooperation were sown in the form of united nations representing democracies both large and small. With decolonization, various multilateral architectures were institutionalized, which resonated with the universal aspirations of Security, accessible Health, human rights, fair trade, and environmental issues.  

The rules remained unchallenged for the initial few years of inception. On one side, Post-cold war, with the demise of the Soviet  Union, it was the United States which influenced the control over western European nations, Japan, and began taming these institutions,  on the other side, the reactionary forces were waiting to be unleashed. The jeopardized state of multilateralism is ascribed to a continuum of events. The forging of bilateral ties with allies and abjection of various multilateral agreements then, by the Bush administration, marked the beginning of a clash between liberal democratic and autocratic orders. As reported by (KIMBALL, 2020), in 1999, the USA Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty(CTBT), which bans all nuclear tests. With the shift in administration in the US, attempts at  Ratification of CTBT serve as an opportunity to apply requisite pressure on other nuclear-capable nations for their ratification and simultaneous enactment. Besides, the ratification would reduce the possibility of the nuclear arms race between such nations and also reflect their commitment towards environmental preservation.

The United Nations(UN) set up with the expectations of “diffuse reciprocity” (J. Ruggie), gradually showed signs of ebbing.  It has been decades of its inception but still the permanent five stands without representation from Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. The continuous demand of India, Germany, Brazil, and Japan to accommodate more permanent members was blocked by China. On India’s resolution to put  Masood Azar on the list of Global terrorists, China exercised its veto, its actions are a sheer display of bonhomie it cherishes with Pakistan. Instead of rectifying these endemic structural impairments in the voting system and expansion of the security council, few economies have been displaying institutional sclerosis to reforms.  

As per (EGGEL & GALVIN, 2020), in the first decade of the 21st century, multilateralism was not just retreating but was “weaponized” by the emerging power blocks of the Asian continent. Russia(old power) was resurrected and began encroaching the eastern European nations This was epitomized by the cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007, followed by Russian annexations of Ukraine and  Crimea. (2014). 

The other Asian behemoth began asserting its prominence in the South China sea. The unlawful Chinese occupation of the Philippines territory in the vast expanse of the South China Sea alienated the island nation. Following which, in 2013, the small island nation raised this issue against its giant neighbour at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Though the Court ruled in favour of Manila, China decried the orders of the court and refused to attend the proceedings at the Hague. Chinese sovereign claims over the disputed waters and non-compliance of the  United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Permanent arbitration had shaken the foundations of multilateralism to operationalize with full capacity. 

With the rise of authoritarian leaders in the United States, the United Kingdom, and to some extent India, the multilateral institutions were getting fragile. During Trump’s presidency, with populism at its pinnacle, the world witnessed some brazen pullbacks of the US from TPP, Nuclear Deal, and Paris Climate Agreement. Also, the Trump administration’s unilateral sanctions on Iran, aided in the erosion of liberal values of cooperation for which the USA was heralded in the past.


The edifice of UN, World Bank, WTO, IMF, NATO, OECD was born, they flourished and gradually decayed by the aspirations of the powers, which spearheaded their foundations. United States’ disagreement on agricultural subsidies, WTO’s failure to finalize DOHA AGENDA, failure of  Dispute Resolution Mechanism, fragmentation of the European Union, are some of the manifestations of debilitating multilateralism. 

Multilateralism, often taken as an illustrative of globalization was resented upon post the Global financial meltdown of 2008, followed by the economic debt crisis, the malaise of authoritarian incumbents in the United States, United Kingdom, India further fuelled the resentment against globalization. To make things worse, at the dawn of the decade, the world was made hostage by a virus finagling into our lives, setting rumbles across the economies and rupturing the fabric of multilateralism. 

Taking cognizance of recent events, in my opinion, the preliminary conclusion is suggestive of a faltering hot air balloon of liberal multilateralism, which could have been rescued if nation-states instead of closing their borders and halting exports, could have taken swift actions and acted in collaboration. 

The United States’ withdrawal from leadership roles on social, economic, and political issues;  reluctance to extend financial assistance to allegedly Sino- Centric WHO; United Nations silence, and WTO’s failure to control the brewing spat between the USA and China, has created a vacuum of power. Provisionally, what might appear as a demise of multilateralism, is a mutation wherein it is in the throes of profound change. The covid-19 pandemic has reinforced and accelerated this regression of the west and the present dossier highlights this trend in the shift of power, yielding the emergence of the East. 

Claiming to solve the malaise of developing economies, China is aligning the bricks of its expansionist intentions alongside the institutions of the political west. Trying to fill this void, the People’s Republic is not just exerting the influence of power but pushing its strategic agenda. United States forfeiture of the western liberal order, its disregard for the voice of smaller nations, and Chinese intentions of being an American alternative have been aiding in the emergence of  “Sino- Centric Multilateralism”. 

In the wake of these rising hostilities against western characterized institutions, the People’s Republic is trying to fill the vacuum of power left by the United States by working doggedly to establish Sino-centric multilateralism based on its principles and rules. 

In the pursuit of Economic parochialism and with multilateralism under siege, the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and developing economies, both young and strategically inexperienced found solidarity in Chinese financial assistance. Having mastered the art of multilateralism during the cold war era, China now seems to be playing the cards of economic interdependence in the region. The coastal nations, driven by the development needs, accepted the Chinese olive branch and have become part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and some toothless regional organizations, of which China is a major shareholder. These institutions of parallel governance are indicative of a new trend of competitive multilateralism through which China is practising its policy of  Beggar- thy- neighbour.

It would be immature to prognosticate the demise of the multipolar world. The strategic rivalries between United States-China, Sino-Indian differences, are ushering in a paradigm shift in multilateral fora. The recent deadlock between China and the United States on a binding resolution on the Covid-19 pandemic at UNSC is an apt manifestation of this shift. 

The waning legitimacy of the old Bretton Wood institutions of global governance needs to be reversed and emerging economies of India, Brazil, should give a clarion call and nudge these power blocks for a normative collaborative action.  

Having lost all the elasticity, the international fora’s non- resilience to the contemporary challenges of globalization, terrorism, digital privacy, pandemic, and climate change, needs an overhaul. Like the Global financial meltdown served as a hammer to transform G7 into G20, these institutions should be looked at from the prism of new challenges and must be revamped likewise. (KHARAS et al., 2020)


EGGEL, & GALVIN. (2020). Multilateralism Is in Crisis – Or Is It? THE GRADUATE INSTITUTE GENEVA.

KHARAS, SNOWER, & STRAUSS. (2020, June). The Future of Multilateralism: Towards A Responsible Globalization That Empowers Citizens And Leaves No One Behind. G20 INSIGHTS.

KIMBALL. (2020). Nuclear Testing and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Timeline. ARMS CONTROL ASSOCIATION.,yet%20to%20enter%20into%20force.