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For a world order firmly founded on sovereignty of individual states, big and small, the term “global governance” is an idealistic dream at best or simply a misnomer. It is a shadow global government, which seeks to be an international process of consensus building without any erosion of sovereignty of the individual states. The surrender of sovereignty for the good of the global commons is mostly absent beyond permitting some physical systems of convenience like communications, such as the internet. Every declaration, convention, or resolution, which was sought to standardise responsible behaviour of nations has one reservation or another by several members. Consensus decisions are possible only when they are recommendatory, not mandatory. Efforts to create a more homogeneous system have failed even as the global circumstances changed over the years. 


After the end of the Cold War, enthused by the global consensus on the First Gulf War, Secretary General Boutros Ghali made a heroic effort to establish that the days of absolute sovereignty were over and that member states must make the United Nations more powerful. He even suggested that the Secretary General should have a few battalions of armed forces under him to expeditiously enforce peace or at least keep the peace after a conflict. The message, which went to him during a discussion on his ‘Agenda for Peace’ was that the UN should have only a Secretary General, not a General! The oxygen of sovereignty is vital for every state, big and small.


In more recent years, sovereignty has assumed the nature of extreme nationalism and even globalism has been called into question. President Donald Trump developed his America First, which undermined even the rudimentary concept of global governance by riding roughshod over the UN and withdrawing from international treaties unilaterally. Even multilateralism was all but abandoned except for wielding power over the weaker generations in forums of their choice. Multilateral structures and consensus decisions are used to impose conditionality of good governance to hold back financial assistance required to be provided to developing countries.


Global governance, particularly its most important components, the United Nations and its specialised agencies have been under strain for many years and there have been many efforts to reform these bodies. But their credibility and legitimacy reached rock bottom in 2020 when COVID-19 posed the gravest existential threat to humankind. The Chinese veto paralysed the Security Council, and the World Health Organisation danced to the Chinese tune and made international cooperation an impossibility. If only the Security Council had acted with determination, the severity of the loss of lives and livelihoods would have been less. The Security Council should have established an international health keeping force, with red berets, on the lines of the blue berets of the peacekeeping forces, which could provide relief and support to nations far and wide. Even regional organisations failed to operate and an unprecedented crisis has engulfed the whole world. Individual countries had to fend for themselves. An international consortium could have speeded up the production and distribution of vaccines where they were most needed. Former Secretary General Ban Ki Moon claimed on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UN that the greatest success of the UN was the immunisation of the world’s children against infectious diseases. But today the UN has blood on its hands as millions of people fall victim to the ravages of the pandemic.


One of the uncertainties of the post-COVID world is the state of multilateralism and the state of global governance. Having realised that fundamental reform of the Security Council and other important bodies is not possible, the search is for alternatives to the United Nations itself. A reformed multilateralism is a necessity as COVID-19 experience has shown. But in all likelihood, we will have more of the same, pushing individual countries to seek alliances. The new Cold War between the United States and China is a reality and there will be a tendency for weaker countries to line up behind each of them. Other powerful countries will seek to retain strategic autonomy as alternate poles and win friends and influence people. A viable non-alignment may also be a possibility. The global scenario will continue to be in a flux, but the fears of isolation during the COVID-19 period may foster multiple alliances by like-minded countries. 


The history of climate change negotiations has shown how an issue, which was identified as a threat to mankind, requiring intense international cooperation was turned into an instrument for the preservation of the existing inequities in the world. In Rio in 1992, it appeared that climate change would become a binding factor in international affairs, with developed countries seeing the imperative of cooperation for their own survival. But a secret understanding between the US and China undermined the whole Rio consensus and created the present regime to be manipulated by the two of them. As it happened in the case of the Copenhagen understanding, which led to the Paris agreement, the course of the negotiations are moving to an unrealistic regime of pledging to reach a zero carbon world, dictated by the US and China. Globalism of Rio is fast disappearing from the climate change negotiations. The disunity we saw in the case of COVID-19 right from the beginning has crept into environmental negotiations. Even the gravest existential threats cannot unite humanity.


Very few countries in the world are as committed to multilateralism and structures of global governance as India. We have always had a vision of India as a composite part of the world. India, while pursuing its dream of securing its rightful place in the world community, participated in global governance activities to contribute its experience and insights rather than to seek any benefits. The issues we championed like decolonisation, disarmament, equitable distribution of wealth and human rights were universal goals, even though they served our national objectives. Therefore, India was at the forefront of the developing and non-aligned nations.


When India was compelled to go to the Security Council to seek justice for itself on the Kashmir issue, we got embroiled in a series of concepts which coloured our attitudes on a number of matters before the UN. We repudiated the Charter provision of self-determination of all people and made it applicable only to people under colonial or foreign occupation, which offended sensitivities among the smaller liberal democracies. Subsequently, our decision not to sign the NPT set us apart in a minority of three outside the global consensus. But the India- US nuclear deal has brought India back to the nuclear mainstream. The tough action we had to take against the secessionist movements in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab and to fight terrorism led to the belief that we were not entirely in compliance with the human rights instruments we had signed. But we remain steadfast on the purposes and principles of the Charter and continue to contribute to the common good.


Non-intervention in the internal affairs of states is a sacred principle of the United Nations. But some situations which amounted to aggression by states against their own people, like in the case of apartheid and racial discrimination, the world had to assume the responsibility to protect. This is a complex concept which can jeopardise national sovereignty and, therefore exercised in rare cases. 


India has taken the lead in Security Council reform since 1979, when India, together with non-aligned and like-minded countries inscribed an agenda item, entitled “Equitable representation on and expansion of the Security Council”, which still remains under consideration of the General Assembly without any progress on substantive issues. Many proposals are on the table, including a report by the then Secretary General, Kofi Annan, offering two alternate plans to choose from. But one thing is clear that there is no proposal which enjoys the support of 2/3 majority of the General Assembly and unanimous support of the five permanent members, a requirement to make the required amendment to the Charter. Though there is a possibility of expansion of the non-permanent membership of the Council, permanent members with veto power are not likely to be added. Although the permanent members are being blamed for this impasse, the real impediment is the lack of interest of the general membership of the UN in adding veto wielding members to the Council. Abolition of the veto of the permanent members is the preferred option for a majority of the members. India’s qualifications for permanent membership has been widely recognised, but there is no chance of it materialising any time soon.


UN reform is cyclical in nature and important changes have been brought into the agenda, which were not thought of in 1945. The fight against terrorism, climate change and HIV/AIDS, which were not thought of have become preoccupations of today. The UN has not only innovated, but also proved resilient in finding “out of the box” solutions over the years. But it is still a conservative organisation, wedded as much to form as substance. The UN or any other institution of global governance cannot be more than what the member states are willing to entrust to it. If anything, most countries have become more reluctant to part with their sovereign rights and so these institutions remain as sounding boards of new ideas to learn from each other in the many debates that take place on the threats faced by humanity, particularly the pandemic. The international community is not yet ready to establish structures that would limit its freedom of action. We are nowhere near fashioning a global governance system even in the face of an existential threat. Sadly, even the pandemic has not changed the natural instinct of the nations to compete rather than cooperate. Mankind is an adamant species.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.