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United Nations, Divided World

As minilateral groupings proliferate, can the UN stay relevant?

Published on September 28, 2023

The relevance of the United Nations is a perennial question, raised each September when world leaders convene for the annual opening of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The question has special resonance this year, as UN member states increasingly turn to narrower multilateral groupings as alternative platforms and vehicles for collective action in a fragmenting world.

This year’s UNGA opened on the heels of the summit of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), which invited six new countries to join and has dozens more on the waiting list. It was quickly followed by the G20 summit, which welcomed the African Union (AU) as a full participant. Meanwhile, the West has doubled down on its commitment to the G7 and NATO. Furthermore, the countries of the emboldened Global South are seeking greater heft and voice in global governance structures.

Ostensibly, the UN remains the premier framework for international cooperation. In practice, countries frequently eschew the UN in favor of selective bodies that comprise countries with shared interests and/or ideologies. This phenomenon of “multi-multilateralism” is not new: the United States pioneered this ad hoc (or à la carte) approach to collective action following the end of the Cold War, and it continues to pivot among diverse platforms. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken explains, this strategy of “diplomatic variable geometry” allows Washington to assemble coalitions that are “truly fit for purpose.”

What is new is that many other powers—established and emerging, great and small—have learned to play the same game. Such trends have intensified in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, deepening Sino-American geopolitical competition, and growing alienation between wealthy and developing nations.

The UN may no longer be the only game in town, but discounting it is premature, as well as imprudent. For all its flaws, the world body remains an indispensable forum amid competing institutions, especially for developing countries often excluded from minilateral clubs.

The West Doubles Down

Although Western governments have bemoaned the fragmentation of world order, they have contributed to it by consolidating cooperation among themselves, in response to perceived threats from authoritarian China and Russia. In the early post–Cold War years, many in the West hoped that global integration and internal liberalization would socialize both of those nations and other emerging powers into an open, rules-bound multilateral system. Within three decades, those hopes had faded, due to Chinese revisionism, Russian revanchism, and the unpredictable behavior and alignment of many rising powers.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 drove this point home. With the UN unable to ensure collective security, Western allies have reembraced the narrower logic of collective defense. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression has tightened the bonds of solidarity among the club of likeminded advanced market democracies.

Under the leadership of President Joe Biden, the United States has orchestrated a massive Western effort to supply Ukraine with weapons, bolstered the capacity of NATO frontline states, imposed punishing sanctions on Russia, and sought to isolate Moscow diplomatically. EU members, notably Germany, have taken unprecedented steps to strengthen their defense capabilities.

Likewise in the Asia-Pacific, the United States has fortified relationships with pivotal countries to deter China. Salient initiatives include the AUKUS defense agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom; expanded security coordination among the Quad countries; intensified cooperation with Japan and  South Korea; and the promotion of an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as a belated counterpart to the China-dominated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.  Washington and its G7 allies have also advanced a $600 billion Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The West’s reassertion has cheered those who regard solidarity and collective action among advanced democracies as the cornerstone of a rules-based international order. Yet the past two years have revealed the limited global appeal of this vision. Many pivotal countries in the developing world—including Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa—have resisted the West’s entreaties to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, much less to pick sides in a Cold War 2.0.

The fence-sitting impulse has many sources. Beyond a pragmatic desire to keep diplomatic options open and secure tangible benefits from Russia such as military equipment and oil supplies, nonalignment reflects frustration over the West’s perceived indifference to developing nations, its resistance to cede power in global institutions, and the selectivity of its commitment to democracy, sovereignty, and nonintervention.  

Other BRICS in the Wall

The most prominent institutional vehicle for emerging powers to challenge the Western-dominated order is the BRICS coalition. The group owes its genesis to Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill, who in 2001 coined the acronym BRIC to denote the four emerging economies (not yet including South Africa) that he anticipated would drive future global growth. The leaders of those rising powers saw the concept as a platform from which to trumpet the arrival of a multipolar world and champion commensurate reforms to an outdated and exclusionary multilateral system, including to the governance of the international financial institutions. The first summit occurred in Russia in 2009, and South Africa joined a year later.

The BRICS bloc has recorded some modest accomplishments. In 2015, the group established the New Development Bank as an alternative to the World Bank, though its financing pales in comparison to that of traditional multilateral development banks. The same year, the BRICS ratified the Contingent Reserve Arrangement as a small-scale substitute to International Monetary Fund lending during liquidity crises. Finally, the bloc has developed new mechanisms to facilitate trade and lending in local currencies, to reduce dependence on the U.S. dollar.

However, the BRICS coalition has a critical Achilles’ heel: its heterogeneity. The group’s members include three dynamic (if imperfect) democracies—Brazil, India, and South Africa—alongside authoritarian China and Russia. While the former maintain a posture of nonalignment and neutrality, the latter assert a rigid anti-Western stance. In addition, China and India are strategic rivals, engaged in a battle for influence in the Indian Ocean region and a precarious military standoff in the Himalayas. BRICS members are also at loggerheads over the most contentious issue of global governance reform: UN Security Council enlargement. While Brazil, India, and South Africa aspire to permanent seats with veto power, China and Russia unalterably oppose additional permanent members.

