S Jaishankar pitches reformed multilateralism and decentralised globalisation: What do the terms mean?

New Delhi has been pushing ‘reformed multilateralism’ at the United Nations and in bodies such as the WHO, WTO and IMF to allow India and other developing countries to have their rightful say and reflect today’s ground realities

FP Explainers September 26, 2022 16:52:18 IST
S Jaishankar pitches reformed multilateralism and decentralised globalisation: What do the terms mean?

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has been pitching reformed multilateralism at the UN. ANI.

External affairs minister S Jaishankar on Friday pitched for reformed multilateralism and decentralised globalisation.

Jaishankar, making the remarks on Friday at an event entitled ‘The G20 Imperative: Green Growth and Development for All’ organised by the Observer Research Foundation in New York on Friday, said globalisation and multilateralism are the two words currently under attack.

“The solution to globalisation is decentralisation. Decentralised globalisation. I would argue the solution to multilateralism is Reformed multilateralism, not a 1945 version of multilateralism which is 75-80 years old,” he said in a reference to the UN established over seven decades ago.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either of them. What is challengeable is how they have been implemented. Has multilateralism failed us? I will say this form of multilateralism in the hands of these people perhaps has not delivered,” he said.

Jaishankar was in conversation with UK’s minister of state for development, Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), Vicky Ford and World Economic Forum president Borge Brende in a discussion moderated by Observer Research Foundation chief Samir Saran.

Jaishankar said the solution is really more multilateralism.

“Why are we all here this week?”, he said, pointing to the international community gathering in New York during the high-level UN General Assembly week.

“We’re all here this week because at the end of the day, people still believe in the UN, coming here, sitting together, working it out, finding a system,” he said.

“What is wrong is the narrowness in the thinking of the custodians of the system. And I would argue the same applies to globalisation. The real problem with globalisation is it was so centralised..,” he said.

But what do the terms reformed multilateralism and decentralised globalisation mean?

Let’s take a closer look:

Reformed multilateralism

Before we get to reformed multilateralism let’s first look at multilateralism as a concept.

The UNOG website defines multilateralism as in opposition to bilateralism and unilateralism. “Strictly speaking, it indicates a form of cooperation between at least three States,” the website states.

It added that the term is a ‘significant feature’ of international relations in the 20th Century.

It points to the League of Nations as a major turning point in its development. “It was with the creation of the first organisation founded to maintain peace and foster international cooperation that modern multilateralism truly took shape and was institutionalised. Over the past hundred years, multilateralism has constantly evolved as it has adapted to the transformations of the international system,” the website states.

The website further states that though multilateralism is ‘at the heart’ of international life, it remains difficult to grasp and little studied.

This is at least in part down to its nature which can be approached at the following levels:

  • In functional terms:  It is a diplomatic practice based on cooperation between several States, often referred to as multilateral diplomacy.
  • In theoretical terms: It is a key concept on which the architecture of the contemporary international system is based and is therefore an essential element in the study of international relations.
  • It is a dynamic historical process, which cannot be dissociated from the context in which it takes shape.

Now, let’s examine reformed multilateralism which India has been repeatedly calling for.

India seeks rightful say

In essence, New Delhi is seeking ‘constructive reforms’ at the United Nations and in other international bodies such as the IMF, WHO and WTO to reflect today’s ground realities and allow India and other developing countries their rightful say.

S Jaishankar pitches reformed multilateralism and decentralised globalisation What do the terms mean

Representational image. ANI

“India’s call for this structural overhaul of global multilateral institutions incorporates institutional accountability and a wider representation of the developing countries,” Harsh V Pant, vice-president for Studies at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and professor at King’s College London, and ORF fellow Vivek Mishra wrote in The Hindu.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has himself made this call on multiple occasions.

In November 2020, Modi, addressing the 20th Summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Council of Heads of State, via video-conferencing, called for “reformed multilateralism” that reflects global realities of the present times and discussed topics such as expectations of all stakeholders, contemporary challenges and human welfare.

“The United Nations has completed its 75 years. But despite many successes, the basic goal of the United Nations is still incomplete. The world struggling with the economic and social suffering of the epidemic is expected to bring radical changes in the system of the UN,” Modi said.

“A reformed multilateralism that will reflect today’s global realities and discuss topics such as expectations of all stakeholders, contemporary challenges and human welfare. We expect full support from SCO member nations in this endeavour,” he added.

As per Hindustan Times, Modi, in his 22-minute address during the general debate of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2020, urged reforms at the global body and sought for a larger share of India’s representation in decision-making.

