When great powers cooperate, multilateralism has reasonable chances of success and when they don’t, failure looms large. Today, as the great powers get at each other’s throats, the prospects for multilateral agreements have diminished. On both the economic and political fronts, the conflict among the major powers has sharpened. That makes India’s chairmanship of G20 more challenging.


Events of history

Major wars have always reshaped great power relations and rearranged the international system. Russia’s war against Ukraine will be no exception.

    • The First World War saw the collapse of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian empires. It also helped the Bolsheviks in Russia form the Soviet Union, gave birth to new nations in Europe, and accelerated the rise of Asian nationalism.
    • The Second World War hastened the demise of European colonialism and heralded the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as the “superpowers”. Washington and Moscow managed an armed peace in a divided Europe during the Cold War. The process of decolonisation saw the birth of a number of new nations in Asia and Africa.
    • The Cold War led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, undid its sphere of influence in East and Central Europe and led to the rise of the “unipolar moment”. The era of massive economic interdependence that followed the Cold War saw the rapid rise of China and a slower but definitive emergence of India as a major power.


Events of modern times

As Russia’s “special military operation” that was to end in a couple of weeks drags on into 2023, some tentative conclusions stare at us.

  • Case for diplomacy — First, as the costs of war mount, the case for diplomacy will gain ground in 2023. While both sides talk about peace, they are also gearing up to fight through the harsh winter. Bridging that gulf between Russian and Ukrainian negotiating positions will occupy diplomacy in 2023.
  • Weakening of Russia — Second, whatever the nature of the eventual settlement, Russia will come out weaker from this military misadventure. Putin’s attempts to eliminate Ukraine as an independent nation and roll back the eastward expansion of NATO have backfired. The war has consolidated Ukraine as a nation and NATO has expanded to include Sweden and Finland.
  • Europe’s dependence on the U.S. — Third, the war has also demonstrated Europe’s inability to defend itself against Russia despite the EU’s economy being 10 times larger than that of Russia. But for now and the near term, Europe will remain dependent on the US to defend it against an expansionist Russia. While Europe is weaker, trans-Atlantic NATO has become stronger.
  • Benefits for the U.S. — Fourth, the US is emerging as a big winner from the Ukraine war. American oil companies are raking it in from high energy prices. US weapons like the HIMARS and its high technology companies — like SpaceX with its Starlink satellite system and Palantir with its algorithms — have actively shaped the battlefield in favour of Ukraine. Far more consequential is the fact that without being directly involved in the fight, the US is influencing the direction of the war and has the most leverage in defining the terms of peace in Ukraine.
  • U.S. system of allies — Fifth, thanks to the overreach of Putin and Xi, the US has become a valuable partner for the middle powers at the receiving end of Russian and Chinese bullying. Russian expansionism in Europe and Chinese aggressiveness in Asia have compelled Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia to boost their defence spending. Poland in Europe and Australia and South Korea in Asia have embarked on ambitious regional security policies.
  • Calculative moves by China — Sixth, if Xi’s initial backing for Putin on Ukraine was a mistake, the Chinese leader has some room to undo parts of the error. Unlike Putin, who is finding it hard to walk back from the terrible misadventure in Ukraine, Xi has minimised his risks by avoiding armed support to Putin’s war. China is also well placed to benefit from Russia’s Ukraine mistakes by expanding Beijing’s influence in Central Asia. Xi has also opened a dialogue with the US, while continuing to complain about Washington’s plans to contain Beijing.
  • India’s rethink about Russia — Seventh, India that long relied on Russia to provide a regional balance of power will have to rework its great power sums. This should not be too hard, given India’s improving relations with the US and Europe and its focus on diversifying its defence partnerships. Delhi, however, will have to move much faster in developing the national capabilities and international partnerships to deter China’s aggressive actions on the border and balance Beijing’s power in the Indo-Pacific. Delhi certainly can’t take for granted that its current economic and political advantages will endure.



It is unlikely the world will return to the kind of multilateralism we got used to since the 1990s. India’s G20 leadership would be a success if it can prevent the complete breakdown of the multilateral system and generate major power consensus on a few issues. 


SourceThe Indian Express


QUESTION – The downfall of multilateralism that started with intensification of global power rivalry should bring a reality check for New Delhi’s worldview that also includes development of its own capabilities and international partnerships. Comment.