India’s G20 presidency is a significant point of inflection for the future of the existing global architecture, a legacy of World War II, which saw the victors set up the United Nations (UN) in 1945. Today, 77 years after the UN replaced the League of Nations as the apex international organisation, there is significant doubt about the ability of the principal players to work together. The League of Nations collapsed due to its inability to accommodate the interests of powerful nations. That is why the United States (US) did not join the League. Japan abandoned the League in 1933 after criticism of its invasion of Manchuria, Germany left in 1936 after meddling in the Spanish War, Italy withdrew in 1937 after invading Abyssinia, and then Spain’s exit sounded the death knell for the organisation. And if that were not enough, the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was expelled for invading Finland only five years after it joined the League in 1934. A little less than a year after the UN was established, the League sank without a trace on April 19, 1946.
What are the lessons from this fiasco, and what does it have to do with India’s G20 presidency? Today, there is unprecedented stasis in key decision-making bodies, most evident in the infirmities of the UN, its elite Security Council and the affiliated Bretton Woods financial institutions. Moreover, the exceptionalism sought by major powers to pursue their interests imperils most of the existing global order.
In an era of major power contestation, when security trumps economics and gridlocked positions make it impossible to achieve progress, a new trend has emerged in favour of informal groupings, regional consultations, and strengthened bilateral ties between like-minded partners. However, the lines are often blurred with overlapping loyalties, hedging and multi-alignment. India’s G20 process has several engagement groups, including the Think20, the Ideas Bank. It will merge recommendations from around the world, especially the Global South, to feed into the leadership track.
Today, with polycrises upon us, the G20 has a fresh chance to reinvent itself under India’s presidency. The G20 must move away from the impasse in multilateral institutions. The major powers need to view the G20 process as a platform that provides elbow room for consultations and rebuilding trust. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s vision of inclusion encompasses the Global South and others.
The success of the G20 will lie in its ability to work flexibly in tandem with existing structures in which developed nations play a vital role. Yet, it must recognise the popular sentiment around the world that archaic global institutions catering to a different era must evolve to reflect current realities and changes in the redistribution of power across geographies.
It is axiomatic to state that major powers will continue to demand special treatment. They are unlikely to come on board if they do not see their interests accommodated in the G20 process. If the League of Nations could sink without a trace in 1946, it is not inconceivable that the UN system might meet the same fate one day. However, without any parallel structures of commensurate scale, the UN and its affiliates have continuing relevance.
New values and ethics are needed today to make the existing global order more effective in delivering outcomes. Making the G20 an even more inclusive process is in keeping with the prevalent practice of a “plus” framework for consultations in groupings, such as the G7 and Quad. India’s G20 presidency will see the widest possible engagement with nine countries as special invitees alongside several international and regional organisations.
Among the most important tracks in the Think20 process of India’s G20 presidency are the task forces dealing with “Reformed Multilateralism: Transforming Global Institutions and Frameworks” (TF7) and “Purpose and Performance: Reassessing the Global Financial Order” (TF5). Between them, these task forces, which have co-chairs from around the world in keeping with the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family), must take a hard look at the structural deficiencies in the existing multilateral institutions.
If the UN Security Council needs to be democratised and made more representative, equally, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank need to reform and restructure lending mechanisms to address the challenges of debt distress, macroeconomic and fiscal stability and pressing needs for infrastructure and development finance in the Global South.
The seven Think20 task forces, involving consultations with interlocutors in India and around the world, have thrown up many new ideas, including the need for the G20 to develop a new matrix to measure growth. One must go beyond traditional indices of the Gross Domestic Product to accommodate the notion of well-being in a broader socio-anthropological context. This is relevant to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
One of the most significant impediments to economic progress is the scourge of terrorism. The G20 could set up a task force to monitor and assess the adverse impact of terrorism on economic growth and development, including achieving the SDGs.
India’s core belief in inclusive growth and progress is inherent in its G20 motto of One Earth, One Family, One Future. India’s vision includes respect for all sentient beings and the earth’s bountiful yet much-exploited resources. Sharing and caring for others drove India’s Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship). India’s initiative to aid and assist the global family received fresh impetus when PM Modi outlined Arogya Maitri in his closing remarks at the Voice of Global South Summit. Arogya, which means freedom from illness, must be viewed in a much broader sense today, to reform the health of the global order for a better tomorrow.
Sujan Chinoy is director-general, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and the Think20 Chair of India’s G20 presidency The views expressed are personal