G20: difficult times for multilateralism

HR/VP Blog – Last week, the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bali has highlighted the different perspectives around the world when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences. We need to continue our efforts to convince our partners, while equally being sensitive to their needs.

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I have just returned from two intense days of “diplomatic speed-dating” around the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Indonesia. One of the advantages of such meetings is that one can meet many colleagues in a short period of time. So apart from participating at the plenary sessions, I also met my counterparts from China, India, and several other Latin American, Asian and African countries.

 

In abstract terms everybody agrees on defending principles such as territorial sovereignty and the non-use of force. However, this often looks different when it must become concrete, such as on the fallout from Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine.

 

The main takeaway is that in abstract terms everybody agrees on the need for multilateralism and defending principles such as territorial sovereignty and the non-use of force. However, this often looks different when it must become concrete, such as on the fallout from Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. The hard truth is that national interests often outweigh general commitments to bigger ideals.

Before elaborating on this, let me briefly summarise what I focused on during the ministerial sessions. During our first session centred on “Multilateralism”, there was widespread agreement that the multilateral system is under pressure like never before. There is a deficit in multilateralism, at a time when we need it, mostly due to the rise in power politics. And while we have witnessed this trend for some years, Russia’s war against Ukraine has taken these developments to a whole new level. This unprovoked war constitutes a blatant violation of international law, contravening the basic tenets of the UN Charter and endangering the global economic recovery. I stressed again that this is not “a European war” but an international conflict that concerns the whole world. In the face of aggression, no one can be neutral. No one can live safely in a world where the illegal use of force is normalised or tolerated.

 

There is a deficit in multilateralism, at a time when we need it, mostly due to the rise in power politics. And while we have witnessed this trend for some years, Russia’s war against Ukraine has taken these developments to a whole new level.

 

During the second session on “Addressing Food and Energy Security”, despite a broad agreement on the need to solve these twin crises, ministers disagreed on how to address this matter and who is responsible for the current (and upcoming) challenges. I stressed once more that, despite all the propaganda and lies coming from the Kremlin, this food crisis is not caused by the EU or the international sanctions. We do not target the agricultural sector in Russia, nor do we prohibit the imports of Russian agricultural goods or fertilizers, nor the payment of such products. It is Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine that is dramatically aggravating the food crisis.

 

Russia has invaded a breadbasket of the world, turning the shipping lanes of the Black Sea into a war zone. This is a deliberate attempt to use food as a weapon against the most vulnerable countries in the world, especially in Africa.

 

Russia has invaded a breadbasket of the world, turning the shipping lanes of the Black Sea into a war zone, while blocking 20 million tons of grain in Ukrainian storage facilities. This is a deliberate attempt to use food as a weapon against the most vulnerable countries in the world, especially in Africa. According to the UN, today, 1.2 billion people - one in six of the world’s population - are subject to a “perfect storm” because they are severely exposed to the combination of rising food prices, rising energy prices, and tightening financial conditions. In the energy sector, the real reasons for high prices and a tight market are artificial supply shortages, especially of gas, caused once more by Russia. Of course, we must act as the EU and as the international community to address the food and energy crises. However, the quickest solution remains in the hands of one man: President Putin, who has the power to stop his senseless war and avoid a global food and energy calamity.

A better understanding where different countries stand

Discussing these issues during the two sessions and my bilateral meetings gave me a better understanding where different countries stand. Indeed, in the March vote at the UN General Assembly, 140 states condemned the Russian aggression and no member of the G20, apart from the aggressor, opposed this resolution. But on how to move forward and on the consequences of the war, views differ sharply. The G7 and like-minded countries are united in condemning and sanctioning Russia and in trying to hold the regime accountable. But other countries, and we can speak here of the majority of the “Global South”, often take a different perspective.

In principle, everyone condemns the attack on a country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. But when it comes to naming the aggressor and stating who is responsible for the consequences, many are reticent for different reasons. Some are more concerned about the consequences of the war for themselves, rather than about who is responsible for these difficulties and how to end this war; others complain about “double standards” or simply want to preserve their good bilateral relationship with Russia. And many remain vague and not wanting to take sides, because this would jeopardise their geopolitical interests.

 

The global battle of narratives is in full swing and, for now, we are not winning. As the EU, we have to engage further to refute Russian lies and war propaganda. We also need to help in a concrete and visible way those who are most affected by Putin’s war. 

 

The global battle of narratives is in full swing and, for now, we are not winning. As the EU, we have to engage further to refute Russian lies and war propaganda, making it clear who is responsible for the aggression and hence its consequences. We also need to show solidarity with the victim, i.e. Ukraine, while helping in a concrete and visible way those who are most affected by the fallout of Putin’s dreadful war but that somehow look to Russia for help.

The course of the G20 Meeting itself was quite telling

The course of the G20 Meeting itself was quite telling. We are always serious about our multilateral engagement, and we show respect for the opinions of others. This was not the case of Russia. Foreign Minister Lavrov left the G20 Meeting right after his intervention in the first session. He did not even bother to listen to what others had to say. That decision tells you all you need to know about how much Russia really cares about multilateral fora. I hope that some G20 members that are sitting on the fence with respect to the war in Ukraine took good note.

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