Thursday June 30, 2022

Pitfalls of unilateralism

May 01, 2021

Unilateralism is an approach in international relations in which some states act with total disregard to the interests of other states, even in violation of the prevalent international law.

The word ‘unilateralism’ was first used in 1926 in the context of unilateral disarmament. However, in 1964 this concept emerged against the term ‘multilateralism’.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the First World War kicked off in which 17 million people lost their lives. The League of Nations was then founded – a real step towards multilateralism. However, in the late 30s of the last century when Hitler started committing unprovoked unilateral aggression against European neighbours, the flames of the Second World War engulfed the entire globe in which many millions lost their lives.

US President Franklin Roosevelt, fearing the occupation of entire Europe including Britain, immediately ordered research work in 1939 for the development of nuclear weapons. The first trial explosion was done in New Mexico in July 1945 and within three weeks two nuclear bombs were dropped – one each on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan was thus forced to surrender, and this is how the Second World War abruptly saw its end.

In order to ensure international peace, the United Nations was founded in 1948. This again showed the entire world’s belief in multilateralism. However US unilateral development and use of nuclear bombs encouraged other nations to follow suit. Resultantly today seven nations, including India and Pakistan, are declared nuclear powers, and two more, Israel and North Korea, have covert nuclear development plans and reportedly both possess nuclear weapons.

In addition to the establishment of the UN, the creation of the World Bank, IMF, WTO, WHO, GATT and the International Court of Justice etc were steps to promote multilateralism.

However, unfortunately the seeds for the promotion of unilateralism were sown right in the foundation of the UN when veto powers were given to only five countries. As a result, solutions for important international issues like Kashmir and Palestine could not see the light of day and these disputes have now emerged as very dangerous nuclear flashpoints. Besides, international monetary institutions and important domains like the ICJ are fully dominated by Western countries who are their main financers.

The end of the cold war further boosted unilateral actions by the US. Its involvement in the Vietnam war and the Korean conflict, its attack on Afghanistan, the launch of the Gulf wars and its attack on Libya and Syria are the worst examples of unilateralism. With complete disrespect to international norms and diplomatic ethics, former US president Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, Trans-Pacific Trade pact and even from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in April 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries and the EU.

The JCPOA binds Iran to redesign, convert and reduce its nuclear facilities and accept additional protocols in order to get rid of all nuclear related sanctions slammed by the US. This will enable Iran to not only get back billions of dollars of its oil revenue released, which is presently confiscated, in the West and USA, but also enable Iran to reacquire its high value frozen assets.

Iran agreed to reduce its uranium enrichment capacity by curtailing R&D on centrifuges, redesigning the Heavy Water Research Reactor and closing its enrichment facility at Fordo for 15 years. Besides, they allowed the IAEA access for necessary inspections and checks. It may be noted that American sanctions against Iran also adversely affected energy-starved Pakistan as it could neither utilise electricity and gas available at its doorstep nor promote bilateral trade as even bank transactions are banned. China is also a victim of Trump’s unilateralism.

Joe Biden’s leaning towards multilateralism is welcome news. It is hoped that the US will respect international law, global pacts and established norms. It is also expected that United the US will now follow Article 2 (1) of the UN Charter which lays stress “On the principles of sovereign equality of all numbers”.

The writer is chairman Senate Standing Committee on Defence Production.