top of page

Threats to Multilateralism and future of Multilateral Organisations

Research Agenda

Analyzing the concepts, factors, and conditions that are a threat to multilateralism and multilateral organisations while making recommendations for improvements in their functioning and the impact of these improvements.


The article elaborates the role of Multilateralism and Multilateral Organisations for a sustainable and full-scale public health and economic recovery from COVID-19 and from the impacts of climate change. The article also analyses challenges posed by populism to multilateralism. The article goes on to provide an analysis of the impact of nationalist and protectionist policies of major countries on their relationships with multilateral organisations. It works to shed light on the global international relations and the challenges posed to multilateralism and reforms to eliminate the threats posed. The article concludes with some recommendatory initiatives and steps needed to improve the functioning of the multilateral organisations in light of evolving power dynamics in international relations.


The United Nations ambitiously tagged 2020-30 as the Decade for Action and this was done amidst a deteriorating international system. The last quarter of the previous decade is viewed as a decade of increasing polarity amongst countries, reducing the sense of coordination amongst nations and organisations, spreading violations against people on the lines of race, colour, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Multilateralism has been consistently bearing the brunt of a Thucydidian and Hobbesian outlook of the international sphere that world leaders have begun to adopt, where isolationism is preferred due to an inflated sense of mistrust towards other powers on the global sphere. However, one of the silver linings of the pandemic was the revelation of fault lines of this Hobbesian outlook that certain world leaders such as the former President of the United States of America - Mr. Donald Trump had caused for the latter part of the last decade. This eccentric approach to foreign policy is defined by certain commonly used terms in the field such as populism, nationalism, and protectionism. Although states have the sovereign right to indulge in any approach that suits them, the larger implications of moving away from multilateralism need to be evaluated by states before making these decisions.

Through this battle against COVID when some countries were descending down the path of isolationism, multiple middle powers adopted a pluralistic approach for growth and survival through these difficult times. The pluralistic approach has the potential to grow into a full-fledged multilateral effort and poses the risk of being limited to being plurilateral in nature thereby turning global governance into a distant dream. International Organisations and Multilateral Development Banks have been successful in rallying world nations together for common aversions and causes that they could achieve together. However, this approach can best be regarded as minimus multilateralism (minimal multilateralism) where the countries come together for common aversions such as global climate change, pandemic recovery, and global economic recovery. Minimus Multilateralism could create multiple avenues in the future for a larger global governance practice that provides cooperation amongst states and diversion from ideals of relative gains to absolute gains for each state.

The United Nations plays a crucial role in ensuring a truly multilateral system in the world and the changes in the biggest multilateral organisation are pertinent for it to become a more inclusive and modern organisation that could be the torchbearer for peace and development. UN Secretary General’s ‘Reform Agenda and world countries’ 10-point political declaration expressing their shared commitment to the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) is an important step in rejuvenating the spirit of multilateralism for the current decade. Along with a multilateral effort to undertake robust reforms at numerous multilateral organisations, recovery from the COVID crisis on the public health and economic front requires urgent multilateral attention along with a long-standing commitment and effort to the fight against climate change and attainment of Sustainable Development Goals. The challenges in the attainment of robust multilateralism and global governance are clear and include- populist, nationalist, and isolationist ideologies of global leaders, obsolete mechanisms and workings of multilateral organisations, polarising world order, ancient interpretations of concepts governing the International Relations space, and lack of consensus-building among the countries on pertinent issues due to Hobessian ideologies and the importance given to relative gains in the international sphere.

Multilateralism for COVID-19 Recovery and Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has attempted to push the world into an era of isolationism with countries misconstruing social distancing with stricter borders and more stringent immigration. Restrictions were necessary for health reasons, however, expanding multilateral cooperation to assist in containing and recovering from the public health crisis is required too. In complicated global emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Climate change crisis, Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are the ones that are severely affected. The pandemic gave rise to large-scale misinformation and confusion due to a lack of health-based capacity building and analysis of the threat in LDCs. In a situation like this, multilateralism is extremely effective through organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) which guide countries in capacity building, making guidelines, and protocols that they might not be able to develop by themselves. Adopting multilateralism, LDCs and other countries with enormous cases could collaborate and assist each other in terms of the development of medical equipment and their timely delivery, delivery of necessary drugs and other essentials, and continued humanitarian aid in conflict and disaster-affected regions of the world.

COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through the global economy with most southern and least developed countries shutting down their economies for months at a stretch. Local markets were the worst affected during the pandemic with people unable to leave their homes and thus required to opt for the big corporate solutions that had established supply chains that could function in a ‘No-contact’ delivery atmosphere. In turn, this also had a disastrous effect on the marginalised and poor populations that relied on local markets. As the global markets attempt to recover from the economic shock, multilateral action is required for a sustainable recovery of world countries and their populations. For a sustainable recovery from the health and economic crisis multilateral actions such as the United Nations health response, the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, the United Nations global framework for the immediate socioeconomic response to COVID-19, and the G20 debt moratorium are already underway.

Climate change has started showcasing adverse effects that affect the most poor and the marginalised communities in disaster-prone areas. Marginalised communities in disaster-prone areas are unaware of the financial and risk management tools such as insurance which could cover the infrastructure damage due to disasters. This lack of knowledge on insuring infrastructure and assets in disaster-prone prone areas contribute to increasing the insurance premiums globally as a range of risks from disaster-prone areas remains disguised. Disaster relief mechanisms need to be strengthened and popularised globally to cater to the marginalised communities with the support of governments and multilateral agencies. Climate change accelerated disasters are a common problem as well and while it could take decades before climate change is fixed, an immediate solution to this problem needs to be passed at a multilateral stage.

The climate change crisis has increased the economic inequality among the people and communities by affecting the annual economic growth in countries that are hotter and poor in comparison to countries with cooler temperatures and wealthier countries, which in turn widens the North-South divide. The global nature of the climate emergency has prompted most of the global nations to come together through initiatives such as the Paris Climate Agreement, Kyoto Protocol, Montreal Agreement, International Solar Alliance, and Conference of the Parties (COP). While these initiatives showcase an improving spirit of multilateralism, however issues such as the refugee crisis that could arise due to this climate emergency could push the populist leaders away from the battle against climate change. Climate change is a global problem that countries in the future and the global community in light of the global nature of the problem catapults the issue into rallying countries into one of the largest attempts at multilateralism. While this consensus building is important for the rise of multilateralism, lack of enforcement and proper implementation of these multilateral agreements would adversely affect multilateralism in the future.

Populism, the bane for multilateralism

Populism has gained considerable wind in the last two decades with populist parties, individuals, and regimes coming to power across various parts of the world. Populism is a growing form of political ideology and approach that appeals to the ordinary people who have grown to believe that they are marginalised and devalued by the established elite groups or a growing cultural shift in the country to which they cannot adapt with. Both right-wing and left-wing populist ideologies have gained momentum in the parliaments, presidencies, and palaces over the last two decades. Leaders getting elected and consolidating power by appealing to the ordinary people in their countries find it easy to blame multilateral organisations and external threats. This blame game spreading across their borders serves as an impeccable diversion for the ordinary people who do not bother themselves with analysing the policies and decisions of their leaders. ‘Trumpism’ which was the most recent and realistic form of populism that this world witnessed blamed multilateral approaches such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), World Health Organisation (WHO), and even the United Nations (UN) on occasions.

Trumpism was the perfect example of how populism in more impactful countries such as the United States could give rise to unilateralism and thereby destroying multilateralism and promoting a period of anarchism in world politics. The impact of world politics and decisions of countries can be differentiated between the security realm and the global public goods realm. The realm of security is where the discussion on matters such as non-proliferation, terrorism, international security, and peace takes place while the global public goods realm witnesses discussions on matters of trade, development, climate change, public health, infrastructure, technology, and economics. Populist leaders blame the global public goods realm of world politics to take control and popularise their unilateral decision in the realm of security. This approach disrupts multilateralism as treaties and agreements signed on both realms are abandoned by countries and established institutions are ruined in terms of implementation of policies and practices. Surprisingly, populism is quickly causing a change in the beliefs and values of parties such as the Republicans in the United States and the Conservatives in the United Kingdom who have defended free trade and support for multilateral organisations in the past.

