Universal Multilateralism: How Germany Could Shape the New World Order

17 November 2020   ·   Inge Kaul

With its White Paper on Multilateralism, the German government could usher in a new era of international cooperation. To do so, it should demonstrate change leadership and initiate a global discussion on a new, truly universal multilateralism that helps tackle pressing issues through a whole-of-government approach and is a guarantor of states’ sovereign equality.

Despite all of its devastating negative effects, the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has also had a positive effect. It has generated a new “multilateral momentum” – an opportunity that we should not let go to waste. Many of the global challenges that we face require a multilateral, even a universal multilateral policy response. However, a universal multilateralism compatible with the 21st century is yet to be devised. The German government’s forthcoming White Paper on Multilateralism could initiate the process of building consensus on such a new system of multilateralism and could make history by ushering in not only a new era of international cooperation, but also a new world order.

For the White Paper to achieve such a game-changing impact, I would suggest that its key recommendation be:

A panel of independent high-level personalities be established by the UN Secretary-General to offer advice and guidance to the global community on the issue of how to reinvigorate universal multilateralism.

Why This Recommendation

In the Declaration on the Commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, adopted on 21 September 2020 during the high-level segment of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA), the heads of states and governments of the UN’s member states stressed that: “Our challenges are interconnected and can only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism.” They requested the UN Secretary-General to prepare a follow-up report on how to advance their agenda set forth in this declaration. The proposed high-level panel could thus be one way to respond to this call for reinvigorated multilateralism.

In addition to this formal reason, there exist most pressing substantive ones. The world is facing a long – even lengthening – list of unresolved global challenges, ranging from global warming, loss of biodiversity, deteriorating ocean health, threatened food and water security, continuing risks of excessive financial volatility, constraints on free and fair trade, still-to-be-attained poverty-reduction and development targets, cyber-insecurity, transborder terrorism, the beginnings of outer-space militarization, and, last but not least, global health threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As a consequence of these and other challenges, there is a rising number of internally displaced people and international migrants. What all these highly diverse challenges have in common is that their resolution calls for universal multilateral cooperation.

Evidently, such cooperation is lacking at present. The main reason is that in today’s increasingly multipolar world, conventional power politics is losing its effectiveness. However, analyses of the policy responses to the COVID-19 crisis to date show that calls for or promises of strengthened solidarity alone do not suffice to tackle a global challenge like COVID-19. Nor does it suffice to rely on bottom-up approaches, that is, contributions that individual state and non-state actors are willing to make voluntarily, out of self-interest (for example pollution reduction, which improves local air quality and helps reduce CO2 emissions). More often than not, the sum of such voluntary contributions has been found to fall short of what is required to effectively tackle global challenges. However, the needed complementary policy interventions, which depend global collective action, are not forthcoming, because multilateralism has begun to falter, stall, and sometimes even reverse.

The world at present is in a transition phase, circling in a global “holding pattern,” waiting for someone to exercise change leadership and address the core issue of reinvigorating multilateralism, inventing and forging global consensus on a new key operating principle that could make multilateralism, especially universal multilateralism work under the present global policymaking realities. This is the key challenge of our time – and hence it also ought to be the key challenge that the White Paper addresses.

A Vision to Explore

While the high-level panel will undoubtedly explore alternative policy paths, the authors of the White Paper may want to share also some of their views about the future of multilateralism with the members of the proposed high-level panel, for further study and debate, including perhaps their thinking on the following two points:

Fostering compatibility between multilateral cooperation and sovereignty is key. Considering the rising trend towards multipolarity, the growing importance of global public goods (GPGs) among today’s global challenges and the policy interdependence among countries that these goods entail, it seems reasonable and realistic to posit, as, for example, The Alliance for Multilateralism does, that the major challenges of our time must be tackled jointly and that, therefore, a rules-based multilateral cooperation is “a key guarantee for the sovereign equality of states.”  Hence, one reform option to explore would clearly be how to build global consensus on and make operational the “dual compatibility principle” which calls on states to commit themselves to: (i) fostering international cooperation that is sovereignty-compatible and, to this end, fair and mutually beneficial; and (ii) exercising their national policymaking sovereignty in a manner that respects the sovereignty of other states and the integrity, that is, the adequate provision requirements of GPGs such as the atmosphere, the high seas, or fair and free international trade.

Approaching multilateralism as a “whole-of-government” concern. Considering furthermore the wide range of highly diverse policy fields in which we today encounter global challenges and the fact that many of these challenges call for both, international cooperation within and beyond national borders, it becomes evident that well-functioning multilateralism also calls for innovations within the existing governance systems at national and international levels, in particular a whole-of-government approach. More specifically, should not all major GPGs have designated national and international focal points interacting closely with each other across borders mimicking the transnationalness of the global challenges? Clearly, the governance reform needed to make multilateralism work is another issue that the White Paper could suggest to the proposed high-level panel ought to further explore and consult on.

Follow Words With Deeds

Ideally, the White Paper would not only offer ideas about how one could advance the global debate on reinvigorated multilateralism. The German Government should also demonstrate practical change leadership by offering to act as lead investor of the suggested high-level panel initiative and help mobilize further resources needed to establish the panel and enable its members to engage in a fully participatory series of global consultations and conversations – practicing universal multilateralism while at the same time thinking and writing about universal multilateralism.

Comments and observations on this note are welcome and can be addressed to: contact@ingekaul.net


Inge Kaul

Inge Kaul is senior fellow at the Hertie School, Berlin and non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development, Washington, DC. Prior to that she was the director of UNDP’s Office of Development Studies and Human Development Report Office.