A crisis or even the end of the liberal, multilateral world order is a frequently-heard diagnosis these days. In her interview with Nils Schmid, Member of Parliament for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), Vera Rogova asks about possible coping strategies, Chinese and Russian influence and Germany’s current and future role in international politics.
Vera Rogova: Many observers argue that the global order currently undergoes profound changes. New powers such as China are on the rise, while the multilateral, liberal system built by Western powers after the second World War seems to be in crisis. How do you assess these developments?
Nils Schmid: What we see today is certainly a stress test for the rule-based international order, especially as it is currently also questioned within the West. On the one hand, there are authoritarian and even totalitarian tendencies in Western democracies in the form of right-wing populism. On the other hand – and even more problematic – we now have the US president Donald Trump who actively promotes withdrawal from many international agreements. This tendency could actually already be observed before Trump’s presidency, as the US Senate showed less and less willingness to ratify international treaties. But Trump offensively questions the very sense of international cooperation and this has certainly created a new situation for us here in Germany.
This year’s topic of the Schlangenbad Talks is “A new world order”, and specifically Europe’s role in it. Let’s go one step further and talk about Germany’s role. Can Germany as a medium-sized power actively influence this new order or will it be confined to the role of a spectator, while it is China, the US and maybe also Russia that will set the tone?
Germany should shape these processes. The country enjoys a good reputation in the world, but it is also clear that we can only be successful in our foreign policy if we cooperate with our European partners. For example, this could be observed in the case of the Iran Agreement where Germany worked together with France, Great Britain and finally with all of the EU. It was this cooperation that made agreement possible. For Germany, it is crucial to strengthen cooperation within the EU, especially in foreign policy and security issues, and to increase European sovereignty and independence.
This does not only mean more investment in arms or military equipment, but above all a strong civilian foreign policy component. After all, Germany is especially experienced in fields such as crisis prevention and civilian crisis management. But this also means that we need to strengthen Europe’s independence in the spheres of economics and finance, for instance by increasing the Euro’s role in international financial markets.
You have stressed that German policy is always embedded in EU policy. But if we look back at the past few years, there are also many instances in which it was not at all easy to find a common position. One example are relations with Russia, where tensions within the EU repeatedly became visible. What is Germany’s strategy in dealing with such tensions and how can it maybe contribute to more unity within the EU?
Well, it is actually the field of foreign policy where the EU has demonstrated much more unity and stronger cooperation than many observers would have expected. Speaking of Russia, we have always managed to negotiate a common position, despite the fact that maybe there were differing views to begin with. This is why European sanctions are still in place, five years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We have a common position vis a vis Iran. We have a common position concerning Brexit, that is in the Brexit negotiations. Now it is time to learn from these experiences and move one step further, for example by introducing majority decisions in EU foreign policy which would allow us to speed up decision making and thus strengthen our position on the international stage. Germany plays a special role in these efforts.
Together with France, we ofttimes take the lead in taking action on the basis of a common European position. But Germany also has a special obligation to build bridges towards our European partners in Central and Eastern Europe. I have to say that in the past ten years we could have done more to take into account the interests and positions of these countries, for example in the issue of migration. This is why it is very important now to pay more attention to the different positions within the EU. In the past years, we were very preoccupied with the Euro and the Eurozone crisis, but about one third of EU members are not even part of the Euro so far and thus are not touched by these issues. So it will be our obligation to stronger include their security-related or economic agendas and work towards more unity within the EU.
You have already mentioned that the US as one of the founding states of the current liberal, multilateral world order increasingly gives up on this idea and pursues a unilateral, interest-based policy instead. At the same time, there are Russia and China who have criticized this global order for years, arguing that in the end the pursuit of interests by sovereign states is the most efficient way of ordering international relations. Now if we look at the current crisis of multilateralism – have Russia and China been right?
No. In the US, there is still strong support for multilateralism and international cooperation, if we look at political actors outside the White House, for instance within the Congress. We should not let us be deceived by Trump und his administration. In the case of Russia, yes, it does pursue its own interests even against international law. Here, it is important to make clear for the Russian governments that the country’s future role and position in the world will largely depend on its ability and willingness to participate in and respect international agreements. And we also see at least some positive signs in this regard, if we think of Russia’s cooperativeness in the Iran agreement or the Climate Agreement.
For China, the situation is somewhat different. China is currently looking for its role in the international system and increasingly tries to influence existing global institutions, for example within the UN system, according to its own ideas and interests. It now sets an own agenda with concepts like the “harmonious world”, which is not necessarily conflictual. China is also strengthening its engagement within own, regional multilateral institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank AIIB or the Belt and Road Initiative. Here, we have to make sure that these organizations and projects are in accord to existing rules and standards, such as social or ecological standards. So we should try to engage China, but at the same time to stand up for our principles and positions.
One year ago, the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, together with France, Japan, and Canada, among others, suggested an “Alliance for Multilateralism”. But so far, we have seen hardly any concrete results. Is there anything to expect?
Well, recently, there has been a first formal meeting within the UN. And its participants actually emphasized that the initiative is not about creating any parallel institutional structures but strengthening existing formats, first and foremost the UN. These existing institutions can and should be used to meet new challenges such as proliferation of new types of weapons, such as the field of cyber warfare, or climate change. It is wrong to think that multilateralism can only be strengthened by creating another institution. The most important goal is to make sure that existing multilateral formats and instruments do not lose their power
One last question. The Schlangenbad Talks are a forum where experts from academia meet with politicians to discuss current challenges. You as a politician working on foreign policy, what do you expect and wish from the German political science community?
I think that the Schlangenbad Talks as a forum are very important to enable dialogue between practitioners and academia, especially because they are also a bilateral, or even multilateral format. What I would like to see from academia are analytical studies, but also strategies for action. After all, it is not enough to diagnose a crisis – we have to find ways to actively deal with it.
The interview was conducted by Vera Rogova.