Revisiting Multilateral Institutions in the time of COVID-19

United Nations

International Governmental Organisations (IGOs) have grown steadily over time – in number and in their scope. The growth in numbers is characterised by sporadic bursts in their birth rates, determined typically by global events of economic and political conflict, like the two World Wars. When global politics is altered substantially and the world order is thrown into flux, there is an inevitable need for reconstruction, reconciliation and resolution. This is how traditional IGOs were born and despite the concerns of legitimacy of organisations and the decline of multilateralism in general, they tend to persist. Today as the world comes to a near standstill in its battle against the novel Corona Virus (Covid-19), it is imperative to revisit the dialogue on global governance institutions (here, IGOs) and their relevance (or lack thereof).

Nation states have attempted to organise themselves into associations ever since the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815 to address collective security concerns. This process of organising involves the establishment of an organisational structure that provides a forum for negotiations, dispute mediation and decision making among member countries. The overarching purpose of such institutions is to serve as mechanisms for fostering international cooperation and mobilising collective action. The first such organisation created by means of a treaty with a permanent secretariat is the International Telecommunications Union, founded in 1865.

The exponential increase in the number of IGOs, from the League of Nations to the United Nations and related agencies in the post-World War era, has prompted a host of theories that seek to explain the creation and purpose of these organisations. The most predominant understanding among the many postulations is rooted in the principles of classical liberalism, which views IGOs as institutions that manage changes in the global political and economic structure to overcome the inherent anarchy of the international system.

From a realist perspective, modern IGOs came into existence as a medium for status quo powers to preserve order and seek peace after the Napoleonic Wars (Morgenthau 1978: 392). IGOs are not expected to be durable from a realist or neorealist viewpoint, whose main contention is that the continuous pursuit of gains relative to other states limits the chance for lasting cooperation (Carr 1964; Grieco 1990; Walt 1987). In contrast, neoliberals claim that IGOs not only facilitate cooperation but influence states in setting agendas, which enables durability in international cooperation (Jacobson 1984; Keohane 1988; Murphy 1994.).

Decline of Multilateralism

The scholarship on multilateralism in international relations emphasises a great deal on the role of traditional IGOs and their apparent failure to deliver intended outcomes, particularly in light of the growth of distinctively unilateral and bilateral foreign policies of nation states. This decline of rules based multilateralism along with the resurgence of populist nationalism, which, until recent times appeared behind us, poses a threat to the globalist liberalism of international institutions, despite the possibility of their coexistence.

Growing inequality, increasing fears of globalism, the economic dislocations of globalisation, fear of immigrants and desire for homogeneity are some of the factors that have stimulated the rise of nationalism in recent years. Even though the social and political manifestations of nationalism differ across countries, it is discernible in increasing trends of protectionism, isolationism, xenophobia and anti-elitism. The resulting polarisation in countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom has translated into leadership that increasingly seeks to undermine the entire model of rules-based multilateralism. This is evident in the clashes between Europe, China and the US on trade policies in the WTO and their increasing calls for the organisation’s reform.

Seventy five years ago, as the world reeled from the horrors of the two World Wars, the US and Britain took to sketching out a world order based on liberal principles of free trade, collective security and national self-determination. While the United Nations was devised as the key organisation for peace and security matters, the Bretton Woods Institutions (known today as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) were established to regulate matters of international economy, trade and finance. An uncontrolled proliferation and division of IGOs followed. The US has since been the prime guarantor of multilateral institutions with a seemingly consistent effort at envisioning a peaceful world order underpinned by a system of consultative diplomacy through international organisations.

This is not to say that the image of the US as a responsible defender of international order has been pristine. Reckless ventures of war in Vietnam and subsequent economic problems, reversal of the shift from isolationism to international engagement in light of the East-West détente, and its imperialistic tendencies during the Cold War period soon revealed the hypocrisy and volatility behind the ideal of ‘peace and collective security’. The performance of the US in the early decades of the United Nations can thus be construed as more of blatant manipulation and less of constructive leadership.

Despite Washington’s track record of exploitation of IGOs for advancing personal interests in early decades and its undue apprehension about the usefulness of the same IGOs in the post-Cold War years, the US has thus far been unwilling to renounce its role in global leadership. However, in recent times, the country under President Donald Trump has begun abandoning the very institutions it created – and nurtured. The US withdrawal from the Paris Accord, its attempt to disempower the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Appellate Body and the disdain for the organisation in general, along with its gradual disengagement in the UN has alarmed advocates of multilateralism.

