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Decolonising Multilateralism - The Indian Way

Updated: Apr 5

One of the pillars of our foreign policy has been an attempt to ‘Decolonise Multilateralism’. Discussing and reforming the 21st-Century multilateralism towards a more inclusive global commitment. Today India's voice carries strategic weight globally due to her enhanced economic power, political stability, and nuclear-capability.

Illustration by The Geostrata

Multilateralism however, needs to acknowledge current global crises viz. power shifts, geopolitical rivalries, zero-sum nationalism, and unforeseen catastrophes like the COVID-19 pandemic. Reform is required to keep the system relevant in a rapidly evolving geopolitical context. India looks forward to being the top voice for ‘forgotten multitudes’ in the postcolonial era.


Multilateralism at the global or regional sphere is based on certain fundamental principles like indivisibility, generalised rules of conduct, and diffuse reciprocity. Despite advocating these ideals of liberal internationalism, multilateral cooperation has been a contested reality. A web of multilateral institutions has evolved over time viz.

The erstwhile League of Nations, the United Nations, Bretton-Woods structures along with regional formations. However, the system is in itself circumscribed by often conflicting interests which cannot be aligned easily.

Post World War global order was shaped by the ‘hegemonic powers’ according to their interests. For example, key decisions at the UN Security Council are till date dependent on the concurrence of all five ‘self-declared’ permanent members; voting shares of the Bretton Woods institutions like the IMF are disproportionately inclined towards the wealthy states.

Today the Westphalian state system and Cultural nationalism remains at the centre of world politics unlike Benedict Anderson’s concept of Imagined Communities.

Hence many developing countries have long felt disempowered in global multilateral economic, financial, and trading arrangements. Rules-based world order thus increasingly reflects distribution of power at a given moment in time.


India's approach to multilateralism from an idealist moralizer to a pragmatic leader has evolved over decades amidst a lot of challenges. Multilateralism undoubtedly has been a driving force behind India’s transformation.

We owe a share of the success of Green Revolution to the support of the Food and Agriculture Organization; eradication of polio and major vaccination campaigns to the World Health Organization; protecting the rich cultural heritage to UNESCO; White Revolution and child nutrition to UNICEF; decent employment conditions to the International Labour Organization. Yet, India's relationship with multilateral institutions remained highly complex.

First major setback at the UN came as early as 1947 on the Kashmir issue.

Our foreign policy was henceforth prioritised on nation-building projects, designed defensively to provide the country with its own voice in an intensely bipolar world. In 1954, India pushed for special provisions in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade for developing countries to protect their nascent economies.

Nehru’s instrumental policy of Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) was a rational response to the Cold War. India played a leading role in G-77 formation in the 1960s. Today, 134 out of 193 member-states of the UNGA belong to G-77. The unanimous adoption of Agenda 2030 in 2015 reflects the diplomatic strength held by the G-77 owing to its numerical strength.

Second setback came in 1962 when China invaded Aksai Chin but most multilateral organisations including NAM refused to condemn China.

Three years later, during the India-Pakistan War many supported Pakistan. In lieu of Bangladesh Liberation war 1971, India was gravely criticised in the UN for interfering in what they deemed a domestic matter for Pakistan. Only the Soviet veto in UNSC prevented an official condemnation by the UN.

Nonetheless in 1974, India went ahead to conduct its first nuclear test, snubbing non-proliferation. Despite the several criticisms, India never signed the NPT on grounds that it was unfairly biassed toward the established nuclear powers. India's move was seen as a ‘strategic departure’ from traditional internationalism.

In the post-Cold War order, India urgently needed to diversify its partnerships; hence we actively engaged in most of the multilateral missions.

To overcome the 90s financial crisis, New Delhi had to engage with the IMF and the World Bank for economic reforms. In 1992, Look East policy focused on improving ties with Southeast Asian nations, culminating in full partnership with ASEAN in 1996.

The G-20 group of developing countries was formed in 2003 through an India-Brazil collaboration. Despite the pressure, India tested nuclear weapons for a second time (Pokhran II) in 1998, fully assuming its nuclear state status, causing international condemnation and sanctions. However, in 2004 the Indo-US Next Steps Strategic Partnership (NSSP), approved by IAEA accepted an India-specific waiver. This marked a significant milestone for India projecting its newfound strategic weight.


The world is currently witnessing a growing multipolar order directly linked to the emergence of new powerful players in the global economy and polity like India, China and Brazil. These advances induce counter-balancing of the North and West hegemony with a rising South and East.

The Global South celebrates the mutual recognition and empowerment among states that identify as the ‘subaltern’.

With China emerging as the new competition to US hegemony, India is looked up to as the potential counter given its democratic credentials, soft power, and reputation as a benign international actor’.

