Expectations from Norway for Germany’s Role in the Multilateral “Wende”

19 November 2020   ·   Kjetil Elsebutangen

For its new White Paper on multilateralism, Germany can learn from Norway’s experiences. The White Paper should reach out to a wide audience, aim for cross-regional partnerships, include an honest picture of limitations, and encourage reforms of existing organisations rather than developing new mechanisms. Cooperation within the EU and promoting liberal values should be at its core.

Predicting the course of international politics is a risky business. The many twists and turns of history have taught us that change is a constant. This also applies to multilateral cooperation. Yet, there are reasons to assume that the unfolding changes in the global balance of power, first and foremost between the US and China, amount to more than a slight bend in the road. We may as well be witnessing a profound change of multilateral cooperation.

This is not to say that multilateral cooperation as such will erode, but the content of the cooperation is up for discussion. Over the last 75 years, we have aimed for multilateral cooperation to be based on a set of common rules and values, such as individual rights and liberties, rule of law and democracy. It was never perfect, and the liberal world order has never been global – former East Germans know this better than anyone else. Overall, however, there was a clear sense of direction. Today, this sense of common rules and values is increasingly being challenged as the power dynamics between participating states change. At the same time, the world is facing major global challenges that no state can solve alone.

Germany’s Ambitions for a White Paper on Multilateralism Are Timely

We not only need to understand the ongoing changes, but also to defend and further develop a rules-based world order that is crucial to our security, economy and welfare. Liberal democracies cannot sit back and passively observe the transformation of an order that we have actively helped to build. We can and must go beyond our current efforts. Therefore, Germany’s rethinking of its multilateral policy could have hardly come at a better time. Norway considers Germany to be its most important partner in Europe. We share similar views on a great many issues and cooperate in a wide range of areas, at all levels. These days, this is exemplified in the UN Security Council where Norway is taking on a seat as non-permanent member on 1 January 2021, right when Germany is ending its term.

Germany’s choices matter to us, which is why we also have expectations for its White Paper on multilateralism. So here’s a few thoughts, based on the Norwegian Government’s White Paper on multilateralism presented last year.

1. Send a Powerful Message on Multilateralism That Reaches Beyond the Circle of Experts.

Preaching to the converted on the virtues of multilateralism has value, but it is more important to widen the understanding among the broader public of why it matters, using concrete examples and a language that is relatively easy to understand. We should remind ourselves that significant parts of the multilateral system still function well – in economics, in security, in the humanitarian sector, and in many other areas that do not get the same amount of attention, for instance telecommunications. This story deserves to be told. We should never take multilateral cooperation for granted, certainly not in a time when populist movements grow in strength in many countries.

2. Clearly Spell Out Liberal Values as Fundamental to Multilateral Cooperation.

When illiberal and authoritarian states become more active in multilateral cooperation, liberal and democratic states face a dilemma. Should they support multilateralism because of its intrinsic value, even if the results from multilateral processes would weaken established rights and are not in accordance with the democracies’ liberal foundations? Or should states stand by their values even if it means greater polarisation, inability to act or the deterioration of important institutions? If the development continues in the same direction as today, this dilemma will become increasingly difficult to handle. We believe that Europe, in various constellations like the EU and groups of European countries with Germany in a key role, is the world’s strongest advocate for liberal values and multilateralism. This must, however, be pursued in a way that does not create an impediment to cooperation on global challenges such as climate change with states not supportive of liberal principles.

3. Include an Honest Reflection on the Challenges in Multilateral Cooperation.

The White Paper on multilateralism should clearly outline what is working and what is not. Trust in international cooperation depends on its relevance, legitimacy and productiveness. This trust diminishes when international organisations are perceived as incapable of acting, inefficient or unrepresentative. Without attractive multilateral solutions, member states must address their needs in other ways, through forms of cooperation that may be more costly and less inclusive. Some of the criticism of multilateral organisations is appropriate. Brushing it away will only fuel the sceptics. Pretending that multilateral cooperation is the answer to everything, or that multilateral cooperation does not come at a price, will not help advance our cause.

4. Show Strong Commitment to Reform Multilateral Institutions.

It requires political will to demand results, and push through reforms. It requires the necessary resources and expertise to follow through in the governing boards. Moreover, it requires a degree of patience. Reforming international organisations is often painstakingly slow. The alternative is worse. We should be careful, however, with reopening key agreements (like the 1951 Refugee Convention), as we are unlikely to agree upon equally strong commitments today. We must therefore defend key agreements, whilst ensuring that the organisations deliver better results and use their resources more effectively than what they currently do.

5. Take a Cautious Approach When Developing New, Competing Organisations.

Even if existing organisations are not working as well as we would like them to, developing new organisations should be considered with caution. There has not been a ‘master plan’ for the development of multilateral cooperation. When new needs have arisen, oftentimes, a new organisation has been established, rather than adapting existing organisations to solve new tasks. When states have found their views unsatisfactorily addressed in an organisation, they have established new mechanisms. This practice has gradually led to a range of organisations and mechanisms with overlapping mandates. Overall, the multilateral architecture has become more complex, more fragmented and less transparent, and in some areas more costly. Instead of adding more organisations, we should concentrate on adapting and strengthening the most important ones that already exist.

6. Underline an Invitation to Cross-Regional Partnerships.

While European countries must stand together, alliances with representative and diverse countries from all regions will have better chances to succeed in defending a rules-based world order. The Alliance for Multilateralism, initiated by Germany and France, is a good example in this regard.

7. Confirm the Commitment to Using Germany’s Position in the EU.

With Germany acknowledging its key position in the EU, the strengthening of multilateralism, based on liberal values, remains a top priority for Europe. The shifting centre of power eastwards in the world, and to some extent southwards, has demonstrated the need for European countries that share the same liberal and democratic values to stand together to promote their interests and values in the multilateral system. The EU plays a key role in this respect: None of the EU member states, all of which are small- or medium-sized in the global context, has enough political influence to meet the challenges from the East and the South on its own.

The EU is a valuable partner for the UN and other regional organisations. Given the changing global power relations, the EU’s role as an international actor and defender of liberal values is more important than ever, and Germany’s contribution to this is crucial.

Europa Cooperation Multilateralismus

Kjetil Elsebutangen

Kjetil Elsebutangen is a special adviser in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was the project manager of a recent White Paper on multilateralism by the Government of Norway. @KElsebutangen