Harsh V Pant
It’s been clear for some time now that the global multilateral order is not fit for its purpose. The covid pandemic has only made the world more aware of the real-time consequences of this gradual decay. The United Nations Security Council has faced a lot of flak for not representing today’s international power realities and for not being able to shape the global discourse on the changing nature of security. For several decades now, the world has been debating and discussing the need for reforms in the UNSC, but to no avail. Leaderships in nations like India seem to have given up and are now putting the onus on the UN to reform itself, if its credibility is to survive.
What has been surprising to some is how some of the seemingly more reliable institutions, such as the World Health Organization or International Monetary Fund, have turned out to be highly politicized. China seems to have surpassed most nations in being able to game the multilateral system to reflect its own interests and priorities. If the WHO coyly followed the Chinese leadership in responding to the pandemic, it turns out that there was pressure on the staff of the World Bank from senior management to alter key data points to improve the ranking of China in particular. International institutions are inherently political in nature, but the way our post-1945 global multilateral order has been manipulated by China underscores an underlying power transition in global arrangements.
This weakening of the multilateral system is happening in the context of the world’s two major powers, the US and China, either unwilling or unable to shape institutional underpinnings. On one hand, there is the US, which remains consumed by domestic dysfunctionality. President Joe Biden’s popularity is precipitously declining and his domestic agenda is being fiercely contested. From Donald Trump to Biden, America’s inward orientation is a reality that the world has to contend with. One the other hand, it is Xi Jinping’s China that no longer seems interested in working within the confines of the extant order. It is challenging the global institutional architecture on every possible front.
This poses a challenge to middle powers, most of which have benefitted from the extant multilateral order. India is also one of them and a large part of its foreign policy today is to find opportunities in this challenging environment to shape global outcomes. One of the ways in which India along with others have responded to this was to push the envelope on building issue-based coalitions among like-minded nations.
The plethora of mini-laterals in the Indo-Pacific today highlights the stark void in this vast geography when it comes to institutionalization. And in the absence of major-power consensus, the ideas of middle powers have found greater receptivity.
The Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, involving the US, Japan, India and Australia, has been the most talked about platform in this regard. Its dramatic resurrection since 2017 and rising profile have conveyed a new sense of purpose to the wider region, reassuring some and creating anxieties for China. With two summit-level meetings, one virtual and one in person, within a matter of six months, the agenda of this nascent platform has been widening to include some of the most critical issues of our times, such as vaccines, emerging strategic technologies, infrastructure connectivity and maritime security. But it is the commitment of India, Japan and Australia that ultimately convinced Washington to invest in this initiative.
There is another Quad that got attention and evoked surprise last month. This new mini-lateral, comprising India, Israel, the UAE and US, was inaugurated during Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s recent visit to Israel. With this, India has signalled its intent to embed its bilateral relationships within a broader regional framework to focus on infrastructure, trade, technology, health and big data to be leveraged for its developmental priorities. India has strong ties with the US, Israel and the UAE, and after the Abraham Accords of last year, a new regional dynamic is shaping the Middle East. The Biden Administration is intent on being less involved in the region and focusing more on the Pacific. So here again, without the active participation of Israel, the UAE and India, this new platform would not have emerged.
There have been other trilaterals where middle powers have emerged as the central pivot to configure the regional and global order. As the Indo-Pacific has taken centre stage in global discourse, regional powers have been at the forefront, pushing the agenda on several fronts. Not all middle powers are alike and not all carry the same heft, but they have found an important role in the contemporary global context. From the West, where big European powers have now been in the lead of shaping their out-of-area engagements, to the East where major regional actors have been coming together, this is a new moment in geopolitics.
This article The new calculus of variable geometries in geopolitics first appeared in Live Mint
About the Author
Harsh V. Pant, professor of international relations, King’s College London