Multilateralism Needs Democracy

10 February 2021   ·   Thorsten Benner

The German government should put collaboration among democracies at the heart of the Alliance for Multilateralism. Germany’s forthcoming White Paper on Multilateralism is an opportunity to spell out credibility, solidarity, and the inclusion of partners outside the “old West” as core principles of cooperation among like-minded democratic states.

In 2019, German international affairs specialist Volker Perthes warned against making liberal democracy a centerpiece of German efforts to strengthen multilateralism. Those who harp on liberal order on the international stage “turn this liberal order into an enemy of the rules-based order,” Perthes argued. He concluded that “if Germany and like-minded states want to protect and develop the multilateral order, they need to find broadest possible consensus.” In the sense of the “diplomatic art of the possible” this consensus should include states that have an interest in strengthening global rules but no liberal democratic set-up at home. With this, Perthes called on Germany and other drivers of the Alliance for Multilateralism to avoid the impression that “exporting the ‘right’ form of domestic order” is part of the agenda.

The rationale presented for this argument is straightforward. With Trump’s “America First,” all three great powers (China, Russia, and the US) were in the business of weakening multilateral institutions in order to no longer be constrained by them. If advocates of multilateralism want to have a fighting chance against great power bullies, they need to mobilize as many small and medium-sized powers as possible regardless of their democratic credentials. Multilateral beggars cannot be choosers.  

An Opportunity to Spell Out Principles for Cooperation Among Democracies

This is a one-sided perspective. Yes, we should not exclude countries from efforts to strengthen multilateralism just because they are not liberal democracies. For a number of global problems such as pandemics and the climate crisis you need cooperation from everyone regardless of domestic regime type. And the very virtue of some multilateral fora, such as the UN General Assembly, is that you bring everyone to the table, from democracies to dictatorships. But efforts to strengthen multilateralism ignore democracy at their peril. There is a lot to be gained from cooperation of like-minded democracies. This holds true regardless of whether the US can be part of this. During the Trump years, in which a president despising democracy occupied the White House, democratic small and middle powers rallying together was in many ways all the more important. But a new US administration led by a president committed to democracy presents an opportunity to strengthen cooperation of like-minded democracies with the US in a key role. As a candidate, Biden committed himself to convening a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office. 

Welcoming this initiative, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said Europe is ready to help US President Biden to “clear Trump’s debris” and that Biden’s proposed efforts of a “network of democracies” fit well with the German-French led Alliance for Multilateralism. This is a position shared by some opposition parties in the German parliament. Green party leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck also stressed the complementarity of Biden’s Summit for Democracy and the Alliance for Multilateralism. And Free Democrat Member of Parliament Johannes Vogel recently proposed a global “Democratic Alliance.”  

The German White Paper on multilateralism offers the opportunity to spell out core principles for cooperation of democracies to strengthen multilateralism. These principles should include credibility, solidarity and inclusion of partners outside “old West.”   

1. Investing in Credibility

The first key principle should be to invest in credibility. Critics of President Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” argue that the US rather needs a summit for democracy at home. But it is wrong to demand that the US (or any other democratic state) should not focus on democracy internationally because its system of government is challenged at home. Both can and should go hand in hand. Any country that seeks to be a credible player in terms of working on and with democracies abroad needs to work on shoring up democracy at home (also to increase support for multilateral action within the public). In the words of Carnegie Endowment scholar Thomas Carothers, “complete humility and serious honesty about our shortcomings” should be key prerequisites on Biden’s democracy agenda on the international stage.

The same applies to all democracies. They can only be credible if they stand up for democracy in organizations in which the domestic rule of law is a key prerequisite for membership, such as the European Union or NATO. Dealing with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a case in point. Orbán pursues a self-styled “illiberal state” and has systematically undermined the rule of law. The Obama administration spoke out forcefully against this. Obama official Victoria Nuland asked: “How can you sleep under your NATO article 5 blanket at night while pushing ‘illiberal democracy’ by day; whipping up nationalism; restricting free press; or demonizing civil society?” German chancellor Angela Merkel chose a very different route. Her refusal to call out Orbán and to push his Fidesz party out of the Christian Democratic EPP alliance at the European level has enabled Orbán’s assault on the rule of law that is bankrolled by EU funds and undermined German credibility.  

A third aspect of credibility is for democracies to go after transnational networks of corruption that enable authoritarianism. Financial and property markets in democracies are all too often safe havens for kleptocrats, with bankers, lawyers, PR agencies, and other professional elites in democracies profiting. It is an important commitment by US President Biden to issue “a presidential policy directive that establishes combating corruption as a core national security interest and democratic responsibility” and vow to “lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies.” Similarly, the Alliance for Multilateralism should turn the fight against networks of corruption in global financial system into one of its signature initiatives.