With the loss of Donald Trump in the Presidential elections removes a dominant populist force from the realm of politics, for now, the potential of populism is now well-known. In the next decade, many politicians and parties could come to the forefront in major pockets of the world and constantly threaten multilateral institutions until a change is brought. While populism runs on the appeals to the ordinary of their economic and social status being a side-effect of globalization, incorporating a patriotic approach into globalisation could change the belief of the people about multilateralism. A patriotic approach could be incorporated by giving the smaller and middle powers, the powers that hold a position immediately below the superpowers while holding considerable sway on the International Relations, more say and power in multilateral organisations. For decades multilateral institutions have remained as the symbol of victory over Nazis and Imperialists in the Second World War. A change in their image from being an after-effect of the Second World War to the abode of development and cooperation is necessary today.

International Relations for Multilateralism: 2021

Countries in the world today can be viewed and categorized into superpowers, middle-powers, and rising-powers, these are the powers that are quickly gaining a hold over the sway of International Relations such as Vietnam and Nigeria. The brand of politics followed in countries belonging to each of these categories varies abstractly without a particular pattern except in the case of the two superpowers- the United States and China. The United States, in the Trump-Era, and China largely imbibed unilateralism decision-making and nationalist ideology into their governance and policy making. While other countries in the categories of middle-powers and rising powers follow various forms of approaches in their politics and policymaking, they are not in a position where their unilateral decision-making could harm the world and change its entire discourse.

Middle-powers and rising powers are the economies that are creating ripples on the global stage through their advancement in the spheres of both the global public goods and security realms. India, a middle-power, has been contributing heavily to the global fight against pandemic through support to numerous countries around the globe through vaccines. Meanwhile, it is also bringing together issue-based alliances such as QUAD and is coming closer to Europe through trade and providing countries such as the UK and France a window into the Indo-Pacific theatre. These powers are the torch-bearers of multilateralism in the near future. While the Western media and certain powers criticize India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Russia among many other middle-powers and rising powers for their nationalistic tendencies and swings, global development and support for multilateralism would dwindle without the backing of these powers.

The United States under the Biden administration would attempt to bring phenomenal change in the US Foreign Policy, however, the influence of ‘Trumpism’ on the Republican Party and the US Congress could limit the work that this administration can do in terms of Foreign Policy. China does not seem to be showing any signs of containing its nationalistic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific and Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative amongst others. While China is a voracious voice for multilateralism, its actions and ideologies continue to prevent it from guiding a purely free and rule-based international order which promotes multilateralism. The last decade has seen an incredible rise of India and Brazil on the global stage and their voices have set the tone for two of the biggest regions in the world – the Indo-Pacific and Latin America respectively. India has adopted multilateralism as a significant part of its foreign policy and believes that reforms at multilateral organisations would pave the way for an inclusive and healthy multilateralism in the future. This approach is guided by India’s ambitions to take a larger role in the international sphere and India appears to be the responsible power that could play this role well. In the same tone, Brazil and Japan have also voiced their support for reforms at multilateral organisations and believe that their reform is the multilateralism reform that the world desperately needs today.

Reforms at Multilateral Organisations, Financial Institutions, and Development Banks

Democratisation of multilateral organisations and institutions would pave the path for a renewed sense of ownership amongst the middle and rising powers towards multilateralism. Unlike the superpowers, middle and rising powers have significantly more to gain from multilateralism both in the spheres of global public goods and security. These powers need to be incentivized through a greater voice and responsibility on the global front. The current multilateral institutions and organisations were created under the backdrop of the Second World War and still consists of structures and the division of powers that gives privileged powers to the Western states. This structure and Western dominance do not represent the strategic or economic realities of today where middle powers such as India, Japan, Brazil, Germany, and representatives of Africa such as Nigeria, Egypt, or South Africa and the continent as a whole are rapidly gaining a foothold in the global economy and security infrastructure. Multilateral organisations, financial institutions, and development banks need to resonate with these new realities and adapt accordingly.

