Decades old institutions have come under fire for failing to manage a coherent response in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration has halted funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its seeming failure to warn other countries and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been paralyzed by disputes among its members. In these testing times it is crucial to understand India’s role in steering and shaping these international institutions and their future when the crisis is over. Against this backdrop Ananta Aspen Centre held a digital session on “India and International Institutions post COVID-19” with Professor C. Raja Mohan, Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and Mr. Ashok Malik, Policy Advisor, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
The trouble with multilateral institutions started well before the COVID-19 crisis, for example in the WTO, but the crisis has accentuated it. The WHO which is indispensable in dealing with this pandemic finds itself in the centre of controversies over its alleged delayed warning and response. The WHO crisis is a broader crisis faced by the international organizations at a time when we have a problem of harmonizing interests & this harmonizing has become more difficult given the renewed contestation and tensions between major powers, making it harder to move forward on international cooperation.
India has been arguing for a long time that multilateral institutions become compatible to the realities of 21st century. In that respect three issues need to be considered – First, WHO which plays a very critical role in global health security today, needs strengthening, resources and internal restructuring. Second, the scope of conventional issues considered by the UNSC need to be broadened. The nature of challenges has increased and the traditional challenges have evolved, issues like cyber security, health security or pandemic preparedness are major contemporary security concerns, yet the UNSC has neglected them since they are not conventional security issues. Lastly, the governance of multilateral institutions, issues of their accountability, efficiency of spending and degree of autonomy need to be revisited. To make these institutions 21st century compatible human resources, leadership positions and the approach to elections in these institutions need to be looked at in a manner that is more pragmatic and member countries need to have coordinated and strategic thinking on these fronts.
Globalization has suffered three big setbacks. One was the 9/11 attacks, second was the 2008 financial crisis and now the COVID-19 experience. These three setbacks have caused a shift in the idea that you can tell your domestic constituents that you don’t need a self-sustained supply chain rather you can seek out the lowest cost producer in the world to meet your requirements. That logic has suffered a crippling blow. This will accelerate the shift towards plurilateralism from multilateralism, the QUAD+ is one example. There will certainly be an evolution of new partnerships and platforms moving forward. India is looking at multiple formats of multilateralism- QUAD+, BRICS, Indian Ocean Grouping, etc. It is an interest-based multilateralism rather than the ideological multilateralism of the past.
The resurgence of nationalism and nation first positions as a response to the overreach of globalization will certainly be heightened after this crisis. The pressure on trans-oceanic supply chains is coming not only from domestic workers & manufacturer’s but are also from environmental conservationists who emphasize on the ecological cost of long supply chains. There are funds which were promoting regional trade, even before the COVID pandemic, because of the climate change imperative.
Even after COVID-19 the world will see much of China as it is a very important stakeholder in the global economy and global politics & institutions. China has gone on to build its own institutions, though there are concerns raised around it. There will be a new alphabet soup in the wake of COVID-19, with many pluri &multilateral institutions popping up for various purposes like one specifically for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. There will be a lot of institution building in the coming years in the Indo-Pacific particularly with India playing an important role.
Because multilateral institutions have taken a knock doesn’t mean we have become less international. We may not need certain institutions as much as we needed them before but we need partner countries, groupings and coalition of the willing in various areas like technology, security, etc. But the multilateral system as we have known it in the past needs to seriously relooked at and rebooted.