Is multilateralism still relevant?
It is perhaps no coincidence that the first in-person QUAD Summit took place days after the announcement of the AUKUS deal
It’s the first official get together of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD leaders. Even as Joe Biden, the American President, welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga at the White House for the first in-person meeting Quad summit on key issues in the Indo-Pacific region, the cloud of AUKUS loomed large.
It is perhaps no coincidence that this QUAD partnership summit took place days after the announcement of the AUKUS agreement, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As part of this new military alliance Australia will receive a fleet of eight nuclear powered submarines through technology transfer by Britain and the US. In fact Australia will build the submarines in Adelaide, and this will be utilized to increase patrol in the surrounding area. The aim is to strengthen security in the Indo-Pacific region. It remains to be seen if AUKUS compliments QUAD, and vice versa, or for that matter for how long the agreements remain relevant.
That said, AUKUS is another alliance aimed at countering China’s growing influence and its claims in the South China Sea. As such, China’s outrage is understandable. It is getting cornered, and is feeling the heat. The Chinese in fact wasted little time in dubbing the deal as “extremely irresponsible”. However, the announcement of AUKUS has ruffled quite a few other nations, and is receiving a severe backlash. France’s nuclear deal with Australia, signed in 2016 and reportedly worth USD 60 billion, stands cancelled and the French palpably feel betrayed. It has plunged relations between the Americans and the French into crisis.
It is imperative here to mention that both the United States and France are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and as such allies. Germany, another NATO member and Europe’s largest economy, has also rebuked the United States over the deal. Christoph Heusgen, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s longtime foreign policy adviser, has been quoted as saying in the Financial Times that AUKUS is an “insult to a NATO partner”.
The announcement of AUKUS even as the QUAD is barely six months old is another reflection of the growing distrust in global geopolitics. QUAD and AUKUS are the most recent additions to multi-lateral machinations. Further additions in the future cannot be ruled out.
For starters there was already an intelligence alliance in place since 1941, comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is dubbed the Five Eyes, often abbreviated as FVEY. In May this year an analysis in BBC pointed out this alliance suffered an embarrassing setback when one member, New Zealand, opted out of joining the other four in condemning China on multiple issues.
It is such difference of opinions that questions the very foundations of multi-lateral alliances. With most nations concerned about their own interests, and bilateral relationship between countries getting affected at the slightest of provocation, the question marks raised over the relevance of multi-lateral alliances seem to hold water.
Most of them, formed after the World Wars, have either completely lost the plot or seem out of place in this day and age. The United Nations (UN), for instance, is now being considered a Cold War relic and its efficacy and relevance have been questioned many a times in the recent past. Calls for a revamp of the UN Security Council is increasing with each passing. As regards the World Health Organization (WHO) suffice to say there’s no need for a global body to advocate washing hands in times of a pandemic. The school teachers will suffice. Whether they admit it or not WHO failed the entire world during COVID-19 and that will remain a fact. When Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the global health body it was a significant step, doesn’t matter from which angle one views it.
Likewise, the NATO has been receiving a lot of flak for its role, rather lack of it, in many crisis situations, more recently in Afghanistan. The same also raised question marks about the relevance and role of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-member body that failed to take a firm stand against the Taliban.
Other post-war bodies like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and G77 have all faced some kind of identity crisis in the last couple of decades. More recently collaborations like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the G-20, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) or for that matter the BRICS — an association formed by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — more often than not struggle for a clear identity and authority.
Likewise, in the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Elections Trump’s vocal opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) contributed significantly to his popularity. Once in power Trump went ahead to announce the American withdrawal from the TPP. Even the incumbent Joe Biden administration have shown little enthusiasm as regards something that is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The European Union was always more about convenience, and less about cohesion, and it continues to be the case. There are more differences than agreements at any given point of time. Britain’s exit, or Brexit, as also the position of various members as regards other issues like the lack of a long-term solution to curb the frequent influx of refugees from the many failed states of Africa and Asia to Europe reiterates the fact that idea of an unified Europe is more of a myth than reality.
Then we have the so-called multi-lateral bodies like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Truth be told this is all about one country’s attempt at hegemony, of getting access and control over the resources of all the other member states. It is that country’s aspiration to be the real authority, albeit by means of persuasion…err coercion. The name of the country is anybody’s guess.
Multi-lateral alliances were always a myth. The concept of a few nations joining forces to form a bloc was more about convenience than cohesion. Common economic interests, cooperation and collective security were the basis for formation of such organizations but there was always another side to it, something that was conveniently ignored. For the lesser constituents it was about their fears and insecurities while for the bigger powers it was about bossing around and proliferating their influence with minimum fuss. As such these kind of arrangements served the purpose for all parties concerned.
With the American influence on the decline in recent years, Russia in rebuild mode and the other major European countries no longer the force they used to be there is a leadership vacuum at a global level. There are countries, particularly a couple in Asia, that are more than eager to fill up this void and ascertain their supremacy in a new global order. The problem is, they have their own set up problems, related in particular to their massive population and the resultant resource crunch. These are problems that can be concealed at a surface level but cannot completely ignored. At some point it is this self-inflicted woes that will pull these countries back from their otherwise aggressive forward march.
A multi-lateral agreement is no longer only about mutual cooperation. In fact they are a series of unilateral and bilateral agreements disguised as multi-lateral arrangements. In reality it is about furthering national priorities and about strengthening bilateral cooperation. It can be argued that alliances have always been about interests and priorities. However, in modern day and age priorities change in quick time, and so do the basis for such agreements. It doesn’t take long before what is now an affirmative to become a negative. The impasse between France and United States being a case in point. It didn’t take long for Australia to break its pact with France, and align with the US and UK. None of the three countries involved in the AUKUS deal seemed concerned about the implications of the agreement on their relations with France per se. Therein lies the problem.
While mutual cooperation is the starting point, convenience is the road travelled with vested interests being the ultimate goal. In such a scenario any multi-lateral agreement may offer a short-term solution but in the long run becomes redundant.