Building multilateralism for the 21st Century
We live in a world that is increasingly multipolar and less and less multilateral. But, what is multilateralism? Multilateralism is essentially a set of rules and methods that international actors (states, companies, civil society) agree to follow and implement on the basis of shared principles that are binding on all. Whether you are strong or weak, the rules are, at least in principle, binding on all. Multilateralism reflects a preference for norms over force. And it is in this that it speaks a great deal to Europe.
But to support this rules-based international ‘system’ is not just an article of faith for the EU. It stems from the factual observation that multilateralism has coincided with the longest period of global peace, stability and human development. The multilateral system has been a global public good benefitting all countries, including the EU. We do not want to live in a world of ‘might makes right’, but one where strong institutions, agreed rules and international law ‘tame the savageness of man’ and form the basis for global cooperation.
"We see a gridlocked UN Security Council, a contested WHO and WTO and few outcomes in the G20. But as EU, we want and indeed need all these organisations to succeed."
In recent years, this vision has been challenged, because of great power rivalry, competitive nationalism and populism. In the main multilateral organisations, we see a lot of vetoes and national point scoring instead of a search for common ground. The results are a gridlocked UN Security Council, a contested WHO and WTO and few outcomes in the G20. But as EU, we want and indeed need all these organisations to succeed.
The timing for this erosion of multilateralism is particularly bad. Right now, the world is facing two overriding challenges that cry out for collaborative, multilateral approaches: to end the pandemic and address the climate crisis. But, supply has not kept up with demand. Fortunately, the start of the Biden administration has indicated a welcome shift in tone and substance, but it should not reduce the imperative for the EU to set out what we can do to ‘make multilateralism fit for purpose’.
The twin horizontal priorities for the EU’s foreign policy in 2021 are to develop our strategic autonomy, of which we have spoken a lot, and to revitalise multilateralism. These are sometimes and mistakenly seen as conflicting priorities. However, they are actually flip sides of the same coin: we want to operate multilaterally whenever we can and autonomously only when we must. This is the political backdrop for the unveiling of a new proposal, what we call a Joint Communication by the European Commission and me as High Representative, on strengthening the EU’s contribution to rules-based multilateralism.
"We will work to uphold what works, reform what needs to change and extend global governance to new areas."
When discussing multilateralism, the diagnosis is the easy part. There is widespread agreement on the nature of the problem. Equally, just repeating the mantra, calling for multilateralism and preaching support is quite easy. The real question is what treatment to prescribe and, more specifically, what we as EU can and should do. Our answer is that we want to leverage the EU’s collective strength, deepen partnerships and alliances and strengthen consistency between EU internal and external policies. Overall, we will work to uphold what works, reform what needs to change and extend global governance to new areas.
"We need the whole world vaccinated and not just ourselves and our neighbours. And we must vaccinate faster than the virus mutates."
The Joint Communication lists many areas where the EU wants to do more, differently and better. Let me focus here on a few key ‘clusters’. First, the pandemic is still the most pressing challenge on the agenda. It may sound like a cliché, but it remains true that a global crisis demands global cooperation. This also applies to the issue that now tops everybody’s agenda: the roll out of vaccines. We need the whole world vaccinated and not just ourselves and our neighbours. And we must vaccinate faster than the virus mutates, as new strains of the virus can spread among unprotected populations and mutate further. This is why the EU is supporting the WHO’s work, including by being the biggest donor to the COVAX facility and building on our Team Europe effort to support partners’ capacities to handle the health crisis. We are also keen to strengthen the WHO, giving it the authority, tools and resources it needs to succeed in handling this and future pandemics.
Beyond the health crisis, we must stay fully mobilised to ‘build forward better’. We are determined to work for a more sustainable and inclusive economic model: more respectful of nature and the ecological boundaries and without growing inequalities within and between countries. This post-pandemic recovery must be transformative. To do so, we count on all G20 countries to implement debt relief and work on new resources for development finance.
"On the climate crisis, everyone must do more on all fronts: mitigation, climate finance, technology, bringing together governments, industry, scientists and others. It is a giant test for ‘multilateralism 2.0’."
Second, climate change remains an existential threat to the entire world. The scientific consensus is clear and the warning signs are obvious. The Paris Agreement remains a great example of successful multilateralism, but collectively we are not doing nearly enough to achieve its goal of keeping the global temperature rise to below 1,5-2 degrees. So we need a step change ahead of the COP26 Glasgow Summit to a net zero pathway for all major emitters. This in turn requires everyone to do more on all fronts: mitigation, climate finance, technology, bringing together governments, industry, scientists and others. It is a giant test for ‘multilateralism 2.0’.
"As EU, we want to develop digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, in a human-centric way, based on human rights and the rule of law."
A third area where we need new and effective multilateral solutions is the digital world. It is a vital domain where technological change has outpaced our capacity to define and implement common rules. There are competing models at play and a battle of standards is underway, with fundamentally different assumptions about digital rights and freedoms and about who owns whose data. As EU, we want to develop digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, in a human-centric way, based on human rights and the rule of law. The key point here is not to focus on EU-only solutions, but on working with partners to set ambitious standards and rules. This agenda should also include joint work on digital taxation, data protection and privacy, disinformation, 5G, internet governance, cybersecurity, digital finance including payments and cryptocurrencies, and e-government where current rules are insufficient.
The fourth and final cluster I want to mention is peace and security. Whether it is the Iran nuclear deal, UN peacekeeping, joint efforts to strengthen maritime security, or combat non-proliferation and terrorism, we must push for output-focussed multilateral cooperation in the UN and other appropriate organisations. Whenever feasible, we should be ready to shoulder greater responsibilities to make security multilateralism work and build a more stable and peaceful world.
There are many proposals in the Joint Communication on how we can achieve our multilateral goals, including by adapting to the more transactional global context. We must be firm in our principles yet agile in how we apply them. But if there is one scarlet thread, it is the notion of strengthening partnerships, for we know that we cannot be multilateralist alone. This begins by supporting the UN and the reforms that Secretary General Guterres is pursuing. It extends to reinforcing values-based partnerships with the more like-minded and issue-based coalitions with the less like-minded to promote global goods like action on climate change, biodiversity and health.
And it very much includes working with regional organisations, those close to home, like the Council of Europe and the OSCE, as well as the African Union (AU), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Regional organisations are key building blocks in a world where reaching consensus among 193 countries is proving exceedingly difficult. We need to strengthen their role, including inside the UN system. To that end, we are proposing regular annual meetings of the heads of these regional organisations.
A more multipolar and unequal world needs agreed rules and strong institutions. The point of this paper is to put the spotlight on our multilateral commitments. To keep up the pressure, including on ourselves, to follow up and deliver. In short, to act. And this what we intend to do, with EU member states and our partners.
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