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Looking for meaning in multilateralism

Last updated on: February 23, 2010 14:39 IST

As one surveys the changing face of mulilateralsim today, we see mutation and multiplication. The underlying reality is that the world is multipolar and with more poles, you tend to get more constellations, writes B S Prakash.

The climate change summit in Copenhagen with 120 world leaders; the G-20 gathering in Pittsburgh with 20 leaders; the World Trade Organsiation ministerial trade talks in Geneva; the yet-to-be-held Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April; this will be followed by India-Brazil-South Africa and Brazil-Russia-India-China summits in Brazil, and a week later the South Asian Association of Regional Corporation summit in Bhutan.

What happens in these meetings and why so many of them, wonders the skeptic. I meet plenty of them here in Brazil where I am based, as much as in India.

The skeptic does not understand all the breathless reporting about late night meetings, hard fought battles, crafty compromises and declarations of breakthroughs when the world seems to run on pretty much the same way, unchanged in any significant way by all the communiqués.

Has terrorism diminished, proliferation prevented, trade barriers come down, or carbon emissions reduced? Why are diplomats like you so excited about these arcane and abstract rituals? And where is the good old United Nations in all this, asks he.

A fair question. Even for believers and insiders like me, the slow but steady transmutation of multilateralism, the way in which groups of countries do business with each other, and the way the 'world order' -- a grand word -- is being restructured is a matter of wonder. We see this proliferation of new groupings, some by acronyms: BRIC, BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for MultiSectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), BASIC (referring to India, China, Brazil and South Africa) to take one alphabet alone; and some by numbers -- G8+5, ASEAN+3, G-20+?  Is there a method in this multiplication?

People understand the UN, though they may not believe in its efficacy.

Created in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, it is one organisation with near universal membership, now at 192 countries.

In theory, all member-states are supposed to be equal; one country -- one vote in the General Assembly. It also has as its agenda any subject under the sun from preventing war to protecting children, from fighting HIV/AIDS to promoting gender equality. With all the countries professing their faith and commitment to the UN, how does one see the manylateralism of multilateralism, as someone terms it? Also, are they a substitute for the UN or a complement?

It is of course recognised today even by those who oppose reform for tactical reasons that the UN does need reform, both substantive and procedural. No man made system of management should remain immutable for over 60 years. Actually, the UN has indeed changed over the years. The birth of new organisations to deal with specific subjects -- UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation or WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisaion), concerned with industrialisation and intellectual property, the creation of new activities UNIFEM (United Nations women's development fund) or UNAIDS (Joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS) to deal with women and HIV issues are examples. 

However, with regard to the most central and difficult of its objectives "resolution of conflict and maintenance of international peace and security" the procedures for change are so difficult and so crafted so as to serve the interests of the major powers as in 1945, that meaningful reform has proved intractable. That is a subject for another day.

It would, however, be a mistake to see the emergence of new multilateral structures and systems as arising solely because of the inadequacies of the UN. There are other reasons.

The world does not stand still, nor does equations among nations or their interests. Broadly speaking, till 1990 there were two basic divisions: the ideological between the West and the Communist block with countries like India standing aside under the umbrella of Non-Aligned Movement; and the economic divide between the industrial and the developing countries. Groupings among nations largely reflected these realities: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, WARSAW pact (the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance), the G-7 or the G-77.

The first divide has become irrelevant and the second more layered with gradation on the development scale becoming more significant. This is one prism through which the new ways in which countries are trying to group together for negotiations can be seen. There are other aspects: the importance of regional blocks, groupings highlighting a common orientation say the 'Community of Democracies', the like-minded coming together to form lobbying groups for a specific purpose, the coalitions formed by compulsions.

Underlying all these is a recognition that to do serious business, sometimes you need to confer and conclude in smaller groupings. Seen this way, the emerging patterns in multilateralism are part substance, part procedure.

It may be illustrative to look at some current examples.

To start with the most important today, the G-20: for quite a while the major economies of the world had felt a need to come together periodically in small and manageable numbers to coordinate their approaches. This was the rationale of the G-8, a small, compact and like-minded group of major Western countries plus Japan.

As the economies of China, India, Brazil and some others grew, the G-8 found it useful to invite the leaders of a select few such countries to their summits, the so-called G-8 plus 5 process.

This itself became a regular feature, but with the leaders of the 'five' being secondary players. The economic meltdown of 2008-9 and the subsequent recovery has shown conclusively that there is simply no sense today in trying to manage global economic policies without the inclusion of economies such as China and India.

The Group of 20, originally a Canadian idea has now taken roots as a larger but still manageable group of countries with significant economies. It encompasses countries from all continents and has a more representative character. Why 20 and not 18 or 22? What are the criteria and the yardsticks? There are no definitive answers to such questions.

It is a bit like joining the famed India International Center in Delhi. It is a club and the members decide the rules as to who is included and who is excluded. And there are always claimants saying that they have been excluded, though fully qualified!

To look at IBSA, in 2003 President Lula of Brazil had this innovative idea of India, Brazil and South Africa, three large countries from the three continents, all mature democracies, all developing countries, all with capabilities in industry and S&T, but with similar challenges in poverty alleviation, education, health etc coming together.

The three have all kinds of similarities: cultural diversity, national planning, urban slums, large disparities, love of sports, need for 'inclusive growth' -- to mention some subjects in random.

To think of exchanging their experiences and 'best practices' seemed a good idea. IBSA thus came into being as a grouping based on commonality of orientation.

BRIC is different. It is not a creation of the countries concerned, but of Jim O'Neill an economist from Goldman Sachs.

Looking for countries with consistent economic growth but also which are large markets for western multinationals. O'Neill realised that these countries could be branded as a new grouping with their performance and promise.

China being the largest, he toyed with the idea of starting with China and calling the group CRIB, but wisely realised that this would be derogatory. Good for him.

The brand name soon became the buzzword and the countries themselves have accepted the label with the second summit scheduled to be held in Brasilia in April this year.

Why not Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia? Why not, indeed, but you will need a new name.

What about BASIC, the newest avtaar on the block? (For the fans of the movie, yes, it has something to do with the environment, after all).

The formation of this group reflects another facet: the coalition of those with similar interests within a larger setting. Before the Copenhagen summit, it was realised that China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, all developing countries with significant emissions in terms of absolute numbers but relatively small emissions per capita, had some common interests. This was a grouping formed with a purpose around a specific theme. Nothing basic in the formation of BASIC then, except the context.

As one surveys the changing face of mulilateralsim today, we see mutation and multiplication. The underlying reality is that the world is multipolar and with more poles, you tend to get more constellations.

What is noteworthy is that in most of these India and Brazil are constants. If I am allowed to personalise this account, it is a matter of honour and joy as the Indian representative in Brazil to celebrate this.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br

B S Prakash in Brazil