Centre for Southeast Asian and Pacific Studies, Sri. Venkateswara University
International Conference on Multilateral Cooperation: Emerging Global Scenario.
(Keynote address by former Ambassador of India, T.P.Sreenivasan at the Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati. February 22, 2016)
Prof. M.Bhaskar, Rector of the University,
Shri. Ajaneesh Kumar, ICWA,
Prof. Ngo Xuan Binh,
A few days ago, I received three unexpected offers from the Sri.Venkateswara University. The first was a captive audience for a lecture on multilateralism. For a person, who has spent several years at the United Nations and its agencies, an invitation to speak on multilateralism was attractive enough. The second was an offer of an ISAPS Lifetime Achievement Award for International Understanding, an exceptional honour. The third was a special darshan of Lord Venkateswara, the most irresistible offer of all. No wonder I accepted the offers wholeheartedly. I am grateful to the Sri Venkateswara University, particularly Prof. G.J Reddy, for the opportunity. My time at the UN between 1980 and 2004 witnessed several shifts and turns in the fortunes of the United Nations, not to speak of the periods before and after in the seventy years of its existence. But multilateralism is alive and well, unchanged in form, but altered in substance.
The pyrrhic victory of the allies in the Second World War inevitably led to a collective security system to rid the succeeding generations of the scourge of war. Care was taken to include economic, social and human rights concerns in the Charter of the United Nations. But the victors of the war shaped the world body in the belief that they would be the arbiters of global security forever and gave themselves the veto, which diluted the principle of sovereign equality and democracy. In the last seventy years, however, every independent nation subscribed to the Charter and made the UN the only universal international organization. It survived the game changing developments in the world and proved itself resilient enough even though the rigidity of the Charter perpetuated some anachronisms. The success of the UN was on account of its ability to change with the times on substance, though not in structures and procedures.
Multilateralism assumed new forms and roles in the crucible of the cold war. The unanimity of the permanent members, envisaged in the Charter, collapsed earlier than expected and the big powers did not surrender even a fraction of their sovereignty for the sake of the global good. Instead, they began to use multilateral organizations like the UN, the World Bank and the IMF as instruments to influence global affairs. For the rest, they pursued bilateralism to secure their core interests. Multilateralism became the privilege of the weak, first to protect their sovereignty and then for collective bargaining. But the global situation was such that the UN was able to harvest the low-hanging fruits in the areas of decolonization, development and disarmament and thus proved worthy of the faith placed in it by the international community.
The cold war, however, did not allow multilateralism to succeed in its primary purpose of safeguarding international peace and security and while “mutually assured destruction” prevented a nuclear confrontation, many wars were fought in the developing world as the Security Council chose to be a mere witness. The growth of the Nonaligned Movement into a virtual third force in international relations was the most significant development in this period. Though it was only a movement and not an organization, it developed organizational structures like a Coordinating Bureau, Ministerial Meetings and Summits. Given its composition with Singapore at one end of the ideological spectrum and Cuba at the other, its pronouncements were balanced except on fundamental issues like imperialism, colonialism, apartheid and Palestine. The western world dismissed it as extremist and irrelevant, while the easterners claimed to be its natural allies as their views coincided with the views of the Movement. As leaders of the Movement, countries like India, Yougoslavia, Algeria and Cuba gained some bilateral advantages because of their multilateral influence. The Soviet Union cultivated these countries bilaterally to gain multilateral support.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war transformed multilateralism beyond recognition. Multilateralism became the corner stone of international relations. There was a spring in the air at the UN, which encouraged the Secretary General, Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali to bring about thorough changes in the role of the UN in maintaining international peace and security. In his ‘Agenda for Peace’, he called for a stronger UN and a stronger Secretary General to deal with threats to international peace and security by emphasizing the need for every member nation to surrender some of its sovereignty to the UN. He brought disarmament into the purview of the Security Council by holding a Council Meeting at the level of heads of state on the subject. He also called for a standing army for the UN to speed up peace operations.
None of the proposals of the Secretary General gained traction in a yearlong discussion, though the General Assembly was polite to him by taking back with the left hand, what it gave him with the right. He was accused of acting like a Pharaoh and harboring ambitions to be a General, not a Secretary General. Some marginal changes were made, but nothing major to alter the role of the UN. The Secretary General was also asked to present an ‘Agenda for Development’, essentially to balance the security role of the United Nations with its developmental agenda.