This shift away from traditional processes of multilateralism (here IGOs) towards less formal arrangements like conferences and summits has become more prominent over time, specifically during the turn of the century when alternate views began to surface. For Western economies, the strength of newly emerging developing countries posed a threat to the established order as gains from globalisation were no longer absolute. A multipolar world order with new powerful states also suggested a declining role in leadership for the US and the European Union (EU), implying that achieving global consensus on key issues would become tougher. Moreover, the rise of new powers in the United Nations and other traditional organisations meant that the decline in America’s inclination towards leadership was accompanied by a simultaneous decline in its opportunity to exercise leadership, if not preceded by it.

Legitimacy and IGOs

But there are inherent problems that run deeper than the recent trends of nationalism. The shift away from traditional forms of global governance must also be attributed to the growing debates around the legitimacy of IGOs. Legitimacy stems from an organisation’s requirement of delivering public goods at the international level, which includes resolution of conflicts, reduction of transaction costs and performance of coordinating functions (Keohane, 1984). Legitimacy can therefore be analysed through the organisations capability to fulfil this purpose over time as well as its performance in exercise of authority, viewed by both state and societal actors.

As newly emerging nations and other developing countries witnessed rapid economic growth towards the end of the twentieth century, they began demanding greater influence in global politics, bringing the ‘legitimacy’ of these institutions into focus. The issue here was not only about under-representation and shortcomings in decision-making processes, but also about the inconsistencies in policies, particularly of those organisations that cover aspects of economics growth, development and security, like the UN and the BWIs, and not as much in specialised organisations dealing with technical matters. Thus, incoherence in global policymaking automatically undermined both the efficiency and the merit of the organisation.

IGOs are essentially the sum of its member states and therefore tend to succumb to inherent political influences of powerful nations. The structural bias is rooted in the very framework of most IGOs that allows higher income countries to contribute a larger share in its financing, consequently giving them greater voting powers, as seen in the IMFs special drawing rights (SDR) or in the World Health Organisations (WHO) assessed contributions.

It hence becomes inevitable that countries like the US and Britain (that are among the largest contributors in most IGOs), tend to steer the ship, and in many instances, even resort to threatening the organisation with fund cuts when its interests are not represented. The United Nations has witnessed this trend in the early 1990s with America’s increasing arrears. Recently too, the US threatened to consider suspending its funding to the WHO, accusing the organisation of being China-centric in its approach to under-representing the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The influence of western powers and subsequent biases in the agreements administered in organisations like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been fundamental in feeding the impasse, sometimes stretching out for as long as over two decades. The WTO has seemingly lost its ability to broker meaningful agreements and has thus invited questions regarding its relevance (and legitimacy) in present times where countries resort to bilateral and unilateral methods of negotiating trade deals.

That the charters of most organisations formed in the 1950s represented US interests with little or no room for thorough representation is most telling. Raymond F. Mikesell, an economic advisor at the Bretton Woods Conference, highlights in his hitherto personal notes, the failure of the Bretton Woods system to incorporate Keynes’ proposal, which was not only development oriented but included a suggestion for the creation of an International Trade Organisation (ITO) as the third pillar of the BWIs (Mikesell 1994). Instead, a proposal made by a member of the US Treasury Department, that was limited in scope, was eventually accepted and used as the basis for the World Bank, IMF and the GATT (in place of an ITO that took into consideration special problems of the developing countries conceived in the Havana Charter that the US failed to ratify).

This meant that an extremely marginalised section including newly independent countries of Africa and Asia, developing and least developed countries, remained on the periphery of international organisations from the 1950s until as late as the twenty-first century. From being on the side-lines of international organisational politics for most of the Cold War period and lobbying for the establishment of organisations like the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to address their developmental concerns, to being subjected to structural adjustments and conditionalities under the IMF in line with the Washington Consensus, countries of the Global South have a long history of struggle in in asserting their position and articulating their demands in global forums.

Immortality of IGOs

It has become rather fashionable to dismiss the utility of IGOs, particularly those that function in domains of open trade, democracy, development and security. Existing organisations are often known to be politically weak, muffled in bureaucracy, and therefore inefficient. The institutional pathologies of IGOs that bring to light the deficiencies in decision making structures and participation have elicited debates and subsequent calls for reform that are fundamental to the existence of IGOs, and public institutions in general. The durability of IGOs in the face of changes in underlying distribution of power is the basic theme in the neorealist-neoliberal debate on multilateral institutional cooperation.

Despite the recognition that institutional unravelling is essential for an organisations health, most critics don’t go as far as advocating the complete termination of IGOs. This is because global issues continue to call for increased interdependence and cooperation. In other words, IGOs tend to persist, their shortcomings notwithstanding, and many have stood the test of time. IGOs are critical to international stability both for the realist idea of balance of power and the liberal vision of a collective security system (Niou and Ordeshook 1991).

