This year challenges nations and international organsations to collaboratively address global issues Image Credit: Shutterstock

Multilateralism has faced significant challenges since 2022, a period marked by increasing geopolitical tensions, nationalistic policies, and a global pandemic that tested international cooperation. Traditional alliances and agreements have been strained as countries prioritise domestic over collective interests, leading to a disarray in multilateral institutions.

The erosion of trust and commitment to shared goals is evident in the rise of unilateral actions and the weakening of international bodies designed to address global issues like climate change, trade, and health. This period has highlighted the fragile nature of international cooperation and the urgent need for reform and revitalisation to address the complex challenges of a rapidly changing world.

The year 2024 is poised to be a significant trial for the effectiveness and resilience of multilateralism. This period will be marked by the emergence of five key challenges that will test the ability of nations and international organisations to collaborate and address global issues in a united manner.

Read more by Aditya Sinha

Real test for multilateralism

First challenge is that of wars, conflict and tensions. Multilateral institutions such as the United Nations (UN) were established in the aftermath of World War II to prevent future wars and foster a collective approach to global peace and security.

These organisations were envisioned as platforms where nations could engage in dialogue, resolve conflicts through diplomacy, and uphold international laws and norms. However, despite their lofty goals, these institutions have often fallen short of their aspirations.

According to the Global Peace Index 2023, over the last 15 years the world has become less peaceful, with the average country score deteriorating by five per cent. This index was published in June 2023, much before the war broke out in the Middle East.

Similarly, in towards the end of 2023, the Red Sea region experienced significant conflict, primarily involving attacks by Houthi militants.

These attacks targeted maritime trade, causing considerable disruptions and leading to the rerouting of vessels to avoid the volatile area. These are just some of the examples. From Ukraine to Red Sea, simmering conflicts will be a real test for multilateralism.

OPN WORLD AI   Artificial intelligence
AI and IoT, especially, hold transformative potential in defense, security, intelligence, and diplomacy, bolstering power projection and national interests

Consensus on global issues

Political Fragmentation and the Crisis of Multilateral Institutions is the second challenge. Many multilateral institutions are facing a crisis of legitimacy and effectiveness, struggling with bureaucratic inertia and a lack of resources. Political fragmentation, both within and between countries, makes reaching a consensus on global issues harder.

Further, the global south is not adequately represented in decision-making processes in multilateral institutions. The UN Security Council, for instance, has been criticised for its unrepresentative nature, with a disproportionate focus on the interests of its permanent members, often at the expense of the broader international community.

Similarly, institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have faced scrutiny over their quota systems, which are seen as outdated and unfairly skewed towards the interests of a few wealthy nations.

These structural inequities have fostered an environment of mistrust among nations of the global South, who feel marginalised and underrepresented. Their calls for reform and greater inclusivity have frequently been overlooked, perpetuating a sense of disillusionment and questioning the legitimacy and effectiveness of these multilateral bodies in addressing the complex, interconnected challenges of the 21st century.

As a result, the lack of meaningful reform and the persistence of an unbalanced power structure within these institutions have not only hindered their ability to fulfil their initial mandates but have also sowed seeds of scepticism and division among the international community, particularly among the developing nations.

The third challenge facing multilateralism in 2024 is the complex impact of technological disruptions on international relations and security (IR & S). Advancements in high-tech domains like Artificial Intelligence (AI), internet of Things (IoT), and others significantly affect the economy, politics, and culture.

AI and IoT, in particular, have transformative potential in defence, security, intelligence, and diplomacy, enhancing power projection and national interests. However, they also raise ethical issues and risks related to over-reliance on AI, potentially causing loss of control over vital processes and sparking diplomatic tensions or conflicts. While this is very unlikely to happen in near term, but the world should be prepared for it.

Hurdles in implementation and commitment

Climate Change and Environmental Degradation is the fourth challenge. The recently concluded COP28 and its Global Stocktake highlighted the persistent challenges facing multilateral efforts like the Paris Agreement, with notable hurdles in implementation and commitment.

Despite the recognised urgency to combat climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation, progress is often impeded by short-term national interests and a lack of consensus on responsibility and financing. To move forward effectively, COP28’s outcomes must translate into actionable commitments, fostering deeper cooperation and innovative financing solutions.

The fifth and final challenge to multilateralism is the surge in protectionist policies, notably illustrated by China’s recent ban on the export of rare earth metals and the restriction of rare earth technology, signalling an era where countries are prioritising domestic economic interests.

This move towards protectionism leads nations to adopt trade-restrictive policies despite the fact that multilateral trade agreements and global economic institutions continue to be vital for addressing critical issues like poverty, inequality, and sustainable development.

Aditya Sinha is Officer on Special Duty, Research, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India. Views Personal.