Which future for multilateralism?

Multilateralism is increasingly contested. On which core principles could it be rebuilt in order to resolve key global challenges such as migration, climate, armed conflict and poverty?

The GLOBUS and Egmont Institute policy dialogue on 29 November 2019 addressed perspectives on multilateralism from the EU, Russia, India, China, Brazil, South Africa and the United States.

The EU is often considered a vanguard of a law based, liberal world order. The Common Foreign and Security Policy gained strength in parallel with the consolidation of this order after the end of the Cold War. But is the liberal order legitimate? Aiming to identify what might be viable reforms to the global order and the multilateral system, the GLOBUS and Egmont Institute policy dialogue on 29 November 2019 addressed perspectives from the EU, Russia, India, China, Brazil, South Africa and the United States.

Reform, but not overturn the multilateral order

The first panel of the day was dedicated to perspectives on multilateralism from South Africa, Brazil and India. Philani Mthembu of the Institute for Global Dialogue in Pretoria underlined the importance of multilateralism to South African foreign policy and to the BRICS association in general. He further argued that although the BRICS countries would like reform of the multilateral order, they do not want to overturn a system that they have benefited from. The BRICS association has come a long way since its creation, stated Mthembu, underlining initiatives such as the New Development Bank and the support for plurality in the world order.

Philani Mthembu said that  we need to think about civil society's role in multilateralism.

He also suggested that there is a need to think more systematically about how to involve other actors than states in the multilateral system, underlining that we need to think more about how civil society can be included.

Farnanda Magnotta, from the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado in São Paulo, identified four different phases of Brazilian multilateralism, starting with the moderate multilateralism of President Fernando Cardoso (1995-2002), who focused on participation in traditional institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), but also criticised the global system for being asymmetric. Lula da Silva (2003-2011) pushed for a stronger and more demanding multilateralism, focusing on the defense of sovereignty and equality between countries. Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) practiced a more discrete and functionalist approach to multilateralism, while Michel Temer (2016-2018) had a strategic approach, trying to reshape Brazil’s image after the former president’s impeachment.

During the present regime of President Jair Bolsonaro, however, there is, according to Magnotta, a radical change. The regime has taken a sovereignty-oriented and anti-globalist approach, where multilateralism is viewed as the enemy.

Different forms of Indian multilateralism

Shisbashis Chatterjee from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India, emphasised that India’s identity is anchored in multilateralism, but also underlined that Indian multilateralism takes many different forms. He thus suggested to distinguish particularly between regional, sub-regional and extra-regional multilateralism. He pointed to the colonial past of India, as well as domestic politics, as two important factors in understanding its approach to multilateralism, and in particular its emphasis on external sovereignty.

Lack of trust between the West and Russia

Sergey Utkin from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), opened the second panel of the day, which analysed the perspectives of Russia, China and the United States. Utkin emphasised that Russia and the West disagrees on the nature of multilateralism, which, he argued, is a result of the mutual lack of trust between them. The Western argument of a ‘rules based order’ is criticised by Russian officials, as the rules are often perceived to be the those of the EU and NATO, rather than the UN.

Multilateralism with Chinese characteristics

Kenneth Chan, from Hong Kong Baptist University, presented an analysis of the Chinese approach to multilateralism. He explained that according to Beijing, the current multilateral order is Eurocentric and needs to be ‘democratised’. The West projecting human rights and democracy as universal values is imperialism in disguise, according to the Chinese government.

Chan further said that the Chinese view of global justice, norms, values and opinions diverge from those that are currently underpinning the multilateral system.  The priority of the Chinese government is national security and the economy, as well as keeping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power. The political liberalisation that the West is pushing, threatens the entire regime’s integrity. 

Chinese view of global justice, norms, values and opinions diverge from those that are currently underpinning the multilateral system.

Meanwhile, the West has to think about where to go from here. A less Eurocentric multilateral order could facilitate agreement and thus lead to higher effectiveness. However, this type of ‘de-centering’ could also provide a free-ride for autocrats around the world.

American isolationism

Nicolas Bouchet from the German Marshal Fund in Berlin, presented a historical overview of the American approach to multilateralism, highlighting in particular the tensions between unilateralism and multilateralism. He stressed that the multilateral system that the US helped build after World War II was highly contested domestically, and suggested that Trump’s recent isolationist policies should be understood as a more extreme version of the unilateralist historical American opinion.

Lessons for the EU

In the last panel, the speakers discussed what lessons might be drawn for the EU. Giovanni Grevi from the European Policy Centre, argued that the EU needs to adjust its approach to multilateralism and differentiate in its engagement with actors according to their specific assets. Alexandros Yannis from the European Union External Action Service spoke of the EU’s ambition to move beyond power politics. He further emphasised the importance of such a move in the context of globalisation and integration. Pointing to the example of climate change, he argued that cooperation through multilateral institutions is required in order to resolve global challenges.

GLOBUS coordinator Helene Sjursen highlighted the centrality of multilateralism for the EU’s foreign policy and asked if it is possible for the EU to be a global actor in a world a world without multilateralism.

She further discussed what kind of multilateralism the EU represents, underlining its many ambiguities and contradictions. Based on GLOBUS’ research, Sjursen suggested that the EU might consider an approach that is more sensitive to context with an aim to facilitate a sense of local ownership. However, there are also risks to a context sensitive approach to multilateralism. One has to consider how far context sensitivity can be stretched without giving up core principles.

The EU might consider an approach that is more sensitive to context with an aim to facilitate a sense of local ownership.

Finally, Ben Tonra, Professor at University College Dublin, wrapped up the event by highlighting three key lessons. First, it was evident from the discussions that history matters for the different approaches to multilateralism. Second, Tonra pointed to the need for the EU to reflect on its own history whether it is anxieties from a colonial past or internal disagreements. Thirdly, he concluded that Europe needs to make its own strategic pivot based on its core values.

The EU will never be a strategic geopolitical actor in the way that nation states are. Rather, he argued, the EU should be true to its own core values, interests and nature.


Written by:

Ragnhild Grønning, Research Adviser, ARENA Centre for European Studies

By Ragnhild Grønning
Published Dec. 5, 2019 10:43 AM - Last modified Jan. 27, 2020 11:10 AM