A Cooperative Brand of Sovereignty for Multilateralism

14 December 2020   ·   Manuel Lafont Rapnouil

In its new White Paper, Germany should promote a cooperative brand of sovereignty, support multi-stakeholder approaches, and strengthen the EU’s role in the multilateral system. As multilateralism is an instrument shaping the global order, Berlin should push for reforms on the climate crisis and security, and seize the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to forge a new global consensus.

While multilateralism is at risk, Germany’s determination to state the crucial importance of rules-based international cooperation, and to act upon these statements, is welcomed. Its role, alongside with France, in launching the Alliance for Multilateralism is one case in point. The Alliance is one of the most visible and effective efforts in recent years to: protect and preserve international norms, agreements, and institutions; to pursue a more proactive agenda where new challenges require collective action; and to advance reforms in order to make institutions more inclusive and effective.

This endeavour is all the more important when “it can no longer be taken for granted that an international rules-based system is seen by all as the best guarantor of our security and prosperity.” Power competition has made a comeback to the forefront of world politics. Fundamental rules such as the prohibition of chemical weapons or the annexation of foreign territory are being broken. Confidence in multilateral instruments and policies is eroding not only among governments but also at citizens’ level.

Even when major powers signal some willingness to act within the framework of multilateralism they put forward a distinct interpretation: based on an unyielding vision of sovereignty, defiant towards civil society, relativist, selective, focused on competition and geopolitical influences rather than on public goods, reluctant to reciprocity. Such a formal vision points to a “low-cost” global governance, which is more effective to skirt one’s responsibilities and to sow mistrust than to build collective action.

A Substantial and Not Just Formal Approach to Multilateralism

That is why it is so important that powers like Germany commit to do more and to bring others along. Germany is particularly well positioned to do so – but not because of its role in the European project which is about political integration. Multilateralism, in contrast, answers a different question that Germany can contribute to: if, precisely, sovereign states are bound to stay, multilateralism addresses the issue of how to organise the sovereign states’ relations in a horizontal environment so that disputes and conflicts are prevented or dealt with peacefully, and collective responses are brought to challenges that governments can’t address individually. Still, the European project and the idea of a multilateral order share a number of ideas: respect for diversity and pluralism, importance of rules, interdependence without hegemony, solidarity.

Germany is well placed because it can testify the importance of both nominal and substantive multilateralism. By nominal multilateralism, I mean the role of negotiations, rules, institutions that help states to work together. Germany’s multilateral endeavour is rooted in the importance of such institutions and rules, whether one thinks of its ordoliberal approach to the economy or of its constitutional requirement for a multilateral mandate to deploy German troops overseas. By substantive multilateralism, I mean the recognition of “principles of conduct” (such as non-discrimination, indivisibility, diffuse reciprocity), but also of values embodied in the UN Charter: peace, human rights, equal rights of nations, justice, and social progress.

Both the US and Europe Should Commit to Reforms and Reinforcement of the Multilateral System

Of course, at a time when hopes for a renewed commitment to multilateralism emerge from the prospect of a more functional transatlantic cooperation, one should remember that the United States are right to remind Europeans that multilateralism is not a value in itself, but an instrument. However, Europeans are equally right to stress that multilateralism is not just an instrument to be retained or neglected based on ad hoc trade-offs. It is an instrument that has an impact on the nature and shape of the global order. Both sides of the Atlantic will need to display a commitment to reforming and strengthening the multilateral system at a time when most states suspect “the West” is fine with the status-quo.

On trade, for instance, where Germany benefits from the multilateral system, the solution can’t be only to agree on a new director general for the World Trade Organisation and new judges to its Appellate Body. The dispute settlement mechanism needs broader changes for the rules-based approach to trade to survive. And the rules themselves need change too, as the discussions prompted by the COVID-19 crisis on the externalities of globalisation as we know it – be it on health sovereignty, biodiversity, or access to vaccines – are reminding us.

The Climate Crisis and Security Issues Require International Cooperation

But these days, we need more than rules. Some of the most pressing challenges call for collective action. Recent initiatives, that Germany, France and the EU are part of, addressing debt-relief, economic recovery, and access to vaccines, are only the beginning of what is needed. The setback on the Agenda 2030’s Sustainable Development Goals is a deafening call for more action. On climate, if it was important to uphold the Paris agreement for the last four years, it is now imperative to ambitiously increase nationally determined contributions, which will involve producing differently and changing the carbon pricing. All in all, the current economic and health crisis should be turned into an opportunity to “build back better” and Germany can play a key role in building this new consensus needed for the post-COVID world.

But the key challenge for powers like Germany who want to reinforce multilateralism is to improve international cooperation on security. Security is key to the trust required for substantial international cooperation. Here too, we need institutional change (for instance with the long awaited enlargement of the UN Security Council), reinforced rules (for security in cyberspace, among other things) and improved policies. Instead, we are witnessing the weakening of arms control architecture, especially in Europe.

Germany’s Role in Strengthening Sovereignty, Multi-Stakeholder Approaches, and the EU in the Multilateral System

Sovereignty is a key issue in the current global discussion. And Germany can play a role to promote a “cooperative brand of sovereignty” by insisting, first, on the importance of “sovereign equality,” a key principle under multilateral law; and second, on how sovereignty means responsibility. Multilateralism is not a constraint on sovereignty. On the contrary, sovereignty is the legal and political capacity to make decisions and undertake commitments in the international system. We need states to be able to shoulder responsibilities if their international commitments are to have any meaning – on terrorism, mass atrocities, public health, or digital governance.

For all the importance of sovereignty, non-state actors still have a major role to play. The rise of multi-stakeholderism has been instrumental in diplomatic successes such as the COP21’s Paris Agreement and initiatives such as the Paris Call, and is becoming a major source in efforts to renew multilateralism, as exemplified with the Paris Peace Forum. On balance, this growing importance calls for regulations, as shown by the negotiations on the taxation of digital platforms or the need to strengthen global digital commons. This increasing involvement of civil society will not dispense with more accountability: Germany’s White Paper on multilateralism is also noteworthy in this regard.

Lastly, an area where Germany’s contribution will be expected is Europe’s role and translating it into tangible results for citizens. Together with France, Germany is taking initiatives for the EU to strengthen the EU’s role and influence in the multilateral system. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Europe is a major presence in the Alliance for Multilateralism. But Europeans can still play a more active role, and be a more effective force. European unity and sovereignty will remain a major condition for its credibility and influence.

The CAPS produces independent analyses for the French government's strategic reflection on international affairs. Consequently, the opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the position of the French ministry of Foreign Affairs.

English Europa Cooperation

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil is the director of the Centre for Analysis, Planning and Strategy (CAPS) at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. @mlafontrapnouil