Shashi Tharoor: We must reinvent, reaffirm multilateralism for a better world

Unravel staff
The Indian author, politician and former UN diplomat has stressed the need for multilateralism, even as the winds of isolationism blow stronger and threaten to shake the foundations of the global system as we have known it

The Indian author, politician and former UN diplomat has stressed the need for multilateralism, even as the winds of isolationism blow stronger and threaten to shake the foundations of the global system as we have known it

The world has been grappling with crisis after crisis in recent times. Amidst the turmoil, there have been calls for reform, a radical change in how global affairs are conducted; unfortunately, this is seemingly resulting in a trend for nations to look more and more inward.

The role of global institutions such as the UN is being questioned, with critics saying it represents the geopolitical realities of 1945 and does not reflect the world we live in; and therefore, needs change. In fact, there is a growing sentiment that we must do away with these established institutions and start again.

But the problem is the world needs leaders with the imagination and vision to actually start again. At the moment, if “we scrap what we’ve got, we may end up with nothing. And that’s why I believe it’s better to take what we’ve got and try and reform it,” Shashi Tharoor, an Indian author, politician and former international civil servant, said at the recently concluded Horasis India meeting.

Multilateralism required now more than ever

In the most recent show of a retreat from multilateralism, just when we needed it the most, the US withdrew its support and funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). While there was shock and dismay in many quarters, US ally “India has reacted with alarm to the decision to pull out of WHO because it does believe these multilateral institutions so painstakingly built up after the Second World War are actually beneficial for humanity, and particularly for the developing world,” said Mr Tharoor. These institutions must be preserved; sure, they need to be reformed and indeed reinvented, but not from scratch.

We're far better off with a flawed international system than none at all…And the current system, however flawed, is so much better than the alternative that it makes sense that we all stay committed and try to work it out.

In the midst of this retreat, positive signs are coming from countries like India. “Certainly, I would like to see India remain a voice for multilateralism. I would like to see India continue to speak for global cooperation because I believe that was one of the great accomplishments of the end of the Second World War. And I hope we don’t have to collapse into a third to realise we actually are in a good thing that we should restore,” Mr Tharoor said.

In his view, the importance of getting countries together to decide what’s the right way forward for the world cannot be emphasised. The US has already pulled out of the WHO and UNESCO, and there could be more to follow. Together, the world should try and get the Americans back on board, he said.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty around COVID-19 and the upcoming US elections, Mr Tharoor said the world needs to act, and called for the need to have a global summit in reinventing multilaterals. “Don’t forget, it’s affecting everything. We are seeing more and more of deglobalisation, de-multilateralism, the increasing decoupling from foreign supply chains and production chains,” he said.

He added that this is coupled with the emphasis globally on reshoring, or bringing manufacturing back into individual countries. “We may be reversing everything that we have taken for granted for the last 30 years. And I think the most important thing that the international system can do is to make one last serious desperate attempt to save itself and to save global cooperation,” reiterated Mr Tharoor.

The impact of COVID-19

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a common approach across countries – ‘we have to save ourselves, save our people, save our own country’. Understandably, this remains the top priority for all governments, given that the impact of the virus’ spread has cut across businesses and societies, Mr Tharoor remarked.

The pandemic has also brought to the fore the idea that global supply chains are vulnerable to disruption. And it has highlighted that dependence on another country for essential goods such as pharmaceuticals, or their components, can be a problem in the event of a health emergency such as this one.

Unsurprisingly, there’s now a greater call for more protectionism and for more manufacturing self-reliance. There are also calls for bringing manufacturing and production value chains back home or at least closer to home, he said. This could result in raised barriers to trade and some sort of a reset in global supply chains.

Owing to these factors, it is not particularly surprising that there is a sentiment that national interest should trump international cooperation and that nations need to be concerned only with their own.

Many think the answer lies in strong government, he said: “Let’s put our nation’s needs over individual citizens’ freedoms. Let’s dispense with democratic niceties.” There are signs to this effect globally, for example, whether this is to do with federalism in a country like India or parliamentary oversight in Hungary, he said.

The international order

What was achieved in 1945 may not be perfect in today’s context, but things today are also definitely better than how they were in the world before 1945, where we had two World Wars, countless other conflicts and mass displacements of people. “Given that, we’re far better off with a flawed international system than none at all,” he remarked.

And the current system, “however flawed, is so much better than the alternative that it makes sense that we all stay committed and try to work it out”.

We may be reversing everything that we have taken for granted for the last 30 years. The most important thing that the international system can do is to make one last serious desperate attempt to save itself and to save global cooperation.

That the US would become a source of geopolitical instability was not ever thought of, but it does seem a reality today. These are extraordinary times and they throw up several questions. How will the US behave after the presidential election later this year? Will the Chinese try and come to an accommodation with Washington or will they not? How will the inevitable rise of China and the possible eclipse of the US play out for the rest of us? Will we see a new non-alignment, or will we all be choosing sides in the dystopian Orwellian 1984 kind of world?

Mr Tharoor thinks it is a worrying prospect – and there are no clear answers just yet. But he added that it is an “interesting, exciting and a worrying time to be looking at all these questions in the years ahead”.

He is a staunch believer that it is prudent to dig deep and continue to grow multilateralism, particularly through these uncertain times. For the moment, there are issues of both imagination as well as process, he says, that are undermining multilateralism – these are not restricted to pulling out of an organisation alone, but by various protestations, by preventing individuals from being reappointed, by delaying structural measures and so on.

This is why he believes the time has come for a serious attempt to bring countries together at a summit “to reinvent, reaffirm multilateralism so that it works better for the world”.

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