The biggest and most influential middle powers of India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany, also the G4, have been leading this effort of bringing reforms starting from the United Nations. The G4 with the support of various groups such as L-69 and others are pushing for the expansion of the UN Security Council including both permanent and non-permanent members. These countries believe that a top-down approach and parallel efforts across multiple global organisations and institutions is imperative for a more inclusive and real composition of these organisations. The efforts to translate talk of the Security Council reform seems to be falling on deaf ears as the negotiations move with an extremely slow space through the UN bureaucracy of organisations. Aside from the expansion of the UNSC, several other reforms must be brought in that makes the belief of countries in this organisation stronger.

One of the biggest threats to multilateral organisations today is the lack of trust in these organisations and the smaller circles of privileged ‘diplomatic circles’ and ‘groupings’ that they consist of. This lack of transparency gives the countries a perception of cloaks and daggers which could be easily resolved through reforms that bring in transparency, accountability, and finally democracy in these structures. Countries need to be in the decision-making driver seat of these organisations to trust them. Multilateral financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, which provides funding and support to multiple countries through loans and grants, severely need reforms in their voting-rights structure. Bretton Woods Institutions such as the IMF and closed groups such as the G7 need to overcome their Western alignment and look at the broader development and building of trust in the entire international community. While this would require the Western powers to give up a share of their power, the long-term benefits of this will be a free and inclusive international order which will benefit these countries.


Multilateralism was born out of the need to create coordination and cooperation in a multipolar world following the Cold War. The last decade saw an erosion of multilateralism due to increasing authoritarianism, nationalism, and populism which leads to unilateralism on the global stage. COVID-19 saw both sides of the coin with some countries engaging in unilateralism and populism within their borders while others engaged in multilateral efforts that saw them support numerous countries and initiatives around the globe. This erosion of multilateralism and the threat posed was due to multiple reasons including but not limited to non-compliance with international agreements, lack of accountability measures in these agreements and structures, increasing populism among leaders and countries around the world, rising polarity among countries and groupings, lack of democracy and trust in the decision-making structures such as multilateral organisations, financial institutions, and development banks. While the reforms are a slow process to improve multilateralism, they need to be undertaken to ensure that we have a world with free and inclusive multilateralism on a global stage across all countries. In the meanwhile, the process of regional integration and minilateralism needs to be undertaken on an issue-to-issue basis. Cooperation in the security and global public goods realms would assist the countries in adding on to their absolute gains in the future and fuel an inclusive and open world order. All for one and one for all needs to be believed in when it comes to global development and upliftment of humanity.



  1. Arunabha Ghosh (2019), The missing link in the climate battle, Hindustan Times, 27 October 2019,

  2. Noah S. Diffenbaugh, Marshall Burke, Global warming has increased global economic inequality, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2019, 116 (20) 9808-9813; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816020116

  3. Joydeep Bose (2020), Trump's Americana was a Hobbesian Nightmare, but not to cynic, Free Press Journal, 9th November 2020,

  4. Jordi Bacaria, Populism and its impact on multilateral institutions and economic trade, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, CIDOB Report, April 2017,

  5. Samir Gandesha, Understanding right and left populisms, Open Democracy, May 2018,

  6. Joshua Lincoln, 2021 will be a make or break year for Multilateralism, World Politics Review, 28 December 2020,

  7. Thomas Wright, Advancing Multilateralism in a Populist Age, Foreign Policy at Brookings, February 2021,

  8. Abhishek Sudke, Prarthana Puthran, Rishika, Shivangi Kanaujia, UNSC Reforms for Effective Maintenance of International Peace and Security, The Policy Chronicle, July 2020,

  9. Moises Naim, Minilateralism, The magic number to get real international action, Missing Links, Foreign Policy,

481 views0 comments


bottom of page