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Ayush Shukla asked: What is the difference between multilateralism and multi-alignment, and what India needs to follow in International Relations?

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  • Arpita Anant replies: Simply put, multilateralism refers to the coming together of three or more states, in formal or informal institutional settings, to discuss issues of mutual interest and coordinate their policies. If such a grouping is small in size, it is best referred to as a mini-lateral or plurilateral forum. One example of a plurilateral forum is BRICS, of which India is a member along with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa. Another example is G20, a grouping of top 20 economies of the world based on their GDPs (at PPP). Both these are cross-regional forums. Examples of regional multilateral forums are South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), etc.

    The most multilateral of all institutions is the United Nations (UN) since it has universal membership. In theory, it is also the fairest one, since all countries, irrespective of their size and power, enjoy equal status in the form of one-country, one vote. But multilateralism cannot be completely isolated from power politics. The Bretton Woods institutions, for instance, with their contribution-based quotas and weighted voting are standing edifices of realpolitik. Normatively, multilateralism is a counter to unilateralism.

    Multi-alignment, on the other hand, refers to the policy of formation of several alliances, not necessarily military, to fulfil national interests ranging from the more tangible security and development related ones to the more intangible ideational ones. India’s foreign policy, for nearly a decade now, as argued by Ian Hall, has been one of multi-alignment involving “engagement in regional multilateral institutions, the use of strategic partnerships, and what is termed ‘normative hedging’…” It is seen as a move away from strict non-alignment. As explained by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, it conveys a sense of engagement and participation and a strong pragmatic outlook aimed not only at a better India but also a better world.

    So, multilateralism and multi-alignment are two very different phenomena that may sometimes be related. In the Indian case, staying engaged with multilateral institutions at all levels is part of its policy of multi-alignment. Both serve Indian interests.

    Posted on February 28, 2020
    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.