The United Nations was founded on the principles of multilateralism, which as per Japanese scholar Atsushi Tago of the Graduate School of Law, Kobe University is to act cooperatively with other states.
Multilateralism makes it incumbent on states to follow the UN Charter as the basis of international norms and respect international institutions.
Today geopolitics appears to be bereft of this spirit of multilateralism as forceful states seem to demonstrate capability to work in self-interest without regard to that of other states or without their support. In combination with unilateralism, bilateralism or a combination of strong union of two states is also at play which operates on the sole interest of the two regardless of ideological or consequences to others in the international system.
UN General Assembly (UNGA) President Csaba Korosi on a visit to India in the end of January highlighted how the UN Security Council was rendered defunct to act against Russia which being a permanent member used veto power while China abstained and India a non permanent member too did so. Korosi commenting on Russia’s was in Ukraine and failure of the UNSC said, “There is a self-evident reason why the Security Council cannot perform its fundamental duty. One of the Security Council’s permanent members attacked its neighbour. The entity that responds to the aggression should be the Security Council. The Security Council, however, cannot take action because of the veto power [of Russia].”
The recourse to unilateralism is evident not just in the war launched by Russia in Ukraine on February 24 last year covering up the same as a Special Military Operation but also by others in the international system and states who are not as powerful to be permanent members of the UN Security Council or possessing nuclear weapons.
Take China violating agreements with India on observing peace and tranquillity on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), Azerbaijan launching operations against Armenia to seize the Zangezur Corridor, Turkey’s attempts to establish a sanctuary for the Kurds in Syria or Israel forcing issues against the Palestinians on multiple fronts. Consensus in adversarial situations to mutually acceptable solutions has been lacking.
While the larger causal factors for the phenomenon of unilateralism can be discussed in detail the impact on geopolitical stability has to be prioritised for consideration given the impact at multiple levels from political to economic, energy and food security.
The spiralling impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on the factors identified is by now well established, in fact nations have curated their own pathways to navigate uncertainties and survive at great pain to the people.
Not just in the international system examples of unilateral actions by powerful institutions as the military in countries as Myanmar which has usurped power on 01 February in 2021 and is continuing to hold forth unrestrained exploiting lack of international interest and bilateralism by forming partnerships of convenience with China, Russia and India.
In Afghanistan the Taliban while enjoying international humanitarian assistance which is being provided to help the hapless Afghan people have refused to provide universal human rights especially to women. In turn Taliban is claiming that the world should honour their traditions, another typical brand of isolationist approach.
In many instances unilateral actions are undertaken in the grey zone where identifying state involvement is well nigh impossible. The Iran and Israel case is one such example.
Roots of unilateralism - internal and external appear to be in a system that concentrates power in the head of state with limited opposition and in some cases obtains legality through a constitutional stamp, military capabilities to achieve short term objectives exploiting surprise and deception against equals or suppress the political opposition through brute force as in Myanmar.
Ironically even states committed to multilateralism as India seem to demonstrate the penchant for “reformed,” multilateralism and denigrate inequalities in the United Nations as an institution.
Unified multilateralism can beat unilateralism but as the Russian experience shows multiple bilateral linkages can be exploited by states to overcome encumbrances, more over this will not work in the short term.
Defeat of unilateralism’s ventures be it in Ukraine or in Myanmar given that these will be unsustainable will remain the way out but that will sadly entail more bloodshed ahead.