“For how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations? How long would a country have to wait particularly when the transformational changes happening in that country affect a large part of the world?” he asked in his pre-recorded video statement.

Mukerji, writing on Modi’s speech, in his essay noted that India’s demand for reformed multilateralism at the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, “Reflects her interests in using multilateral structures in the changing world to support her emergence as a major power, home to one-sixth of humanity.”

S Jaishankar pitches reformed multilateralism and decentralised globalisation What do the terms mean

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Wikimedia Commons/PMO

“In essence, “reformed multilateralism” seeks India’s participation on an equal basis in decisions taken by multilateral bodies of which India is a member,” Mukerji noted.

“The world in 2021 is radically different from that of 1945. The call for reformed multilateralism seeks to make the UN reflect this reality. Apart from seeking to review the provisions of the UN Charter regarding decision-making in the UNSC, the call for “reformed multilateralism” also addresses new issues and challenges facing mankind and their integration into the activities of the UN today by amending the UN Charter,” Mukerji added.

India’s calls come even as the UN has been unable to prevent the outbreak of conflict between nations.

In May 2021, foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, addressing a high-level UNSC meet on ‘Maintenance of international peace and security’, said the reform of the UN Security Council reflect contemporary realities lies at the core of India’s call for reformed multilateralism.

“When power structures continue to reflect the status quo of a bygone era, they also start reflecting a lack of appreciation of contemporary geopolitical realities. Multilateral institutions must be made more accountable to their membership, they must be open and welcoming to a diversity of viewpoints and cognisant of new voices. The council must be made more representative of developing countries if it is to continue to engender trust and confidence in its ability to provide leadership to the entire world. It can deliver effective solutions only if it gives a voice to the voiceless rather than zealously guarding the status quo of the mighty,” Shringla added.

As Asoke Kumar Mukerji, former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, noted in an essay in the Indian Council of World Affairs, “ The  interlinkage between peace, security and development is explicitly recognised in the UN’s Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reaffirmed that India’s national development objectives to transform India into a major power are aligned with Agenda 2030. The UN Security Council however has been unable to stop the growing breakdown of peace and security, thus jeopardizing Agenda 2030. This is the background to India’s call for reformed multilateralism at the UN.”

Mukerji added that the council’s unequal decision-making process is widely perceived to be the main reason for its inability to respond to existing and emerging challenges to peace, security, and development.

As Pant and Mishra noted in The Hindu, “The shadow of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has loomed large over several deadlocks in UNSC resolutions since the war broke out in February this year. With the West boycotting Russia, the veto provision of the UNSC is expected to reach an even more redundant level than in the past. As such, a reformed multilateralism with greater representation could generate deeper regional stakes to prevent wars.”

S Jaishankar pitches reformed multilateralism and decentralised globalisation What do the terms mean

People watch as smoke bellows after a Russian missile strike hit a crowded shopping mall, in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, Monday, 27 June. AP

In September 2020, Jaishankar, at the alliance for the multilateral meeting, said the coronavirus pandemic reaffirmed the centrality of multilateralism in the interconnected world not just in war and peace, but also for international governance.

“The past six months laid bare the shortcomings of multilateral institutions. In the UN, we could not even agree to messaging on fighting the virus, let alone coordinate responses. This reflects a larger systemic failure. Clearly the multilateral machinery is exhausted, if not broken. The cry for reformed multilateralism becomes stronger than ever before,” Jaishankar said.

African nations, by dint of their sheer numbers at the UN, will have a critical role to play in reformed multilateralism, writes Associate Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme Abhishek Mishra.

“This stance has been continuously reiterated in various multilateral platforms such as NAM, BRICS, and IBSA because for far too long, alignments, alliances, and assumptions have been rooted in the legacies of colonialism and ideologies of the Cold War,” Mishra wrote in ORF.

Decentralised globalisation

Investopedia defines globalisation as the flow of financial products, goods, technology, information, and jobs across national borders and cultures. In economic terms, it is defined as the ‘interdependence of nations around the globe fostered through free trade’, as per the website.

The concept of decentralised globalisation has gained prominence after the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the world by cutting off countries and shutting down supply chains.

Jaishankar in May 2021, pitching for decentralised globalisation at a Future of Asia conference organised by Nikkei said COVID-19 is reshaping the world by changing the ‘perceptions and calculations of nations about each other and the world.’

