Foreign Minister Maas speaks before the UN General Assembly, which this year was largely conducted virtually. The United Nations, but also the European Union, are important pillars of a German strategy of multilateralism. | UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Support for multilateralism is not enough — a clearly defined focus and strategy is a must

The purpose of any German strategy of multilateralism must be to invest in the multilateral system and foster robust international organizations which strengthen the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy, and to prioritize the implementation of existing international regulations over the development of new sets of regulations.

Multilateralism is in a state of crisis. Support for international institutions, norms, and processes looks to be diminishing, as does compliance with the regulations such institutions impose on state actors. As a result, multilateralism or, more precisely, the multilateral international system with all its international institutions and norms, has come under pressure — as much from within as from outside. This pressure is not just being exerted by ‘rogue states’ like China, Iran or North Korea. From within the system, too, we are seeing waning support from countries such as the US, with institutions like the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body being blocked and others, such as the WHO or the EU, being abandoned altogether.

As a strategic reflection on what is one of the key principles of German foreign policy, the White Paper on Multilateralism, is urgently needed as German foreign policy cannot save the multilateral system single handedly. Moreover, it is not sufficiently clear which parts of this system need, or indeed are worth saving, and how one would even go about it.

In light of the escalating superpower rivalry between China, Russia, and the US and increased non-compliance with regulations imposed by international institutions, Germany’s main objective must be to identify those areas where multilateralism is important for the country and to take targeted action to strengthen it in these specific areas. This is a two-pronged approach: First, it involves identifying specific problems that can only be addressed multilaterally. And second, it entails revitalizing international organizations as a matter of principle, even if this means facing partners with conflicting positions in key areas.

Multilateralism is intended to resolve problems and build trust

Multilateralism is not an end in itself; it plays a very specific role in international politics, serving to bring about more effective solutions in areas of conflict, if not paving the way for solutions in the first place. On the other hand, multilateralism civilizes international relations across the board thanks to the knock-on effect of positive experiences and the development of trust in the context of concrete cooperation on the establishment of multilateral regulations and institutions.

Consequently, a crumbling multilateral system will not only make it more difficult to achieve positive outcomes and solve problems when addressing today’s challenges in international politics, whether that be combatting terrorism, mitigating climate change, or in the area of healthcare. A failing multilateral system also impacts the stability of the entire international system owing to the unpredictability of the behavior of individual states within a system characterized not by common rules, but rather by ad hoc decisions and shifting alliances. This would be an unfavorable scenario for Germany, which, as a middle power, benefits from a rules-based international order.

In order to prevent this scenario from becoming reality, we require a multilateral system with flexible scope and obligations which does not overtax Germany’s resources. The key components of the strategy needed to achieve such a system are highlighted below. First, it must comprise investing in the multilateral system as an entire system in order to mobilize support and strengthen what is the mainstay of all forms of multilateralism — strong international organizations. The second part of the strategy is to identify specific sets of regulations which are in German foreign policy interests and are compatible with its core issues. Third, implementation must take precedence over innovation, as the main challenge right now is not the development of new sets of regulations but rather working with partners to ensure the existing regulations are resilient in the event of a crisis.

(1)  Multilateralism needs a strong multilateral system

Many proponents of multilateralism are hoping, at least privately, for the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to win the upcoming US presidential elections. But this might be false hope: the USA’s indifference toward multilateral institutions did not begin with Trump, and it will most certainly continue once he is gone. Germany should therefore not rely on the US leadership to save multilateralism. As important as the transatlantic partnership is and will continue to be for Germany, Biden’s Plan for Restoring American Leadership is neither a German nor a European plan. His campaign team’s idea to host a global Summit for Democracy suggests that they intend to practice the kind of selective multilateralism which, ever since the experience of ‘liberal’ global governance in the 2000s, has been discredited internationally. In the foreseeable future, the international system is not going to be based on democratic principles. In light of this, what is needed is a multilateralism for all. And Germany’s Alliance for Multilateralism has given us an idea of what form this might take. The German government would be well placed to build on this and hold a Global Summit for Multilateralism during its EU Presidency.

A multilateral system for all also means bolstering the international organizations that are its backbone. A multilateral system cannot function without effective international organizations. First and foremost, this includes the United Nations (UN), an organization in dire need of strengthening, particularly, though not only, in terms of its primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security. Germany can assist this process for instance by significantly increasing the non-program bound share of its voluntary contributions to multilateral organizations, thus boosting the UN’s core budget resources. While UN Secretary-General António Guterres recommends at least 30 percent, Germany’s share is currently as low as nine percent. Additionally, the German Government should strengthen partnerships between the United Nations and regional organizations, particularly the African Union. This is vital both with regard to financing missions and the targeted expansion of civilian crisis prevention, especially in light of the fact that more than 50 percent of violent conflict in the world today and over 50 percent of UN missions continue to happen in the African continent.

