The ongoing UN general assembly – marking the global body’s 75th anniversary – comes at a time when multilateralism is facing its sternest test. With Covid-19 infecting more than 31 million people worldwide and killing in excess of 9,70,000, the international community ought to be stepping up cooperation to tame the disease as well as the biggest economic calamity since the Great Depression that has come in its wake. Instead, the world finds itself the most polarised in decades. The UN secretary general Antonio Guterres did right to warn global leaders that “a new Cold War” means moving the world “in a very dangerous direction”. The question is whether anybody is heeding the warning.
US President Donald Trump used his address to the general assembly to attack China for unleashing “this plague” on the world while China countered that it was Trump who was spreading a political virus at the UN. The widening chasm between the world’s two biggest powers is pulling the international community apart. This in turn is undermining the work of various international bodies, as exemplified by Trump vowing to pull the US out of the WHO.
Meanwhile, the Chinese President Xi Jinping rhetorically bats for a multilateral order every now and then but his aggressive actions in South China Sea, termination of Hong Kong’s autonomy and hostilities at the India-China border belie international rules and cooperation. For long it was believed that including China in international systems would have a salutary effect on that country. Those assumptions have been proven wrong even as increased bilateralism has meant increased bullying.
It is clear that UN-driven multilateralism as envisioned 75 years ago needs reform to reflect the realities of today. In this regard, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his general assembly address stressed that we cannot fight today’s challenges with outdated structures. Reforming and expanding the UN security council to include more voices from the developing world and diminish the abuse of veto powers must receive priority. Not only does the world need more multilateralism to meet challenges like recessions, pandemics and global warming, this should also be based on shared values such as democracy, human rights and respect for international rules. It is precisely because of the failure to universalise such values that the UN has been reduced to a talk shop as powerful nations use the global body for their own agenda. Old multilateralism must make way for a new one.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.