The 2023 summit illuminated the extent and limits of BRICS solidarity. Out of deference to Russia and China, the three other members reiterated their neutrality in the Ukraine war and refused to acknowledge Russian aggression. Divisions flared, however, regarding coalition expansion, with Brazil, India, and South Africa resisting China’s desire to transform the bloc into an anti-Western competitor to the G20. Beijing ultimately steamrolled their opposition, not only imposing expansion but also ensuring that Iran, America’s nemesis, was invited to join alongside Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Presuming this expansion occurs, it will shift the group’s ratio of authoritarian to democratic powers from two-to-three to seven-to-four.

With as many as forty other nations reportedly interested in membership, the ranks of the BRICS+ seem primed to swell further. Any continued growth, though, will likely come at the expense of coherence. (It is hard to imagine Iran and Saudia Arabia, for instance, finding common ground on many issues besides fossil fuels.) This points to a central dilemma of coalitional multilateralism: there is often pressure to add more members to increase heft and perceived legitimacy, yet doing so increases the prospect that national preferences will diverge and bilateral tensions will emerge, complicating joint policy initiatives.   

The Changing Dynamics of the G20

Managing such pluralism has likewise hamstrung the effectiveness of the G20, another apparent alternative to the UN. Established during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the G20 became a leader-level forum amid the global financial crisis in November 2008. In late 2009, its members declared the G20—which boasted two-thirds of the world’s population and more than 80 percent of its trade and economic activity—to be the “premier forum” for global economic coordination. Given shifts in economic power, the G7 could no longer manage the world economy alone, and global economic governance would demand marshalling the will and resources of the emerging economies as well.  

Performing admirably in its initial phase, the G20 seemed poised to evolve from a crisis committee to a steering committee. But as the financial crisis eased, national interests and sovereign sensibilities reasserted themselves. Collective action fell prey to geopolitical tensions, particularly between the United States and China. When the coronavirus pandemic erupted, the G20 was missing in action.

Today, the G20 offers a microcosm of the world’s heterogeneity, albeit with a growing tilt toward the developing world. India is the second of four consecutive emerging economies to hold the presidency, succeeding Indonesia and preceding Brazil and then South Africa. During his yearlong chairmanship, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has portrayed his country as the natural leader of the Global South, a label denoting a broad cohort of perhaps 130 postcolonial and developing countries that are underrepresented in the existing global governance architecture. In January, he hosted a Global South Summit, calling for a more equitable and inclusive world economy.

Building on this momentum, Modi took advantage of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence from the recent G20 summit to portray India as the only power capable of serving as a bridge-builder between the East and West, the North and South. He also helped engineer the admission of the AU as a member of the G20, on a par with the EU. Xi’s absence also empowered Biden to present the United States as a supporter of balanced and transparent global development.

Emblematic of the G20’s current divisions was the statement on Russia’s war in Ukraine in its 2023 summit declaration. While the document reiterated the principle of territorial integrity, it did not mention Russia, reflecting not only opposition from Moscow and Beijing but also the sensitivities of Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, which sought conciliatory language consistent with nonalignment.

The Enduring Value of the UN

The UN’s critics have long suggested that it needed “a little competition,” and their wish has been granted. However, in the face of this institutional ferment and experimentation, it is easy to overlook the inherent advantages the UN retains in the field of international cooperation, by dint of its universal membership, legally binding charter, monopoly on the authorization of armed force, and dozens of specialized agencies and programs involved in matters as diverse as humanitarian relief, peace operations, global health, and weapons inspections. There is simply no other entity capable of playing this combination of roles.

Exclusive coalitions and minilateral frameworks have distinct benefits. They allow smaller subsets of nations to advance common agendas. At times, they move with greater flexibility and dispatch than do larger treaty-based organizations, which are often encumbered by outdated rules, complex procedures, and encrusted bloc dynamics. They have become a prominent feature of the global landscape and will endure and likely proliferate in this age of global division.

At the same time, policymakers cannot assume that these entities can substitute for the UN. The world needs a universal body in which all sovereign nations can debate, seek common ground, and devise collective solutions to problems that affect all the planet’s inhabitants and cannot be resolved by any subset of countries. Multilateralism à la carte has its uses, but so does multilateralism à la Charte (that is, governed by the UN Charter).

Sustaining the use of a universal body also ensures that developing countries have adequate opportunities to have their voices heard. The world’s fissures run not only East-West but, increasingly, North-South. Anger is rising in many lower- and middle-income countries whose citizens see the wealthy world as indifferent to their plight, including soaring debt burdens, stalled development, urgent health needs, and exposure to runaway climate change.  

The UN—and especially its General Assembly—is a rare multilateral venue where developing countries constitute a majority and can engage great powers on the basis of sovereign equality. It is also the principal forum for these nations to translate their numerical advantage into concrete action. A dramatic example was the General Assembly’s passage, in April 2022, of a historic resolution, which insisted that whenever a Security Council member casts a veto, it must justify its actions before the assembly.

While unequal power dynamics pervade world politics, the UN is still better placed than exclusive arrangements to advance the agendas and interests of the comparatively powerless. Last week was a case in point. While the Security Council remained paralyzed by divisions among the veto-wielding permanent members, UN member states held special sessions on priority objectives for lower- and middle-income countries, including restoring momentum for the Sustainable Development Goals, delivering on emissions reductions and climate adaptation finance, and improving health security in poor countries. There is one thing on which all the world’s major powers—whether Western, Eastern, and emerging—can agree. If they hope to influence the nations of the so-called Global South, as our Carnegie colleague Minh-Thu Pham notes, “they need to go where those countries are, and that’s the UN.”