Another factor contributing to the seeming immortality of IGOs is the capability of organisations to reinvent themselves at the grassroots. For instance, it is interesting to note how UNCTAD’s mandate to act as a forum for intergovernmental deliberations and to provide technical assistance to developing countries has undergone a sea change over the fifty plus years of its existence. In an increasingly crowded system of global governance with overlapping agendas and conflicting policies, the work of the UNCTAD has lost its hold as compared to its heydeys in the 1960s and 1970s; but the organisation manages to remain somewhat relevant by taking innovative measures like helping debt-ridden countries in the 1980s, followed by its focus on least developed countries (LDCs) and provision of evidence-based policy analysis in present times. Similarly, several other organisations continue to realign their agendas with the changing geopolitical landscape and global economic architecture. The legitimacy debate of the WTO in the context of a stalled Doha Round or the continued efforts of organisations like the UNCTAD to reinvent itself and realign its agendas reveal that despite the crisis of multilateralism, establishment of new arrangements has been difficult.

The essence of IGOs – even as they continue to be flawed – lies in the fact that they seek to minimise inequalities at the international level. However imperfect, IGOs endeavour to bring about equitable benefits and distribution of power (economic, political and cultural) through numerous mechanisms like disbursement of aid for economically weak countries, special and differential treatment in international trade for developing and least developed countries, and efforts towards addressing a sense of international community. A consistent pressure on members to address social concerns will go a longer way than resorting to a system of private actors with increasing polarisation and minimal political accountability. Reforms are undoubtedly necessary, but a complete demise of multilateral institutions is far from reality.

Many today are curious about how the pandemic will reshape global geopolitics. Global order has always been in a state of constant restructuring addressing elements of unipolarity, bi-polarity and multi-polarity. In the immediate period following the outbreak of the disease, both the Chinese and USA governments resorted to deception and denial leading to delays in timely containment of the pandemic. With negligible efforts towards global cooperation, the two countries have instead been engaging in propaganda contests. While the USA seems increasingly incapable of handling the prevailing conundrum, China’s material assistance across continents is proof of its larger motive to increase its presence in global governance.

Furthermore, the Sino-US trade war that began much before the current pandemic is likely to extend as Trump continues to threaten China with a renewal of the conflict amidst mounting economic costs and unemployment in the country. Blame games over Covid-19 have hampered progress towards de-escalation of trade tensions, which directly impacts global markets. While unproven theories are best left for verification, the escalation of the trade conflict is noteworthy. It depicts a larger picture of a failure in channelling cooperative measures to tackle the most important issue at hand.

A stark reminder brought by the current pandemic to countries with growing isolationist tendencies is the indisputable global character of the ensuing health, humanitarian and economic crises. The virus does not discriminate across borders and irrespective of differences in individual supply-side capacities, nation states are compelled to come to terms with the fact that they exist in a global community, one where local problems are inevitably global in nature and global problems local. And while the quest for an effective cure continues, the only way to sustain the fight is through meaningful cooperation and coordination.

Even as states and firms retreat from unparalleled globalisation to limit vulnerabilities arising from the current pandemic, it would be too bold to predict the end of globalization following the Covid-19 pandemic. It has to be understood that several aspects of globalisation like climate change cannot be contained within national boundaries. The pandemic today is unquestionably a global issue, as is the economic crisis that accompanies it. Without a concerted global effort, little can be accomplished in overcoming the looming catastrophe.


Carr, Edward H. (1964): The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939, New York: Harper & Row.

Grieco, John M. (1990): Cooperation among Nations: Europe, America, and Non-Tariff Barriers to Trade, Ithaca: Cornell University.

Jacobson, Harold K. (1984): Networks of Interdependence: International Organizations and the Global Political System, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Keohane, Robert (1984): After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, Princeton: Princeton University.

Mikesell, R. (1994): “The Bretton Woods Debates: a Memoir”, Essays in International Finance, 192: 1-63.

Morgenthau, Hans J. (1978): Politics Among Nations, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Murphy, Craig N. (1994): International Organization and Industrial Change: Global Governance Since 1850, New York: Oxford University Press.

Niou, Emerson M.S. and Peter C. Ordeshook (1991): “Realism versus Neoliberalism: A Formulation.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 35, pp. 481-511.

Walt, Stephen M. (1987): The Origins of Alliances, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Rinchen Ongmu Bhutia is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Areas of specialisation- International Organisation, Trade and Development. Email: [email protected]




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