Multilateral diplomacy, however, kept evolving in the post cold war era in multiple ways. The Nonaligned Movement lost its cutting edge and the concerned countries professed strategic autonomy, but sought cooperation with the remaining Super Power. Dr.Manmohan Singh characterized the new trend in multilateralism as “Cooperative Pluralism”. The dimensions of international security multiplied after the attacks of 9/11, when the world’s most powerful nation was brought to its knees without guns and bombs. Counter terrorism, nuclear security and safety, human rights and environmental protection became the focus of multilateral attention. Confrontation gave way to cooperation, though the powerful nations continued to force their way in each of these issues as collective bargaining became increasingly ineffective. A Comprehensive Convention on Terrorism demanded by India and others did not become a reality, despite the horror of 9/11. Nonproliferation concerns are still considered more important than nuclear security and safety, human rights remain politicized and common but differentiated responsibility has been turned into common responsibility in matters of the
environment. Bilateral pressures are brought to bear upon multilateral cooperation.
Regional arrangements were envisaged in the Charter, but multilateralism has become more pronounced regionally in recent years. Apart from geographic regions, similarities in history and state of development began to play a role in forging multilateral bodies as in the case of BRICS and IBSA. An American economist invented BRICS as countries with common characteristics, but it turned into a grouping to counter western economic domination. The BRICS bank has assumed extraordinary importance in reordering the world order, though Chinese domination is inescapable in the present dispensation. Regional groupings have their own dynamics as bilateral relations among neighbours impinge on multilateral cooperation as seen in the case of SAARC. Even the established regional organisations like the European Union fear ‘Brixit’ and ‘Grexit’ occasionally despite the imperatives of cooperation.
China has invented an altogether new form of multilateral cooperation through its multi-billion dollar One Belt One Road initiative, which will link nations in an unprecedented manner. Needless to say, the motivation is Chinese domination and control of pathways and waterways across continents, but its advantages will lure many countries to embrace it. Rival multilateral structures are also emerging in the Asia Pacific as the power centre shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Reform of multilateral organizations is essential for their very existence even if they have managed differences by innovative approaches. Voices began to be heard to abolish the veto in the UN Security Council right from the beginning. The World Bank and the IMF fought reform proposals tooth and nail. Then came the demand for an expansion of the Security Council, first in 1979 to maintain the proportion between the membership of the General Assembly and the Security Council. After the end of the cold war, demand arose also to increase the number of permanent members to reflect the reality of the global situation. Many proposals for expansion of the Security Council have been advanced and discussed over the years, but there is no proposal today, which can command two thirds majority of the General Assembly and the positive votes of the five permanent members, though the idea of an expansion of the Security Council has been widely accepted. The credibility of the Security Council as representing the entire membership of the UN has eroded and unless an expansion takes place, the UN itself will be marginalized and other multilateral organizations will fill the void. G-8, G-20 and NATO are dealing with multiple issues, which should fall legitimately in the lap of the United Nations. A day may come when “Coalitions of the Willing” will take over many multilateral responsibilities.
India has been an unflinching champion of multilateralism, particularly the UN. In the initial years of independence, India had a high profile role in disarmament, decolonization and development, but it diminished as we took on the “Third World” leadership through the Nonaligned Movement during the cold war. India took the Jammu and Kashmir issue to the UN on the principle that the world body should settle disputes by peaceful means, even though it had the capability to repel the aggressor from the part of Kashmir that Pakistan had occupied by force. But it was frustrated by the play of international intrigues in the Security Council and realized its mistake. India learnt the hard way that multilateral bodies tended to complicate issues rather than resolve them on the basis of justice.
India’s approach to multilateralism has been to contribute to the common good rather than to seek for itself any advantages from the UN and other bodies. India became nervous about the internationalization of the Kashmir issue and refrained from taking any issue to the Security Council on the plea that neighbours should deal with issues bilaterally rather than multilaterally. India resisted the formation of SAARC for the same reasons and insisted that bilateral disputes should not be taken up in multilateral forums. Plagued by the problems between India and Pakistan, SAARC remains ineffective as a multilateral regional forum. Bilateral issues inhibit its growth as an instrument of multilateral cooperation.
India has begun to modernize its multilateralism in recent years. Having consolidated bilateral relations with the important countries of the world, India has begun to demand its due share in multilateralism such as permanent membership of the Security Council and membership of APEC. India has also ceased to be a deal breaker in many negotiations and become a partner in multilateral decision-making in areas such as climate change, WTO, internet governance, challenges to sustainable development and reforming peace keeping. It was through a bilateral deal with the US that India returned to the mainstream nuclear group even without signing the NPT. India is now more pro-active in multilateral arenas because of the new confidence it has acquired. India has begun to demand permanent membership of the UN Security Council as a matter of right rather than a mere entitlement.
Today, every nation juggles with the bilateral and multilateral options to safeguard its interests. Multilateralism serves the global commons, but bilateralism is pursued to increase trade, investment and security. They are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, reinforce each other. In the current global scenario, success lies in forging bilateral and regional ties, which, in turn, will equip nations to meet the multilateral challenges.