multilateralism: View: For the post-coronavirus world, we will need to reinvent multilateralism

Who would have thought that an epidemic gone viral, tears and fears in a locked down world, clear skies and clean air would accompany us when an old order is apparently yielding place to new?

Confined to small spaces, we’ve become eager consumers of a mini meme industry about surviving lockdowns: an online wellness and fitness industry; Zoom house parties and video conferences; dress and romance in the era of WFH and social distancing; masks and gloves as fashion accessories – and doomsday predictions.

Nevertheless, when we emerge from our lockdowns and Covid-19 is on Season 1 on Netflix, what will the new world look and feel like? Let’s not kid ourselves, the new world will look a lot like the present one. Wars, conflicts, terrorism will continue, Islamic State will lift its travel advisory, the Middle East will remain a mess, Af-Pak will do their death dance, Putin, Xi and Orban will be presidents for life, and the US might just re-elect Trump.

But a lot will change. India, for instance, will need to rethink some of its precepts and priorities in both domestic and foreign policy. The pandemic is a global phenomenon but addressing the challenge is very local.

For one thing, the whole idea of multilateralism is being rewritten as we speak. If the UN was a 1945-era institution earlier, it is beyond obsolete today. The world’s top talk-shop is yet to have a serious discussion on Covid-19; China and Russia are opposing terms like “transparency” and “ceasefire”, and the US just doesn’t care. The UNGA, which is really just a platform for an annual airing of global politics, just passed arguably the most inane resolution on the pandemic, pledging “solidarity”.

The world’s top health body has so blotted its copybook, it’s laughable. A cheerleader to China’s subterfuge and secrecy, WHO has played directly from Beijing’s playbook, unconscionable in the current context. WHO, heavily dependent like other UN bodies on Chinese funding and endorsement, has lost sight of core responsibilities. Japan’s deputy PM Taro Aso blisteringly called it the Chinese Health Organisation, excoriating it for refusing to declare Covid-19 a global emergency in January, which would have bought time for everyone. Will WHO question China about its actual casualty figures, or even question the source of the outbreak? Unlikely, which will leave huge gaps in our knowledge, and future actions.

Meanwhile, Taiwan, kept out of WHO under Chinese pressure, showed exemplary success in tackling the virus. Tells you a lot about how skewed the system is. The stars of the Global Health Security Index can’t get a grip on the contagion, while those at the bottom are swimming along. UNHRC, already reeking of prejudice, is silent over Xinjiang or the Wuhan lockdown but loses sleep over J&K. A Western dominated UN system didn’t suit India, a China coloured one doesn’t either.

India shouldn’t mourn this 20th century brand of multilateralism. Instead, there are lessons to be drawn from three recent events – G20 virtual summit, Quad Plus/ Indo-Pacific grouping and the first conference of health professionals of Saarc countries. The G20 summit happened because frankly, India pushed, and it found traction. That gives India more diplomatic room to assert itself.

Creating a new multilateral order is important – one could argue that the current world “disorder” is fertile ground. The epidemic risks turning us into Hobbesian entities, as each country fights its own battles, so burden sharing is important. Even more important is setting the rules for a new order.

It’s likely therefore the future of multilateralism could be smaller groupings, a little more cohesive, and among countries that show the ability to come together to not only address large scale crises, but pool resources to provide global public goods and platforms for the world to use without being “indebted” but based on more overt principles of fairness.

At the operational level, this ‘coalition of the willing’ should take on more concrete and real-world shape – the Quad Plus for instance, involving key countries in the Indo-Pacific, needs to re-imagine cooperation where freedom of navigation is not merely parading warships on the Nine-dash line, but involves real exchanges putting the regional economies back together again.

In the neighbourhood, a fairly unsexy meeting between Saarc health professionals went unremarked. But it was important. In South Asia, where most neighbours dislike each other, keeping cooperation at the professional level on areas that affect everyday lives could take the sting out of, say, the India-Pakistan non-relationship. India should lead, focus on a neutral tone and outcomes, which can continue even when India takes military action against Pakistani terror.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that complex global supply chains, a mantra of present trading systems, are overrated. The overwhelming dependence on China needs to reduce and drastically, a thought uppermost in many parts of the world. India is furiously trying to reopen shuttered API manufacturing units, which fell to Chinese predatory pricing. Our vulnerability is not that we don’t make defence equipment, it’s that we’re following a China-led manufacturing strategy. That should change.

Health is now a strategic issue, right up there with defence and security. India will be judged not only on how many we lose to the Wuhan virus, but what it says about governance, crisis management and how a democratic system prepares for the day after. India can’t afford to be either China, or Italy.

If we indeed have global ambitions, this is where the rubber meets the road.

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