For a multilateral world

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has returned from his visit to the United States, which featured the first ever in-person summit of Quad leaders and his address to the United Nations General Assembly. Unlike some previous such US visits, this prime ministerial trip did not dominate headlines, nor was it designed to do so. If anything, it was a workmanlike official visit, seeking to move the borders of Indian cooperation and its multilateral ambitions. Mr Modi’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly was noteworthy for his emphasis that multilateral institutions needed to improve thei.....
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has returned from his visit to the United States, which featured the first ever in-person summit of Quad leaders and his address to the United Nations General Assembly. Unlike some previous such US visits, this prime ministerial trip did not dominate headlines, nor was it designed to do so. If anything, it was a workmanlike official visit, seeking to move the borders of Indian cooperation and its multilateral ambitions. Mr Modi’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly was noteworthy for his emphasis that multilateral institutions needed to improve their effectiveness and their reliability if they wished to remain relevant. An Indian prime minister calling out current institutions for damaged credibility is noteworthy. This could be interpreted as just another repetition of India’s long-standing demand for more power in the Security Council, which also received the standard support from the US. But, in fact, Mr Modi specifically mentioned also the World Health Organization and the World Bank. The former continues to be mired in controversy following its mishandling of the early stages of the pandemic, and its failure to investigate the origins of the pandemic; and the latter has recently been discredited by an internal report highlighting geo-political jockeying underlying country rankings in its headline Ease of Doing Business report.

 
Mr Modi directly linked this loss of credibility to reduced effectiveness in addressing global crises such as Covid-19 and climate change. Mr Modi’s criticism is justified, and it is further of a different quality than previous Indian complaints about multilateralism. Those were directed at the legacy of power left with the Western countries that designed the post-War system. These comments, in contrast, reference instances of institutional disruption caused by the increasing power within the system of the People’s Republic of China. A reformed multilateralism would require changes at multiple levels that increase transparency and open up power relations. If Washington does not take the lead in doing so, then it faces the prospect of Beijing’s increasing power delegitimising one institution after another. Yet the US has been slow to move on multilateral reform, as its failure to fix the World Trade Organization’s appellate system reveals.

More energy is being displayed in the evolution of the Quad. The four leaders of the Quad nations met at the White House, a summit that was accompanied by other bilateral and multilateral meetings on the sidelines that demonstrated a deepening and widening of the network of associations that constitute the Quad. This summit continued the trend set by the virtual Quad summit in March 2021, which highlighted co-operation on pandemic relief, climate change, and other pressing international issues. Engagement on this larger palette of issues has borne fruit in various domains, including in the issuing of shared principles underlying technological development, adoption, and governance. These principles are expected to govern, for example, the choice and management of new-generation telecommunications architecture. This is welcome progress, and marks the possibility that the Quad will begin to concretise its claim to provide a more resilient, open, and free development path for the region than that being piloted by Beijing through its trading relations and infrastructure investment. It is to be hoped that this new spirit of principled co-operation can be sustained into the domains of climate change, infrastructure finance, and institutional reform.


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