Explained | Multilateral reforms as a priority in the G-20

Why should multilateralism be given importance in today’s global order? How can the G-20 help in multilateral reform? Can multiple minilateral groupings become an alternative mode of multilateral cooperation? Why would global powers be averse to the idea of reform in multilateral institutions?

March 06, 2023 10:17 pm | Updated 10:17 pm IST

Delegates attend a meeting on the Strengthening of Multilateral Development Banks (MBDs) to address shared global challenges of the 21st century during the first G20 International Financial Architecture Working Group meeting, in Chandigarh on January 30, 2023

Delegates attend a meeting on the Strengthening of Multilateral Development Banks (MBDs) to address shared global challenges of the 21st century during the first G20 International Financial Architecture Working Group meeting, in Chandigarh on January 30, 2023 | Photo Credit: ANI

The story so far: While assuming the G-20 presidency in December 2022, India stated that its agenda would be inclusive, ambitious, action-oriented, and decisive. New Delhi also said that its primary objectives are to build global consensus over critical development and security issues and deliver global goods. This resulted in placing multilateral reform as one of the top presidential priorities for India. 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’.

Why is multilateralism important?

Multilateral cooperation today, is confronting multiple crises. First, due to persistent deadlocks, multilateralism has lost the majority’s trust. Second, multilateralism is facing a utility crisis, where powerful member-states think it is no longer useful for them. Moreover, increasing great-power tensions, de-globalisation, populist nationalism, the pandemic, and climate emergencies added to the hardships. This impasse led states to seek other arenas, including bilateral, plurilateral and minilateral groupings, which subsequently contributed to further polarisation of global politics. However, cooperation and multilateral reform is the need of the hour. Most of the challenges nations face today are global in nature and require global solutions. Pressing global issues such as conflicts, climate change, migration, macroeconomic instability, and cybersecurity can indeed only be solved collectively. Furthermore, disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic have reversed the social and economic progress that the global society made in the past couple of decades.

Why is reform difficult?

Reforming multilateralism is a difficult task for various reasons. First, multilateralism is deeply entrenched in global power politics. As a result, any action in reforming multilateral institutions and frameworks automatically transforms into a move that seeks changes in the current distribution of power. Modifications in the distribution of power in the global order are neither easy nor normal. Moreover, it may have adverse implications if not done cautiously.

Second, the status quo powers see multilateral reforms as a zero-sum game. For instance, in the context of the Bretton Woods system, the U.S. and Europe believed reform would reduce their influence and dominance. This makes decisions about reform in these institutions, by consensus or voting, hard. Third, multilateralism appears at odds with the realities of the emerging multiplex global order. The emerging order seems more multipolar and multi-centred. Such a situation facilitates the formation of new clubs, concerts and coalitions of the like-minded, which makes the reform of older institutions and frameworks more challenging.

What can G-20 and India do?

To fix the malaise within multilateralism, G-20 needs to devise multiple solutions. Currently, the multilateralism reform narrative lives only in elite circles and some national capitals, particularly the emerging powers. Therefore, G-20 should first focus on setting proper narratives of multilateral reform. G-20 may constitute an engagement group dedicated to bring the narrative to the forefront of global discourse. India should also urge the upcoming chairs of the grouping, Brazil and South Africa, to place multilateral reforms as their presidential priorities. Since both have global high-table ambitions, it would be an easier task for India.

Many of today’s problems need global solutions and global cooperation. However, we should also acknowledge the limitations of multilateral cooperation. Competing interests and the dominance of powerful states are there to stay in multilateral platforms. Therefore, while supporting multilateral cooperation, G-20 should continue encouraging minilateral groupings as a new form of multilateralism and try to transform them into multi-stakeholder partnerships. Creating networks of issue-based minilaterals, particularly in areas related to the governance of the global commons will be helpful in preventing competitive coalitions where other actors play the same game to their advantage, leading to a more fragmented world order. Multilateral reforms also require mobilising the political will, subsequently giving concessions and conciliations. However, most reform bids have yet to take this issue seriously.

To overcome the trust, legitimacy and utility crises of multilateralism, the world requires a model, and the G-20 can be one. However, to fit the purpose, the group needs to be more inclusive without sacrificing efficiency. For example, including the African Union as a permanent member and the UN Secretary-General and General Assembly President as permanent invitees would be helpful to enhance its legitimacy.

Similarly, to address the crisis of trust and utility, G-20 should put all its efforts into solving one or two pressing global issues and showcase it as the model of new multilateralism. Food, fuel and fertilizer security can be one such issue. On the one hand, it falls under the ‘low politics’ of world politics, so cooperation is more achievable. On the other, it is a global cause of concern, since it can trigger stagflation and recession across the globe. More significantly, this issue spreads across the overall priorities of India within and beyond the G-20.

Rajeesh Kumar is an Associate Fellow at MP-IDSA and co-chair of the T20 India Task Force on Towards Reformed Multilateralism

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