as a Basis for Global Governance

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Christoph Herrmann, Bruno Simma and Rudolf Streinz (eds.)Trade Policy between Law, Diplomacy and ScholarshipEuropean Yearbook of International Economic Law10.1007/978-3-319-15690-3_7

Multilateralism as a Basis for Global Governance

Christian D Falkowski 

Former EU Ambassador, Member of the Board of Asko Europa Stiftung Saabrücken, Am Alten Berg 36, 64342 Seeheim-Jugenheim, Germany



Christian D Falkowski

The European Union and the Normative Multilateralism

The advent of the era of globalisation has increased considerably the call for global governance. The growing interdependence of states has underlined the need for common global actions, be it in the domain of economy, fight against poverty, climate change, energy or security against terrorism. Traditional power politics in the pursuit of narrowly defined national interests cannot keep up to meet future challenges. Strong regional and global institutions as well as transnational actors are universally regarded as the cornerstone of a future multipolar world order moving towards global governance and political interaction—a departure from state-centric understandings of world politics.

Closely linked to the emergence of global governance is the concept of multilateralism. Multilateralism is, however, not synonymous with “global governance”. Rather, multilateralism refers to a particular principle, a specific way to tackle global issues. Multilateralism stands for a way of behaviour between states and/or institutions. International political stability is to be achieved through the involvement of all the parties concerned and on the basis of jointly elaborated solutions to problems.

Multilateralism can be considered as the basis, essential for making global governance really work, and effective in addressing global challenges. The classic definition of multilateralism means the handling of transnational problems by three or more parties concerned on the basis of mutually agreed general principles of conduct. An important aspect of this “idea of standards” is that the “codes of conduct” take precedence over individual interests of the parties involved. By moving from limited interest-based behaviour towards more generally accepted principles, a growing confidence between the parties should evolve gradually.

The confidence of smaller states in the willingness of the more powerful ones to fully respect commonly agreed principles and standards is the essential aspect of the concept of multilateralism. In other words, the parties expect that the larger and more powerful states are willing to adhere to binding agreements indeed, accepting credible investigations and procedures to adjudicate any disagreements on the implementation of its multilateral commitments.

The importance of multilateralism to the European Union is obvious. Multilateralism is, so to speak, the organisational principle of European integration, or: European integration is a particular form of multilateralism. Multilateralism forms part of the European identity. As the building principle of European policy, multilateralism is based on the historical experience of Europe. The great European wars of modern times were mostly triggered by striving for hegemony, and have generally been terminated with the victory of the counter-power coalition.

American history and political awareness is significantly different. The United States have pursued with success a hegemonic policy in different periods of their history. From the beginnings of continental expansion to its present global power position, the “long march of the American Empire”1 has been considered, apart from a few exceptions such as the Vietnam War, as a success of hegemonic and imperial policy. This experience nourishes the “myths of imperial policy”2 and shapes until today the American view of history.

And because the positive experience with hegemonic policy is linked to a universalism of values progressing in the course of time, the American Empire feels itself justified by the idea that its policy is in the general interest of mankind. The US has also been in the position to enforce its global interests by appropriate means. The global control of digital data streams by the US for their own intelligence purposes is the latest example of successful power politics of the imperial republic.

However, the approach of the Union, determined by Europe’s experience of repeated failures of imperial policy (also of the colonial policy) and by the success of its “politics of an integrative balance of power”,3 is to pursue a policy of cooperative balance towards other countries, with the result that in particular the anti-imperial policy of the so-called old Europe has beneficial effects, and it has increased the diplomatic room for manoeuvre and the influence of the EU in the world. The recent success in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme has been achieved along these lines, supported by the negotiating skills of the Union representative. Another example is the Union’s approach to resolve the Ukrainian crisis through negotiations and not by force.

US critics such as Robert Kagan consider multilateralism as a “weapon of the weak”.4 Those who are in favour of multilateralism simply lack the power to enforce their concepts of how to go about global problems. No wonder that it is favoured by the smaller states. And the interest of Europe to promote global multilateralism is exactly a consequence of Europe’s “powerlessness”. As long as the global economy and policy are determined by interests and not by norms and common standards, multilateralism will have hardly any chance. This is quite obvious in the failure of the Doha Trade Round, the insufficient results of UN climate conferences or the persistent blockage of the long-overdue reform of the UN Security Council.

Emerging countries appear rather cautious towards multilateralism, as in their view, it is dominated mainly by Western interests and Western norms, and does not sufficiently include concepts of non-OECD countries. However, many of those states are indeed too weak to use the “weapon of the weak” by themselves. Multilateralism is far more than the interaction of a group of States. In a more limited sense, almost all international initiatives could be considered as multilateral. Multilateralism as a political concept is closely linked to legitimacy and has three basic aspects:

Firstly, multilateralism signifies the obligation to work with international institutions in their modus operandi. That means first and foremost to work within the UN framework, but it also requires working and sharing tasks with other regional organisations, especially with NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and with various regional organisations in Africa (AU), in Asia (ASEAN) and Latin America (OAS). The collaboration with these organisations does, however, not suggest that they are regarded as sacrosanct. The commitment to effective multilateralism is also a commitment to undertake necessary reforms of international organisations.