Critics call it the ‘Indian century’ characterised by India’s unprecedented growth and stability and increased influence in the multilateral and bilateral spheres. As Ashok Kumar Mukerji states, “India has outgrown its role as a third world, non-aligned nation to exercise influence in global governance be it as part of the Five Interested Parties in the World Trade Organization (WTO); the Brazil, South Africa, India, and China (BASIC) group at the Copenhagen climate change negotiations 2009; or the Group of 4 (G4) coalition of countries (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) demanding permanent membership in the UNSC.”

India is also the world's largest arms importer with 11% global share (2018-22) further boosting its potential role in security affairs.

India has been eight times UNSC non-permanent member making it almost "quasi-permanent" member. At the WTO, India is a member of the Five-Interested Parties. About 49.23 percent of India’s GDP is contributed by international trade. As the world is significantly turning towards Realpolitik again over the last three decades, New Delhi has to reconsider its conventional pro-multilateral approach.

India by now has garnered the strength that will allow it to influence bilateral decisions and take unilateral action if necessary.


Global power-sharing eventually require burden-sharing for an effective and legitimate reform process. India has undeniably upheld international cooperation for peace, security, and sustainable development. Nevertheless, speculations remain about India's willingness and capacity to take on global responsibilities to match her global aspirations. Given India's notable success one needs to confront the question of whether and how we will contribute to dealing with global challenges.

India's growing strength will fuel expectation for her to engage in global burden sharing. Unless we are ready to do so, we may lose the support of the subaltern partners.

If China is to emerge as the new hegemon, India must also reconsider her prospects. So far India has not committed to taking up as extensive and potentially expensive economic burden-sharing obligations as China for example, the creation of a pan-South Asian energy grid. We need to acknowledge that projecting international growth depends on the ability to shift domestic policies and expenditure towards increasing domestic demand, thus reducing the current account surpluses. India has struggled to resolve the current account trade, and budget imbalances conundrum.

Moreover, New Delhi has actively pursued regional formations like ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), despite China's deep involvement in both. Instead India should have focused on her leadership in the Indian Ocean within which it could have been a potential hegemon. However, looking at present geopolitical context, the picture appears not so optimistic.

Countries in the Global South especially India’s neighbours are often at ideological odds working to cross-purposes.

While G-20 attempts to connect the North-South divide, there is a greater diversity in political cultures in the G-20 and G-77 than in Western platforms like the EU. Regionally the BRICS and SAARC solidarity remains questionable given the regional apprehensions vis-à-vis India, China and Pakistan.

What lies ahead?

As India forges ahead with ‘Strategic Autonomy’, effectively straddling all four contrasting hemispheres, a fundamental shift in narrative is anticipated.

Prioritising friendly regional alternatives like the BIMSTEC, Indian Ocean Rim Association, BBIN or strong formations like the OPEC+ or I2U2 will possibly yield better outcomes in the long run. India must continue on its path of ‘à la carte multilateralism’ (as Richard Haass calls it).

The collapse of the system must be checked or it would result in a potential anarchy. The notion of decolonising multilateralism, as India suggests, is a reform process and not a revolution. This would come from consensus building facilitated through dialogues with emerging powers that are currently underrepresented in global governance institutions. The Global South has to feel a real sense of belonging in these institutions.

It is important not to overdo the mandates of multilateral institutions amidst insufficient consensus.

Conceived as a means to an end, Multilateralism for over a century has dealt effectively with global challenges like climate change, human rights violations, and rampant poverty. As long as it delivers fruitful outcomes, multilateral channels are worth pursuing.


  1. Asian Yearbook of International Law, Volume 14 by B.S. Chimni, Miyoshi Masahiro, Thio Li-ann

  2. Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol.13- Chapter: The Impact of Multilateralism on India by Asoke Kumar Mukerji

  3. Global Governance Vol. 17 - Chapter: From High Ground to High Table: The Evolution of Indian Multilateralism by Rohan Mukherjee and David M. Malone

  4. The Multilateralism Conundrum: International economic relations in the post hegemonic era by Guy de Jonquières

  5. International Studies Review Vol. 9 by Arie M. Kacowicz - Chapter: Globalization, Poverty, and the North-South Divide

  6. Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, Vol.8; Chapter: Emerging India: A Farewell to Multilateralism? By Oliver Stuenkel



5 comentários

Anshika Malik
Anshika Malik
03 de abr.

Indeed, multilateralism has dealt with various global challenges!


Kiaan Mohan
Kiaan Mohan
03 de abr.

Crucial intervention for multilateral scholarship!


Ishan Sinha
Ishan Sinha
03 de abr.

Multilateralism is the way forward in the age of extreme polarity


India's Multilateral approach is the mark of India's modern foreign policy


India's Multilateral approach is the mark of India's modern foreign policy

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