How to Revive Multilateralism in a Multipolar World
Multilateralism is not a magic wand. However, it can mitigate the power differences that exist between states by binding them by common rules. That is why Europe and the vast majority of states worldwide endorse it.
Now, multilateral rules do not fall from the sky. They reflect a state of play and very often the preferences of the most powerful. If, for example, we want to win the battle of the European Green Deal, we will have to put in place a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), which is indispensable but also controversial. Indispensable because without CBAM we will face carbon leakage and comparative disadvantage for our industries. Controversial because many countries see it as a protectionist mechanism, which it is not. Therefore, it must be WTO-compliant. We must build strong alliances with like-minded states and convince the most reluctant of them to join us in this endeavour.
We need to think in terms of balance of power while advancing our interests. We are a principled Union, but principles alone are not enough to make a policy and even less a successful policy. This is the main lesson we need to draw from the current global scene where power politics is on the rise.
The second reason for the crisis of multilateralism is that the liberal values of 1945 are on the defensive in our changing world. Alternative narratives challenge “the West” in every field, whether it be the economy, health, history, individual liberties or human rights. Russia, China and others see any discussion on human rights in their spheres of influence as an infringement on their sovereignty. While for the EU, human rights are universal values and a cornerstone of our foreign policy. If Russia now tries to bypass the Union and deal directly with member states, it is also because the EU matters and hinders Russian goals. In fact, and contrary to what is generally believed, there is no contradiction between playing power politics and promoting values. On the contrary, showing that you will not abandon your principles is a sign of strength.
The foundation of multilateralism in 1945 and its resurgence after 1989 were not exclusively Western, but resolutely liberal. In this multilateral and rules-based order, we the Europeans were comfortable because it essentially reflected our preferences and interests. In tomorrow’s world, the situation will be more difficult because there are competing claims and visions for how the international system should look like. The liberal voice is simply one voice among others. The states that challenge this view want to transform multilateralism from within and redefine it. They are investing in multilateral institutions to roll back this liberal vision.
In the face of this, Europe urgently needs to demonstrate the existence of a European point of view and forge alliances with like-minded states. In its conduct, it must be capable of forging issue-based coalitions, and being more assertive, more reactive and agile. For, once again, the balance of power does not always work in our favour. Europe defends a diversity of points of view and has no hegemonic ambitions. At the same time, it must ensure that this does not lead to a generalized relativism in which everyone does what they want within their own borders. That is why our commitment in international organisations such as the Human Rights Council is very important.
There is a third reason for our work on becoming a political pole in a multipolar world. It is the need for us to defend our priorities on how to shape the multilateral system. On this, we have three objectives: to consolidate what works, to reform what no longer works well and to extend the scope of multilateralism to new areas. That is the main message of the new strategy on multilateralism recently endorsed by the Commission and by me as High Representative. It offers concrete ideas on how the EU intends to revitalise and modernise the rules-based international system, in key priority areas; from trade and investment to health, climate change or rules on emerging new technologies. The strategy highlights the commitment to invest in creative partnerships, not least with regional organisations like the African Union, ASEAN and others, to strengthen collectively the UN and other multilateral fora.
Indeed, the challenge is not so much to change international rules, but to ensure their implementation. We can no longer be content, for example, to defend the WTO without modernising its procedures, particularly with regard to state subsidies. Finally, there are new subjects such as digitalisation or artificial intelligence where we urgently need to define new global standards. We need to be in a position of strength to do this. In addition, to achieve this, we need to define a common position, develop arguments and build alliances.
All this is to say that we are not obliged to choose between multipolarity, which is a given, and multilateralism, which is an ambition. Accepting multipolarity means facing the reality of a world that is diverse, and also fractured and conflictual. To defend multilateralism is to reject fatalistic viewpoints and rally around our strengths and our partners to make the global game more fluid, while always bearing in mind the interests of Europe and the values that underpin them.
The author is High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission.