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Crisis in Multilateralism

2023 MAR 14

Mains   > International relations   >   International Institutions   >   International groupings


  • Multilateralism is in crisis today and the failure of the global architecture of governance is affecting developing countries the most, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his address to the first foreign ministers’ meeting of G20 nations.


  • Multilateralism refers to a set of governing arrangements of fundamental rules, principles, and institutions among nations.
  • The current architecture of multilateral global governance emerged after the Second World War. It was meant to serve two functions:
    • Prevent future wars by balancing competing interests
    • Foster international cooperation on issues of common interest.
  • It found expression in multiple forums such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, WTO, NATO, OECD, as well as more informal venues such the G7 or G20.


  • Prevent conflicts:
    • Multilateral institutions like the UN have been involved in major wars and international crisis since its inception and has served as a catalyst for the prevention of others.
  • Address common challenges:
    • The impact of climate change, pandemic and terrorism are transnational in nature. Only through multilateralism can its impact be reduced and alleviated.
  • Uphold ruled based world order:
    • Treaties, agreements and institutions have been developed through multilateralism on diverse matters to establish a world governed by equitable, sustainable and safe principles.
    • Eg: The conventions on human rights, climate change and agreements on the use of outer space.
    • Eg: The International Court of Justice help settle disputes involving territorial issues, hostage-taking and economic rights.
  • Tackle emergencies:
    • Multilateral institutions monitor the socio, economic and financial policies of its member countries, highlights possible risks to stability, advises on needed policy adjustments and extend direct support at times.
    • For eg: The IMF provides loans to member countries experiencing actual or potential balance of payments problems
  • Deliver humanitarian aid:
    • Multilateral support is crucial for providing humanitarian assistance, especially at times of crisis.
    • Eg: World Food programme delivered food baskets to quake-affected displaced Turks and Syrian refugees.
  • Promote Human development:
    • Many multilateral forums work towards developing a safer and equitable world.
    • Eg: The UNICEF have saved and enriched the lives of the world’s children, while UNESCO has encouraged cultural growth among nations.
  • Specialisation:
    • Various multilateral organisations undertake specialised activities such as research and development, capacity building and providing technical assistance.
    • Eg: The World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN affiliated groups have eliminated smallpox and are actively pursuing a battle against AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria around the world.
  • Forum for discussion:
    • Multilateral forums are arenas for countries, small and large alike, to periodically meet, express their concerns and deliberate on issues. Eg: The UN General Assembly.


  • New global realities:
    • International organisations established in the 20th century no longer signify contemporary power configurations. But the new realities are not reflected in multilateral forums.
    • For instance, Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan are bigger economies than Russia, France and Britain but does not enjoy veto powers.
  • Western hegemony:
    • Despite their declining significance, western bloc continues to exert significant control over multilateral institutions.
    • For instance, the WTO Appellate Body has been redundant since 2019 because the U.S. continues to block appointments to the body.
  • Under-representation of global south:
    • A large chunk of the population and many different regions of the world, especially South Asia, Latin America and Africa, remain unrepresented in the institutions.
    • Eg: The distribution of voting power in the IMF remains severely imbalanced in favor of the US, European countries and Japan.
  • Emergence of parallel mechanisms:
    • To overcome the inefficiencies of multilateral forums, countries of global south are establishing alternative mechanisms such as regional organisations, trade blocs and financial institutions.
    • Eg: The creation of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and RCEP.
  • Scepticism towards multilateralism:
    • The experience of recent years – Financial crisis, climate change, pandemic, terrorism, rising protectionism, trade wars and regional conflicts –shows that global governance has failed to effectively meet its mandate.
  • Issues in funding:
    • Many multilateral institutions rely on contribution from its members for its functioning. This has often undermined its independence and effectiveness.
    • Eg: The USA under Trump administration withdrew from UNESCO in 2017, which resulted in severe financial crisis in the organisation and greatly impacted its working.
  • Delays in decision-making:
    • The consensus-driven approach in decision making has led to significant delays in finalising agreements and treaties.
    • Eg: The WTO has failed to conclude the negotiations of the Doha Agenda started in 2001.
  • Silence on critical issues:
    • The UN has, on several occasions, remained silent or inactive in addressing concerns. This is most evident in the cases of human rights violations by P5 countries, like China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.
  • Moral relativism:
    • Organisations are often criticized for pushing the strategic and political motives of the developed countries and undermining the sovereignty of country in need.
    • Eg: At the behest of the west, IMF pushes for liberalization, privatization and free market capitalism irrespective of the country they are helping.
  • Use of veto power:
    • Veto power is grossly misused by the permanent members to protect their national interest.
    • Eg: In the last 20 years, USA has used the veto 15 times to protect Israel from actions over its alleged human rights violations.
  • Non adherence:
    • On several occasions, the decisions of the multilateral agencies have been rejected by countries.
    • Eg: China dismissed the 2016 verdict of the international tribunal on the South China Sea dispute.
  • Absence of other actors:
    • In conventional multilateralism, the principal actor in international relations are states. However, globalisation has led to the for the participation of new actors, like civil society organisations and private businesses.


Pressing issues such as conflicts, climate change, migration flows, global economic shocks, arms control, and cybersecurity can only be solved collectively. In this regard, multilateral action seems more necessary than ever. However, for it to be effective, a new multilateral order, where the global south has a greater say, needs to be developed.

By utilising its Presidency of the G20, India has placed multilateral reform as one of the top presidential priorities. Accordingly, the G-20 idea bank, Think 20, also placed multilateral reforms as one of its priorities. The T20 Task Force on ‘Towards Reformed Multilateralism’ (TF7) aims to construct a roadmap for ‘Multilateralism 2.0’.


Q. New realities necessitate the need to analyse the functioning of multilateral organisations and ideate on their reconceptualization. Discuss.