The United Nations turns seventy-five years old at a time when the old, post–World War II multilateral order—for which it is a critical anchor—is facing strong challenges from multiple directions. The pillars of global governance are undergoing rapid transformation, institutional infirmities are being revealed, and a normative shift is becoming increasingly palpable. The stakes could not be higher for India, which aims to shape rules in the international system and not merely be a follower.
In the eyes of the rest of the world, India’s pursuit of permanent membership on the UN Security Council is evidence of its global ambitions. That is only part of the story, however. It is equally important for New Delhi that global institutions better reflect contemporary global realities. The security dynamics in the immediate aftermath of World War II focused on managing a divided Europe and safeguarding its peripheries from the Soviet bloc. Today, the Indo-Pacific is driving the global economic and political agenda. Global institutional frameworks should reflect this shift, especially when a weakening United Nations is leading to a proliferation of self-selected groups—the so-called plurilateral and minilateral forums. These coalitions of the willing are viewed as more effective and efficient ways of dealing with not only traditional security issues but also nontraditional ones, such as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Definitions of security have changed considerably; the Security Council has yet to adapt to the new reality. Failure of the UN system to rise to the occasion during the COVID-19 crisis will have significant bearing on its global influence.
The issue of UN reform is also linked with that of ensuring proper resourcing. Discussing reforms without making provisions for adequate resources will lead nowhere; the flip side is that channeling more resources in the absence of genuine reforms only perpetuates the status quo. While some countries have gradually deemphasized the United Nations in favor of new frameworks to address their most pressing challenges, others have been gaming the UN system to further their narrow interests. For example, the danger in having UN officials and agencies champion China’s Belt and Road Initiative is immense.
These and other challenges are mounting. For India, as with many other states, the status quo is no longer a viable option. If UN reforms fail, New Delhi’s approach to the United Nations could significantly alter in the coming years as India would feel it necessary to look elsewhere for solutions. And India wouldn’t be the only country doing so.
This commentary originally appeared in Council on Foreign Relations.