The League of Nations, set up in 1920, was the first intergovernmental organisation with the aim to promote international cooperation and outlived its utility with World War II. The United Nations claims to be the one place where all the world’s nations can discuss common problems and find shared solutions that benefit all of humanity. Now, 75 years later, rising conflict situations suggest it is time to go back to first principles of the Charter.
The United Nations Secretary General (UNSG), António Guterres, made a candid assessment of global governance. He addressed the United Nations General Assembly and said the “world is in big trouble”, “gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction”, even the “G20 is in the trap of geopolitical divides”. “In a splintering world, we need to create mechanisms of dialogue to heal divides” and “only by acting as one, we can nurture fragile shoots of hope” for a “coalition of the world”. This is a call for fresh thinking.
India’s Presidency of the Group of 20, UN Security Council (UNSC) in 2022, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2023 when major powers are not even talking to each other and India alone, now the fifth largest economy, is interacting with each of them, presents a historic opportunity.
UN at a turning point
The gridlock does not flow from bilateral relations but from the way international cooperation is being re-defined.
First, multilateralism is under challenge even by its proponent, with the United States opting for partnerships, with the most important areas being the worst affected. The G7 Summit, held in June, endorsed the goals of a cooperative international Climate Club to accelerate climate action outside the UN. The dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO without the quorum of its members has rendered the institution dysfunctional. Despite the G7 having accepted the need for transfer of funds at Rio in 1992, because of their role in creating the climate crisis, the promise made in 2009 to provide at least $100 billion per year in climate finance remains unfulfilled.
Second, China has opted for rival set of multilateral institutions. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to achieve policy, infrastructure, trade, financial, and people-to-people connectivity by building a new platform for international cooperation to create “new drivers of shared development”, and covers half the world population with one-third the GDP and investment of $930 billion. China’s Global Development Initiative, 2021, and linked Global Security Initiative, 2022, is developing a conceptual frame responding to an urbanising world, i.e. digital governance and non-traditional security, which the international system has not covered.
Third, more significant than the clash of institutions reflecting the deepening divide between the Atlantic powers and the Russia-China combine is the diffusion of wealth, technology and power. The ‘rest’, despite threats, are now capable of not taking sides and are looking for leadership within the United Nations, for what the UNSG characterised as “coalition of the world”.
India will chair the Security Council in December, and will have the Presidency of the G20 and the SCO.
Strategists in major powers see the world in binary terms around rules. In a multipolar world, the question is the kind of rules needed for human wellbeing and whether principles would serve the purpose better.
Second, the time is ripe for a ‘big idea’ that both keeps away from the current multilateral focus on global rules, amount of aid and inviolability of IPR’s as well as recognises a role for competing institutions as countries can now secure the best terms themselves without bargaining.
Third, just as the ‘Rio principles’ continue to guide climate change, vasudhaiva kutumbakam, or ‘world as one family’, focusing on comparable levels of wellbeing can be the core of a set of universal socio-economic principles for a dialogue between the states.
Fourth, to the current global consensus around equitable sustainable development, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has added a clearer societal purpose to flesh out a universal civilisational principle. He emphasised ‘Lifestyle for Environment’ seeing climate change as a societal process and combating it devoid of trade-offs characteristic of the Climate Treaty. He has also offered India’s payments and linked digital ID technology without IPR restrictions.
Fifth, redefining ‘common concerns’ in terms of felt needs of the majority rather than interests and concerns of the powerful will shift the focus of a much slimmed down United Nations squarely to human wellbeing, and not as an add-on.
India’s Presidential statement could introduce ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ in the UNSC in December. The SCO Summit will precede the G20 Summit and acceptance of overarching principles will support acceptance by the wider G20.
(Mukul Sanwal is a former UN diplomat)