Sometimes Multilateralism Is Not the Solution

19 October 2020   ·   Nathalie Tocci

A look at the conflicts in the European neighborhood shows: Multilateral responses are often needed – but not always. Multilateralism to the south and east should be promoted only when it contributes to addressing fragility and conflict. It is in the fine grain of whether, how, and what form of multilateralism we should promote that the conversation should unfold.

In the EU’s surrounding regions, multilateralism is a means, not the end. The end is to strengthen state and societal resilience, and promote conflict resolution. At times, indeed often, this requires or at least benefits from multilateral approaches. At times, however, it does not. To discern whether and eventually what form of multilateralism to promote, Germany must keep its eye on the ball of what its goals are. There is, in fact, a kneejerk European – including German – belief that all forms of multilateralism are good. They often, but not always, are. Multilateralism to the south and east should be promoted only when it contributes to addressing fragility and conflict.   

In Some Instances Multilateralism Is Warranted – In Others Not

The Eastern Mediterranean has flared in recent months. Today, conflict is no longer confined to a Greece-Turkey-Cyprus triangle in which parties stand at loggerheads around core questions of sovereignty, identity and security. It is no longer only about power-sharing in Cyprus, and the delimitation of territorial waters, national airspaces, exclusive economic zones and the status of a few uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea. The Eastern Mediterranean conflict has become an intractable polyhedron, in which sovereignty and identity disputes have morphed into and have been muddied by migration, energy, and regional rivalries. On top of this, the conflict’s geography now engulfs Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, too. It began when a divided Cyprus entered the EU in 2004, making the latter a party to the conflict. It expanded to North Africa and the Middle East when gas discoveries drove Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Italy together into the East Med Gas Forum, cornering Turkey. As Libya and the intertwined question of political Islam were thrown into the mix, the conflict deformed into a regional conflagration, adding France, Russia and United Arab Emirates to the cohort of Turkish adversaries.

When it comes to untangling the Gordian knot in the Eastern Mediterranean, one approach is to go multilateral. To this effect, the European Council in early October successfully diffused tensions between the EU and Turkey, while also flagging the possibility of an East Med conference. While a regional get-together can do no harm, the starting point should be to unpack the multiple conflicts afflicting the region. Breaking down the conflict in its components reveals that in some instances multilateralism is warranted, in others, not. In all cases, the multi, mini, or bilateral strategies must be targeted to the specificities of the conflict at hand.

On Energy, Multilateralism Has Been Detrimental to Conflict Resolution

When it comes to the sovereignty-related disputes between Greece and Turkey, multilateralizing the conflict is not necessarily the way to go. Maritime demarcation breakthroughs in the Mediterranean and beyond are generally the product of bilateral negotiations rather than first-shot multilateralism. This is true not only between friends – e.g. the agreement between Greece and Egypt – but also and most importantly between enemies, as the recent breakthrough between Israel and Lebanon highlights. In this respect, the resumption of bilateral exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey thanks to German and NATO facilitation indicates when, how, and why bilateralism rather than multilateralism may be preferable.

Turning to energy, multilateralism has risked being actually detrimental to conflict resolution. The East Med Gas Forum is the first instance of multilateralism in the region, interestingly bringing together prospective producing, consuming, and transit countries, as well as countries hosts to key investors. However, the Forum, as currently construed, is inevitably viewed as an anti-Turkish construct, thus risking to crystallize divisions. Rather than focusing efforts on an ill-defined general conference, European efforts could aim at rendering an existing multilateral organization a vehicle to bridge rather than exacerbate regional divides.

On Libya, More Muscular Multilateralism is Urgently Needed

In other instances still, more muscular multilateralism is urgently needed. In Libya, for instance, the problem is a lack rather than an excess of multilateralism. In fairness, Germany tried. The Berlin process was precisely an attempt at multilateralizing the conflict, bringing together all the international and regional stakeholders, so as to open avenues for its resolution. Yet, the reason why we are edging towards ceasefire today is not because of the successes of multilateral diplomacy but rather because of the balance of forces on the ground generated by unilateral military actions. A ceasefire, however, is not tantamount to stabilization, let alone reconciliation. One only needs to look at Nagorno Karabakh today to remind oneself of this tragic fact. Hence, in Libya today, the attempt must be that of multilateralizing a ceasefire that is the product of bilateral deal between two warring sides and their respective regional allies. Such a multilateralization will require more than diplomacy but the willingness to take risks on the ground to consolidate a ceasefire, working with the United Nations as well as regional organizations beginning with the African Union.

The Question Is What Kind Of Multilateralism To Promote

Finally, turning to the resumption of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a question to be addressed when the violence subsides is what kind of multilateralism should be promoted. There are many reasons explaining the resumption of war after twenty-six years of fragile ceasefire in Nagorno Karabakh. One such reason has to do with the failures of multilateral diplomacy – namely the Minsk Group – to steer the parties towards stabilization, settlement and peacebuilding. Hence, when the violence will end, one of the questions to be addressed is whether the existing multilateral mediation format remains relevant today. Are the Minsk Group co-chairs, selected back in 1994, still the relevant ones in 2020? Russia clearly remains a key stakeholder in the conflict and thus in its resolution. The United States is infinitely less engaged in the South Caucasus than in its heydays of the 1990s. New regional actors, including Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran are more relevant today than they were back then. And when it comes to Europe, perhaps a “multilateralization” of the European contribution through a contact group may be of order.

All of the above are little more than examples. Many others could be found. They are merely raised to drive home one simple point. Rather than asking ourselves how to promote multilateralism in our surrounding regions, we should ask ourselves how to promote resilience, peace, and reconciliation in and around Europe. As Europeans, our solution will often be multilateral. But it should not always and necessarily be so. It is in the fine grain of whether, how, and what form of multilateralism we should promote that the conversation should unfold.     

English Europa Multilateralismus

Nathalie Tocci

Nathalie Tocci is Director of the Istituto Affari Internazional (IAI). @NathalieTocci