The German Conversation on Multilateralism: An Inside-Outside Perspective

21 September 2020   ·   Amrita Narlikar

German discussions about multilateralism have mostly ignored the issue of weaponised interdependence and focussed on minor-level reforms. Yet ignoring such a fundamental issue, while papering over the cracks, risks damaging the system even further. Germany and Europe should at least consider pursuing a limited membership multilateralism based on shared values (such as democracy, liberalism and pluralism) and closely integrated production chains involving like-minded allies and partners.

There is a vibrant, multi-stakeholder conversation underway in Germany on how to reform and revive multilateralism. In this article, I bring in two perspectives to shed light on Germany’s role in multilateral endeavours: first in my role as an insider to some of the debates, and then as an outsider. The insider’s perspective highlights some of the strengths and commitment that underpin the reform debate in Germany. The outsider’s perspective points to a blind spot in the debate, and how it could lead key challenges to go unheeded. I focus specifically on the most urgent problem, and suggest measures through which it could be addressed.  

An Insider’s Perspective: #MultilateralismMatters    

Multilateralism has mattered a great deal in the last decades. It has provided us with over seven decades of peace, prosperity, and poverty alleviation. It matters more than ever today amidst the global problems we face – such as climate change and pandemics – which cannot be handled by any one country on its own, or even a sub-set of countries. And even as many countries turn inwards, Germany remains a European power with a strongly multilateralist orientation. The country’s commitment to multilateralism stems – with good reason – from the burden of its history. As Thomas Bagger writes:

“If ‘Never Again’ was the first fundamental lesson drawn from the collapse of civilization during the Nazi years that was meant to address the challenge of Germany’s history, ‘Never Alone’ was clearly the second most important and deeply ingrained imperative. Multilateralism was at the heart of German foreign policy as it emerged after the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949…”  

At a time when many multilateral institutions are suffering from crises of legitimacy, effectiveness, and credibility, Germany has been sending out clear signals of its continued support. In 2016, Germany hosted the ministerial council for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In 2017, it held the G20 presidency. It began its 2-year tenure as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2019. It became one of the 47 elected members that constitute the UN Human Rights Council in January 2020. It took up the rotating presidency of the European Council this summer. And while working with existing institutions, Germany has also provided thought leadership and action with new cooperative endeavours, such as the Alliance for Multilateralism. A White Paper on Multilateralism, which the Federal Foreign Office is developing, is another indication of German commitment to the multilateralist cause. In word and deed, we know that Germany is serious about rescuing and resuscitating multilateralism.  

An Outsider’s Perspective: Need for a Fundamental Re-think     

As a relative outsider still, I feel reassured to know that there are many defenders of multilateralism in Germany. (Full disclosure: multilateralism is an area of my research and teaching expertise, so I am naturally pleased when others attach such great importance to the subject). But there can be too much of a good thing. Germany’s keenness to preserve and protect the system leans sometimes towards a bias in favour of the status quo and an aversion to a fundamental rethink. This defensiveness to preserve what remains probably stems from a reaction against the crude and blanket attacks on the system by the President of the country that had served as founder and de facto guarantor of multilateralism for decades. In the effort to protect the system from a Trumpian onslaught though, it is too easily forgotten that many of the difficulties that multilateralism faces today have deep roots; the Trump presidency and the pandemic have exacerbated many long-standing problems, not created them. By ignoring the fundamental problems of multilateralism, and simply papering over the cracks through minor-level reform, we risk damaging the system even further to the point of collapse.

There are numerous problems that multilateralism has been facing for some years now. They include a backlash against globalisation and multilateral rules; the inability of global leaders to carry their electorates with them in their efforts to defend multilateralism; the failure of multilateral institutions to build convincing narratives that go beyond technocratic detail and manage to stand up to the loud counter-narratives of populist leaders. But in this article, I focus on the most urgent problem that multilateralism faces today: a world of weaponised interdependence.

The Very Ties That Were Supposed to Bind Nations Into Harmony Can Get Weaponised

While our post-war multilateral order served us well in the last decades and helped lift millions out of poverty, it was built on an assumption that peace and prosperity were inextricably linked. The assumption of a liberal peace, however, has now come under serious challenge due to the phenomenon of “weaponised interdependence.” Recent studies demonstrate that as global value chains become increasingly integrated, the very ties that were supposed to bind nations into peaceful harmony can get weaponised. The pandemic has shown the extent to which countries can exploit global health chains to their own advantage, even with life-and-death consequences. Against this background, calls by global leaders to support and strengthen multilateral cooperation ring desperately hollow.

Most discussions about reforming multilateralism in Germany have ignored the issue of weaponised interdependence. Instead, they have opted for minor-level tinkering, and offers of working with a multilateral à la carte approach that allows geostrategic allies and rivals to flourish in equal measure. This muddling-through, while trying to keep everyone happy, may be a dangerous strategy. Simply pretending that multilateral institutions can continue as before, without taking into account the evidence of real misuse, as well as dangers of future misuse, would do great damage to the system.  

There are several reasons why it has been difficult to develop a reform agenda to reboot multilateralism, and make it fit for purpose in a world of weaponised interdependence. One important reason lies in the fact that if one follows the argument on weaponised interdependence to its logical conclusion, one gets drawn into the debate on de-coupling. And this debate is a very polarised one.  

One Way to Address Weaponised Interdependence Might Be a Limited Membership Multilateralism

Arguments on de-coupling tend to cluster on the two ends of a spectrum. For instance, we often see China hawks who want a cold war on all fronts, and China doves who offer – at best – some lip-service to reprimand China and then scurry back to business as usual. Caught between these two extremes, we see well-intentioned leaders across the world left with little choice but to mutter dull platitudes on multilateralism, motherhood, and apple pie. Conversations about some minor reforms ensue, that would allow – at best – the creation of a shallow multilateralism with far lower levels of integration and also limited rule compliance, i.e. an even more ineffective version of multilateralism than what we have today.  

There is another way, perhaps a better way. It will require Germany and Europe to have some difficult conversations (with their own electorates and with allies) on the countries that they trust enough to not misuse economic ties for geostrategic purposes. This will almost inevitably lead us into the uncomfortable question of shared values (such as democracy, liberalism, and pluralism). The result would be a limited membership multilateralism, with closely integrated production chains involving like-minded allies and partners. Such a system need not be a closed system. All countries could potentially join it, but the rules would have to be tough and enforceable. Were Germany’s new White Paper to include even a mention of such a possibility, it might serve as useful signaling mechanism to show the seriousness of its commitment to meaningful and sustainable reform.  

Both worlds will likely produce lower levels of prosperity – the first due to shallow levels of integration amidst a universal membership, the second due to a limited membership amongst which deep integration could take place. But in the first scenario, we risk both economic pain and increased insecurity. In the second scenario, we may get economic pain but security gain.

This article is based on a keynote input that the author delivered as part of a conference to mark the 150th Anniversary of the German Federal Foreign Office, 20 August 2020. The author is grateful to Thorsten Benner and Sebastian Groth for their suggestion that she use her insider-outsider status in Germany as a vantage point to develop her remarks. Her thanks also go to the participants for engaging exchange and feedback.

Partner Demokratieförderung Multilateralismus

Amrita Narlikar

Prof. Dr. Amrita Narlikar is President of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), Professor at Hamburg University, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. Her latest book, Poverty Narratives and Power Paradoxes in International Trade Negotiations and Beyond, has been published with Cambridge University Press, New York, 2020. Her intellectual roots lie in Cambridge, Oxford, and India. @AmritaNarlikar @GIGA_Institute