(2) Identifying key institutions and sets of regulations: Germany’s future is in Europe.

Also instrumental in Germany’s multilateralism strategy is the identification of the sets of regulations and institutions that are central to the pursuit of Germany’s interests. From a German perspective, this is primarily European institutions: in terms of peace and security in the narrowest sense, this would include the continued development of the European Security and Defence Union in close collaboration with NATO with a view to increasing Germany’s independence from the superpowers, as well as reviving the security architecture on the European continent. This will only be possible by entering into talks with Russia, during which Germany must continue to demand that the inviolability of borders be respected but at the same time we have to signal our willingness to renegotiate mutual relations for the future. This could also include disengagement. Ultimately, the aim must be to overhaul and update the NATO-Russia Founding Act, something that can only be achieved incrementally but, given the desperate situation in many areas, from arms control to the conflict in Syria, every step is momentous, regardless of how small.

Beyond this narrow understanding of peace and security, with a view to strengthening the European Union, a  focus should be on curbing China’s attempts to exert influence within the Union (keyword: EU 17+1) and on bolstering the common rules and norms. One way of doing this is to use Corona investment packages, although if they are to have any impact on the Member States, any such packages must be conditional on the recipient country pursuing economic policy that is geared towards fighting climate change as well as respecting the principles of the rule of law. Within the EU, what is also needed is strategic discourse about the limits Member States would like to see in place regarding the role played by China (and Russia, see above) and what strategic resources they have to acquire or defend in order to be able to achieve this. Fostering this strategic dialogue should be a necessary part of any multilateralism strategy proposed by the German government.

(3) Implementation of existing regulations must come first

While many of today’s challenges call for new regulations, implementing those that are already in place is more pressing. One of the main symptoms of the current crisis is not a lack of multilateral rules, but rather the fact that an increasingly small number of states feel bound to those rules. This is particularly evident when it comes to international humanitarian law. In order to address this problem, breaches of international law must be openly and publicly acknowledged as such. In fact, justifications in public discourse can go a long way towards restoring normative commitments. If non-compliance with normative standards is no longer openly denounced, the corresponding commitments are soon forgotten and will begin to erode. Research on norm conflicts clearly illustrates that the contestation of norms does not automatically weaken them, but in fact can even help increase their robustness because it incites actors to debate and scrutinize norms once again. The danger arises when there are no reactions to contestation or norm violations.

To be able to condemn an action, reliable information on norm violations are needed. For this reason, fact-finding missions addressing violations in international humanitarian law must be defended from the various attacks and attribution must be strengthened. To this end, the German government and the governments of like-minded states must seek to establish partnerships with civil society organizations and continue to take a systematic approach to making those partnerships stronger. These organizations are key partners for monitoring compliance and are also vital for local-level implementation of many regulations.

Multilateralism is not an end in itself; and nor can it be left to its own devices. It invariably relies on the support of those who the regulations apply to and from the organizations involved in the establishment, compliance, and continued development of those regulations. A comprehensive strategy must therefore provide for both: bolstering the system as a whole, on the one hand, and deploying the limited resources where they can be of most benefit, on the other.

Nicole Deitelhoff
Nicole Deitelhoff ist Geschäftsführendes Vorstandsmitglied der HSFK und Leiterin der Programmbereiche „Internationale Institutionen“ und „Transnationale Politik“. Sie forscht zu Kontestation und Krisen von Institutionen und Normen, politischer Herrschaft, Opposition und Dissidenz sowie Demokratie und Zusammenhalt. // Nicole Deitelhoff is Executive Director at PRIF and head of PRIF’s research departments “International Institutions” and “Transnational Politics”. She conducts research on contestation and crises of international institutions and norms, political order, opposition and dissidence, democracy and societal cohesion.

Nicole Deitelhoff

Nicole Deitelhoff ist Geschäftsführendes Vorstandsmitglied der HSFK und Leiterin der Programmbereiche „Internationale Institutionen“ und „Transnationale Politik“. Sie forscht zu Kontestation und Krisen von Institutionen und Normen, politischer Herrschaft, Opposition und Dissidenz sowie Demokratie und Zusammenhalt. // Nicole Deitelhoff is Executive Director at PRIF and head of PRIF’s research departments “International Institutions” and “Transnational Politics”. She conducts research on contestation and crises of international institutions and norms, political order, opposition and dissidence, democracy and societal cohesion.

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