An Opportunity for Germany to Lead a Global Multilateralism Reset

12 October 2020   ·   Ottilia Anna Maunganidze

To pursue their vision of a rules-based international order, Germany and the EU should increase their cooperation with African countries and the AU, as the continent is deeply invested in multilateralism. In doing so, Germany, the EU and African partners should focus on peace and security, democracy, economic development and climate emergencies.

There is no doubt that multilateralism is currently under threat around the world – the UN’s celebrations of 75 years of existence were a sombre testament to this. Several of the major global powers are moving away from collective global action. Acknowledging this, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in opening the 75th UN General Assembly this September, lamented the state of affairs in global multilateralism. “Today, we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions,” he said.  

A view shared by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who argued that states had often forced the UN to falter as they put self-interest above the greater good. Merkel added that, “those who believe that they can get along better alone are mistaken. Our well-being is something that we share – our suffering too. We are one world.” A strong message at a time when the UN is perhaps at its weakest and when the world needs committed champions to advance a common multilateral agenda. The elephant in the room (or rather not in the room) was the glaring absence of US president Donald Trump in the session to reaffirm support for global multilateralism.  

To Strengthen Multilateralism, Germany Will Need Partners – Africa is an Obvious Choice  

As some countries continue to look inward and reject the importance of multilateralism, thereby creating a void in global governance, countries like Germany that have chosen to fight for it should do so with more energy than ever before. The German government, through its Federal Foreign Office, is developing a White Paper on Multilateralism intended to more clearly articulate their position on, among others, rules, values, the climate emergency, migration, trade, technology, peace, security and development. 

To get Germany’s vision of a rules-based world order informed by mutual values right, naturally, Germany cannot work alone. It would need to do this together with the EU and through strengthening partnerships underpinned by mutual principles with other countries and regions. Africa, as Europe’s neighbour to the South, with its immense trading potential and the AU’s common peace, security, and development agenda, is an obvious choice. Africa is also deeply invested in multilateralism.  

Germany Can Stand up for Multilateralism on Several Fronts  

Germany was central to the foundation of global multilateralism and remains a firm champion of it. Germany can contribute to a rules-based global order in a number of ways.  

First, it can ease tensions between other super powers. It has demonstrated a unique ability to navigate its relations with the US and with China, and bridge the divide between the two, while also catapulting Europe as a strong global player.  

Second, drawing on the experience of building a more unified EU (despite known challenges and hiccups), Germany can support regional integration and the use of regional organisations as key blocks of the global multilateral system. In Europe, in particular, the EU’s role in reducing continental competition and strengthening the role of the individual members through increased scale and joint power projection is a useful model to use. Germany can strengthen multilateralism by championing the complementary role of other regional organisations, like the African Union and other regional blocks.  

Third, Germany’s demonstrable commitment to agile response to emerging issues, such as climate change, evolving threats and opportunities from advancements in technology, violent extremism and the role of women in peace and security, is key in ensuring that multilateralism is adaptable in a fast-changing environment.  

Germany Can Champion Discussions on Reforming the Multilateral System to Reflect Present Realities 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Germany can champion a constructive discussion on reforming the international multilateral system to better reflect present realities. There are key structural reforms that are needed in global multilateral institutions which will only come about through joint action. The UN still largely reflects the immediate circumstances after the Second World War. Much has changed since then and global institutions must be better aligned with a changing geopolitical context. 53 African countries have since gained independence from the colonial rulers. Now, with 55 member states, the AU is a formidable champion for multilateralism. However, Africa’s representation at the international level remains marginalised – even as it is represented in many global fora. If Germany wants to champion an effective and strong multilateralism, it needs to advocate for a better representation of African countries in such a multilateral system. 

Bolster German-African Partnerships on Peace and Security, Democracy, Rule of Law, and Human Rights  

With Africa, specifically, there are four areas in which Germany and Europe should form stronger partnerships in the future.  

First, on peace, security, and governance, given the persistence of violent conflict in Africa and the incidence of terrorism and violent extremism, most of the AU’s resources are channelled toward promoting continental peace and security. However, this is still with a limited budget and, thus, relatively small human resources for such a mammoth task. Germany already supports the AU in various ways, through its continued support to the Peace and Security Department, for example. Experience-sharing and technical support go a long way in the increasing leadership role the AU now takes on, for example, peace operations on the continent, negotiations, and mediation efforts. However, partners like Germany can do more to strengthen their engagement with the AU and African countries on these peace, security, and governance endeavours.  

Second, Germany has supported Africa in advancing democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, including through supporting African multilateral organisations established to resolve disputes, encourage cooperation and ensure accountability. These include the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Here, countries like Germany have often been prescriptive about the right approaches to accountability. As Africa works to strengthen its institutions, Germany and Europe should support innovative ways of dispute resolution, advancing justice, and ensuring accountability. Such processes, conducted by for example truth, reconciliation, and justice commissions, and traditional justice methods employed in countries like Rwanda and South Sudan are less adversarial in nature and particularly useful for societies transitioning out of conflict.  

Germany Should Strengthen the AU’s Efforts on Balanced Trade and Fighting the Climate Emergency  

Third, on development, regional integration, and free trade, the AU works hard to deepen economic integration, especially through fostering intra-continental trade, establishing an African Monetary Union and encouraging freedom of movement within the continent. The EU has already committed to supporting the efforts towards continental free trade. However, beyond rhetoric, there is a need to stimulate balanced trade with individual African countries and regional bodies under favourable terms. As the continent’s major trading partner, a constructive approach by Europe would go a long way. Europe stands to benefit more from a developed and economically viable Africa than from one still struggling to meet developmental imperatives due to constraints in, among others, trade.  

Lastly, on the environment and climate change, the growing risks posed by a changing global climate will require coordinated action. Already, Germany has launched the Global Climate Security Risk and Foresight Assessment to better inform efforts that address the impacts of climate change on international peace and security. As Africa seeks to develop, it continues to bear the brunt of the climate emergency: among others, drought, flooding and locusts have led to forced displacement, competition for dwindling resources including food, and intra-communal violence. Germany can and should support efforts in Africa to address and mitigate the threats posed by climate change. Such efforts should seek to advance human and food security.  

Whether it is through the Compact with Africa initiative launched by Germany during its G20 presidency in 2017, the recently released New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the continuing EU-Africa negotiations, or the direct engagement by Germany with the AU, there are many opportunities for Germany to lead a multilateral reset. It only needs to start.

Partner Cooperation Multilateralismus

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze is the Head of Special Projects at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). The ISS works to advance peace, human security and justice in Africa through evidence-based research, policy advice, technical assistance and tailored capacity building initiatives across the continent. @issafrica