Jaishankar in his speech pointed to how the pandemic was:

  • Bringing out the value of trust and transparency and the importance of reliable supply chains
  • Heightening risk aversion in a world now clearly more insecure and encouraging strategic autonomy to address over-dependence
  • Focusing on the need to create greater global capacities so that pandemic-scale challenges are more effectively met and
  • Promoting decentralised globalisation and establishing resilient supply chains to de-risk the world economy.

As Arindam Bhattacharya and Rajah Augustinraj wote in Mint, the world is witnessing a new global economy — one without border — being propelled by digital rocket boosters.

The global market has been expanding in ways never before imagined, as both traditional companies, such as General Electric, and relative newcomers, such as Uber, Airbnb and India’s Flipkart, gain access to borderless global markets through their information technology platforms and networks of local partners, they added.

S Jaishankar pitches reformed multilateralism and decentralised globalisation What do the terms mean

Representational image

“Together, these shifts are giving rise to a very different kind of globalisation, more-fragmented, with decentralised supply chains and more countries involved,” they said.

“The emergence of a new model of globalisation does not mean, of course, that the old ways of engaging with the world will suddenly become irrelevant. Nor are we at an unprecedented moment; the ebbs and flows of globalisation are nothing new. Each previous wave of globalisation was halted by some crisis, but was then redefined by new technology. And each time, globalisation emerged stronger than ever. The current era is no different,” they concluded.

This isn’t the first time Jaishankar has promoted this concept.

Jaishankar in June said India supports a strong, unified and prosperous Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) given the geopolitical challenges and uncertainties facing the world today.

“ASEAN has always stood tall as a beacon of regionalism, multilateralism and globalisation,” Jaishankar said at the meeting, adding a better-connected India and ASEAN would be well positioned to promote decentralised globalisation and reliable supply chains.

Also in June Jaishankar said that India and Africa must strive together for “decentralised globalisation” to enhance capacities and overcome challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jaishankar made the comments during the inauguration of the renovated Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Library in the prestigious University of Nairobi here. He arrived in Kenya on a three-day visit to strengthen India’s relations with the major East African country.  He said that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought home the dangers of relying on “limited geographies”.

“When supply chains are disrupted and demand outstrips supply, the more vulnerable will inevitably get short changed. Africa cannot afford that to continue. And this goes against the very spirit of South-South cooperation. The direct lesson from the pandemic is the need today, pressing need I would say, for decentralised globalisation,” he said.

“India and Africa must strive together for decentralised globalisation,” Jaishankar said in a tweet.

“First and foremost in that context is our thinking on globalisation. There is no doubt that the world is much more interlinked and inter-dependent. But it should not be that globalisation should apply only to resources and markets while production centres remain concentrated in the hands of a few,” he said.

Many countries, including India, faced difficulties getting medical equipment during the pandemic and faced disruption in a number of areas – such as a computer chip shortage and stalling automobile production.

‘Inflection point’

“I think between the conflicts, to COVID, climate change, my sense is we are reaching a kind of a crisis period where the world will have to take some very radical decisions. Whether they get taken in the G20 or outside the G20, in bits and pieces next year, all that we don’t know. But it is today truly an inflection point,” Jaishankar said.

Jaishankar said that during his meetings with over 60 foreign ministers from around the world during the high-level UN General Assembly week, two-thirds of them were from the developing world and they were “really angry” about the state of the world.

They are “angry about the state of the world because, in the guise of very politically correct formulations, they’re getting shortchanged every day and it is like that’s the way the world is,” he said.

He said the international community needs to ask itself how long this is going to continue.

“I wish I could hold up more hope for you but this year’s experience, sadly enough, has not been terribly encouraging.” Referring to the year gone by, Jaishankar said “look at the food shortages” and added that there were debates that market forces should be allowed to prevail, and markets must be kept open.

“Guess who gets the food when the markets are open. I can see it all moving north,” he said, making a reference to developed nations.

“Now we’ve seen the same on energy. There are countries whose tenders do not elicit responses. Guess why? Because markets are working. And the markets are taking them all to Europe at premium prices.

He added that if one looks at oil and gas, if “you put Iran out of the market, Venezuela out of the market, you want to put Russia out of the market. What is the world supposed to do? This is not about de-risking, this is about keeping the markets alive. And these are policy choices which countries have made.”

He added that “it’s not about getting energy transition right. It is about getting the politics of the world right.” He referred to a remark made by a minister in a meeting with small island developing states, who said it was very hard to get $100 billion for climate change, which is existential but somehow when there is a conflict, the purse strings get loosened.

“If you add up all the commitments which have been made for the big conflict which is underway, they’re pretty close to $100 million. So there’s no shortage of money. There is I would say a lack of urgency.”

With inputs from agencies

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