During last month’s Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament, panellists considering the question ‘Is the West in Decline?’ concluded that it was and that we now live in a more multipolar world.
This month’s G20 summit in New Delhi provided further evidence of that shift and a glimpse of what this new reality might entail.
A gathering that could have reinforced the continued strength of multilateralism and global consensus in dealing with common threats succeeded in achieving the opposite, showcasing the increasing dysfunction of great power politics.
Incremental change on issues of global significance were overshadowed by the conspicuous absence of China’s president Xi Jinping, a measure designed to reinforce the Asian superpower’s critical significance in developing global governance.
Conversely, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was centre stage, pointedly choosing to position himself as a representative of ‘Bharat’ and lauding the agreement reached on the war in Ukraine.
Modi, as host, will be happy to have earned some political kudos ahead of national elections next year, but the other outcomes of the summit might reasonably be described as containing more bark than bite. The declaration on Ukraine retracted the harsh language reached last year in Bali and little advancement was made on critical issues like climate change.
Most surprising of all was the admission within the joint declaration that “the G20 is not the place to resolve geopolitical issues,” which rather begs the question “what is it for?”.
Xi and Modi clearly understand the new reality, which is that multilateral summits are becoming ineffective vehicles for achieving common action. Too often these forums are little more than soapboxes from which leaders sermonise and flex their soft power without really achieving anything of note. Look no further than all the bluster surrounding the expansion of BRICS two weeks ago, a poor attempt to disguise bilateral tensions between India and China which continue to hinder any practical multilateral cooperation within the bloc.
Gone is the golden age of multilateralism. The increasing ability of the developing world to challenge the West – and each other – in favour of their own economic sovereignty, and the West’s reassessment of its capacity to dictate the playing field have created a stalemate at a critical junction.
Instead, bilateralism has become the means by which leaders are accomplishing what multilateral formats no longer can; material action. Rishi Sunak’s meeting with Modi to break the deadlock on a stalled free trade agreement, and Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam to establish a strategic partnership encapsulate this trend.
That being said, I would echo the sentiments of Lord Jim O’Neill in urging leaders around the world to make honest attempts at resurrecting effective multilateralism.
Without it, there is little hope the international community can rise to the complex challenges we face and, while multilateralism may be in decline, the alternative provides no guarantee of a more harmonious and productive system of global governance.
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