2. A Mutual Support And Solidarity Mechanism

A second key principle should be mutual support. There should be a solidarity mechanism of democratic countries looking out for one another in the face of political and economic coercion from authoritarian countries. Germany for example stood alone when put in the diplomatic freezer by Saudi-Arabia restricting political and economic ties after then Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel criticized Riyadh for its “adventurism.” A year later, Canada faced the same fate after its Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called out the Saudi government for arresting activists. Both countries would have fared better (and the Saudi government deterred) if there had been mutual solidarity.  

This mechanism should also apply in the face of Beijing’s political and economic coercion – including its hostage diplomacy. In December 2018, Beijing took two Canadian citizens as hostages (one of which, Michael Kovrig, is a diplomat now working for the International Crisis Group), emulating a practice embraced by the likes of the regime in Tehran. Beijing’s goal is to put pressure on Canada in the extradition case of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Roland Paris has powerfully argued that:  

“Such behaviours by national governments are eroding important restraints on international conduct. Worse, they risk normalizing murder, kidnapping and arbitrary detention as forms of statecraft. Mid-sized powers can and should work together to counter this trend – by publicizing such events, coming to each other’s assistance when their citizens are targeted, and penalizing perpetrators when it is feasible to do so. The alternative is to stand aside as the rule of law gradually gives way to the law of the jungle – a world in which mid-sized countries would face even graver dangers.” 

Democracies either hang together or they hang separately. A mutual solidarity mechanism would help to deter economic and political aggression. 

3. Inclusion of Democracies From Outside the “Old West"

Branching out to include democracies outside the “old West” should be the third key principle. Including India, South Korea and Australia in a D-10 format of the world’s ten biggest democracies to complement the G-7 is a first step but not sufficient. Germany should reach out to other democracies in Africa, Asia and Latin America to include them in like-minded efforts to strengthen multilateralism. Only then will they be able to successfully compete with authoritarian powers in multilateral settings. There are two main fronts for this competition. One to offer alternatives to initiatives by authoritarian powers such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative. A second is to compete with authoritarian powers in multilateral bodies within the UN system.

As Katrin Kinzelbach demonstrates, Beijing “is now striving to change the international human rights system beyond recognition. China’s diplomats at the United Nations pursue this goal with a strategic personnel policy, by cleverly exploiting institutional mechanisms for repressive purposes, issuing threats, and forcing a counter-narrative that proposes absolute state sovereignty and castigates human rights criticism as illegitimate interference in internal affairs.” Democracies can successfully push back against such advances by Beijing if they stand together in the UN framework. In this context, it is extremely detrimental to frame human rights as “American values” (or European values for that matter) like Biden’s nominee for UN ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, did in her Senate hearings. Rather, democracies should talk about human rights in terms of what they are: universal values. And they should stress that individuals from many different countries – including from outside what became known as “the West” – co-shaped the emergence of the UN human rights regime. Germany and other democracies of the “old West” should also remember that clinging to old multilateral privileges (such as a European as head of the IMF) or demanding new ones (such as a permanent German seat on the Security Council) is a major obstacle to better cooperation with non-Western democracies.

A Core of Democracies at the Alliance for Multilateralism’s Heart 

While the forthcoming White Paper can lay the groundwork for Germany’s commitments, the Alliance for Multilateralism can be a catalyst for action on all of these fronts. In order to meaningfully address transnational challenges such as health and climate, the alliance’s flexible structure is not limited to democracies. But there is a strong case for an informal core of democracies at the heart of the alliance, reflecting the fact that democracy very much matters for strengthening multilateralism. Ignoring democracy is not at all a shrewd move to form the best possible coalitions for a rules-based order, as some proponents of a supposed multilateral realpolitik argue. It rather ends up weakening key aspects of this very order – at least if the term rules based has any normative core based on human rights. By working together, democracies can at the same time strengthen multilateral organizations that bring together like-minded democracies, deter authoritarian political and economic coercion, and increase their collective clout to stand up for universal values and norms in bodies with universal membership. Contrary to claims of a number of foreign policy thinkers, this would not weaken the ability of democracies to engage authoritarian powers on matters of planetary concern such as the climate crisis. Standing up for democracy and working together with other democracies while pursuing cooperation with non-democracies where necessary is the right understanding of the “diplomatic art of the possible.”

Partner Multilateralismus Democracy

Thorsten Benner

Thorsten Benner is the co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). Since 2018 he has worked with the German Foreign Office on a research project on multilateralism. @thorstenbenner