From global multilateral platforms like the United Nations, World Health Organisation and the G7 to regional cooperation organizations like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and economic groups like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), all member nation countries’ foreign ministers, heads of state and bureaucrats have been holding meetings ever since the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe.
The member states have been seeking to find a way to deal with the pandemic which has infected 4,823,479 people globally and claimed 318,857 lives, according to John Hopkins University.
Sanjay Baru, an official spokesperson and media adviser to the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, talks to Sputnik about the problems with multilateral platforms.
Sputnik: Several multilateral platforms are coming forward to address the health crisis that has emerged with COVID-19 across the globe. How are these conference calls relevant to dealing with the crisis?
Sanjay Baru: Multilateralism has not been able to address any of the challenges that we face these days. Look at the United Nations (UN). It has not been able to resolve any issue either in Italy, South Asia or anywhere in the world. The UN Security Council has not been able to resolve any issues. Then we have non-political kind of multilateral platform like the WTO (World Trade Organization) which has been virtually paralysed for at least 5-6 years, maybe more than that. Ever since the 2009 financial crisis.
These organizations are mainly there because they are there. It’s the bureaucracy that has a vested interest; everybody working under these organizations wants the organization to continue. Now the only area where multilateralism has been able to help the member countries is in finance. Both the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank have been lending money. Even they are getting marginalized because the money that they have is not adequate, member countries have not given them enough money. Second, rival organizations have come-up like the Chinese Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is competing with the IMF.
Sputnik: What are the reasons for the crisis of multilateralism? How does India benefit from such platforms?
Sanjay Baru: There is variety of reasons multilateralism has been in crisis. Multilateral institutions have not been able to address issues. Take global challenges like climate change, very little success has been registered there, mainly because the United States is not willing to adhere by any of those agreements. Similarly, in the WTO (World Trade Organisation), the US is unwilling to nominate adequate numbers of staff for the WTO to function. Their resolution mechanism has not been functioning.
The origin of the problem of multilateralism today is the retreat of the United States. Over the last decade, the US has been reducing funding from the UN. To every multilateral organization, the US is saying 'I don’t have money. I am going to cut funds'. The US withdrawal from global affairs has partly contributed to the decline of multilateralism. Partly it is the tensions between the US and China, as China is becoming assertive, but since it is not getting enough power in existing organizations, it is creating its own organizations. The Chinese wouldn’t have started the Asian Infrastructure Bank if the IMF had given them adequate voting rights.
Both these phenomenon have fundamentally changed multilateralism. A country like India has a lot of interest in multilateralism because we are a small country. We are not as powerful as United States or as rich as China. We neither have money, now power, so we want a forum where we can get our opinion across. Countries like India are interested in multilateralism but the powerful are not.
Sputnik: How beneficial are the regional cooperation platforms? How are they helping member countries during the crisis?
Sanjay Baru: With regionalism, different parts of the world experiences are different but the European Union (EU) has gone through a major crisis with Brexit. An important member leaving has shaken up the EU but nevertheless, Germany and France are able to keep the EU together. But if you look at the record of the EU for last 10 years, they are the in the European financial crisis 2010-11. Greece was in trouble, Spain was in trouble, Italy was in trouble, France was in trouble. How much has the EU been able to do, not much!
Then comes ASEAN, it has become a divided house between pro China countries like Laos, Cambodia and strong anti-China countries like Vietnam and to some extent Indonesia.
SAARC has become completely dysfunctional ever since India said that unless Pakistan stops terrorism, there is not point even in talking. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a meeting with SAARC over COVID-19 that didn’t go anywhere, so after one meeting, they gave it up.
Sputnik: What is the current scenario? What is the future of these organizations?
Sanjay Baru: A lot of activity at the international level is happening at the bilateral level or in new groupings. Recently, there was a dialogue between six countries on COVID-19 — the United States, Australia, Canada, India, Brazil and Japan. It’s an odd kind of group, there is no formal organization. But the foreign ministers of the six countries had a conversation. The common thing between them is they are all worried about China.
WHO is having a meeting where 62 countries have signed saying that China should be more transparent. Within WHO, pro China, anti China has become an issue. China in some ways is dividing a lot of these organizations.
Sputnik: The New Development Bank (NDB) of BRICS has disbursed a $1 billion emergency loan to India. What is the significance of such lending among countries?
Sanjay Baru: They (Banks of multilateral organizations) are all lending money. The countries which have a surplus of dollars are putting money into some of these banks. The United States for a long time was willing to put a lot of money into the IMF or into the World Bank. They were lending to developing countries but the money comes with conditionality, with certain policy implications, and that have to be implemented.
The United States started losing interest in the World Bank and the IMF. In the meanwhile, China has come up and funded the Asian Infrastructure Bank. Even the so-called BRICS bank is lending money. It is an odd kind of bank in which, of five countries, three of them are poor – Brazil, India and South Africa – Russia is in between and China is the main country with some money.
India has been a reliable borrower. It has never not repaid its debt. India’s reputation as a borrower is still good, unlike many other developing countries, which have at one time or another defaulted on payments. Therefore, banks lend to India.
Sputnik: Will we see the end of some of these organizations as they remain in crisis?
Sanjay Baru: Nothing comes to an end, they become inactive, and meetings are not frequent. Then suddenly something happens. There is something called APEC – Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. When was the last time that the APEC met? There was a time when APEC was a big deal and it used to meet regularly. The US President used to go there. So APEC was a very active organization.
Same thing has happened with BRICS, when it started, every meeting was very profile. Slowly they started reducing the number of meetings. So many of these organizations, nobody closes shop, partly because bureaucracy comes into play. Every organization has a secretariat or people who are working and they like to perpetuate the organisation.
There is an SAARC secretariat in Kathmandu, and SAARC has not met for how long and there is a secretariat. What are they even doing, they are all drawing salary. There is also the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and they have a secretariat in Mauritius.
A lot of these organisations continue on paper. Whenever countries find it useful, they suddenly revive them; there is some summit, meeting, or issue that they want to address.
Sputnik: Can we expect to see reforms in these organizations?
Sanjay Baru: Reform issues have been addressed. Each of these organizations have set-up committees, on UN reforms there are reports, on WTO reforms there are reports, on WHO reforms there have been reports. Each of the organizations have done their soul searching but a lot of the reform focus has come because the US said I am cutting down the budget. Partly reforms are being pushed due to a lack of funds and partly because of countries like India and China saying our role should be increased. Membership pressure is increasing. Some of the issues have been addressed but not all.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.