Secondly, multilateralism is also the commitment to shared norms and rules, and to solve problems and crises through rules and cooperation. The EU acting rather as a promoter of international standards than as a superpower, is less threatening for non-European States and offers a reference and starting point to round up support in multilateral fora such as the UN.

Thirdly, multilateralism means coordination and cooperation, as opposed to duplication and rivalry, i.e. the development and use of decentralised networks. An effective international policy, be it in relation to climate change, or as it is now, as regards to the financial market crisis, requires cooperation between different policy areas and fora (foreign affairs, finance, trade, development policy) and with different institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, the G8, and the G20. Preventive and pro-active policy measures may just not be effective if they are isolated or even contradictory.

This is not very new or original, but a simple insight that only gradually asserts itself in today’s politics. The EU is successful when it is united and acts with one voice; examples are the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the Kyoto Protocol, and more recently the decisions to tackle the global economic crisis. “The more time and energy EU member states spend haggling with each other, the less time and energy they will devote to tasks farther ahead. Only if EU members aggregate their wealth and military capability will they be able to help anchor the coming transition in global power. In a world that sorely needs the EU’s collective will, a divided and introverted Europe would constitute a historical setback.”5

The US and the Interest-Based Multilateralism

The US perspective of an interest-based multilateralism is diametrically opposed to a norms-based multilateralism. In the first decade of this millennium, the EU was largely alone in calling for the implementation of multilateralism as the organising principle of global governance. The US interest in international obligations was limited at most to a few key UN organisations.

The US was, for example, not at all ready to participate in the multilateral efforts to tackle climate change. They flatly refused to enter into any obligations under an international binding treaty to limit global emissions or to agree on global emission targets. Only at the World Bank and the IMF was the US actively engaged in order to secure its influence. The US also co-operated with the World Trade Organisation, and some regional organisations received their attention as well. The obvious US unilateralism was a considerable challenge for the EU, especially as other countries such as China and India also showed little inclination to multilateralism.

The Obama administration pursues USA fundamentally pragmatic approach in US foreign policy, including multilateralism. Different organisations and events with different multilateral ideas are used for the solution of global problems. The United States entered into commitments in the sense of the traditional multilateralism in the fields of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, security and human rights. In particular, the non-proliferation treaty is about US interests rather than the norms of multilateralism, which are obliging for international organisations such as the IAEA with its overall responsibility for monitoring compliance. The US continues to refuse to participate under international law in a global climate agreement or to ratify the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But also the US cannot ignore the world around them. As Henry Kissinger put it, “America will have to learn that world order depends on a structure that participants support because they helped bring it about.”6 However, the US will seek to coin multilateralism as its suits their interests and policy best. Multilateral organisations and forums are judged according to their instrumental value. The US can choose the way of action—whether uni-, bi- or multilateral—which is most favourable to them, and thereby favouring a particular global governance forum in different policy fields, such as the UN, the G8, and the G20. In the words of Vice-President Joseph Biden, “we’ll work in a partnership whenever we can, and alone only when we must. The threats we face have no respect for borders. No single country, no matter how powerful, can best meet these threats alone. We believe international alliances and organizations do not diminish America’s power – we believe they help advance our collective security, economic interests and our values.”7

Multilateralism vs. Bilateralism

Multilateralism has for more than half a century been the cornerstone of global trade liberalisation. Both the US and Europe have advocated free trade, in the EU up to a common trade policy with the merger of sovereign rights of Member States; and both trading powers have benefitted immensely from this policy.

Together with 12 % of the world’s population, the EU and US are “covering approximately 50 % of global output, almost 30 % of world merchandise trade (including intra-EU trade, but excluding services trade), and 20 % of global foreign direct investment. The United States and the European Union are each other’s primary investment and trade partners. In 2012, 63 % of US FDI went to the European Union and 44 % of FDI inflows to the United States originated from the European Union. Bilateral investment flows between the United States and European Union generated a fifth of all international merger and acquisition activity. The US accounts for 20 % of EU exports and 20 % of EU imports (excluding intra-EU trade), while the European Union accounts for 28 % of US exports and 24 % of US imports. Measured in value added terms transatlantic trade flows are even more important than when measured in gross terms. The United States receives 23 % of total EU exports and provides 21 % of EU imports on a value added basis, while the European Union accounts for 29 % of US exports and 27 % of US imports. In other words, the United States is by far the most important destination of EU value-added and the United States is by far the largest supplier of value-added in EU imports [sic.]”8

The EU, with a share of almost 25 % of the world gross domestic product and about 20 % of world trade is the largest exporter of goods, the biggest direct investor and the most important import market for the emerging and developing countries (55 % of all exports from these countries go to Europe, compared to only 38 % to the US and 6 % to Japan).

Globalisation has been made possible only through multilateralism, with the result of a convergence of developing with OECD countries, and the emergence of global companies. The EU has a direct influence on the development of non-OECD countries. The external economic policy of the Union is thus not only an economic instrument for the maintenance of free world trade but is also used in pursuit of its specific global political interests.

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