The main topic in the general debate of the ongoing 73rd session of the General Assembly was the very principle underlying the United Nations: Multilateralism. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that it “is under fire precisely when we need it most” and the President of the assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, stressed that multilateralism “is the only possible response to the global challenges we face.” The vast majority of world leaders reaffirmed their commitment to multilateralism and underlined its indispensability for tackling global challenges.
The US is no longer a reliable partner
The reason to make a fundamental tenet of the UN a subject of discussion was the current US government’s approach to international relations. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the country that used to claim global leadership and responsibility for upholding the liberal world order that it had decisively shaped itself – not least to serve its own interests – ostentatiously turned its back on multilateralism and replaced it with the unilateralist “America first” doctrine that sees international relations as a zero-sum game primarily based on competition, not cooperation. Trump underscored this rupture in US foreign policy with his statement at the General Assembly by calling global governance a “threat to sovereignty” and uttering the (in)famous words: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”
The United States has turned its back on multilateralism
After repeatedly trying to alleviate the Trump administration’s stance on multiple occasions, America’s allies have come to the bitter realization that they can no longer rely on the US to take the lead in promoting the principles and objectives they once shared or at the least to endorse them. The most visible expression of this development is German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’ initiative to forge an “alliance for multilateralism” to defend liberal values against the challenges arising from Beijing’s more assertive grasp for power, Moscow’s unlawful behaviour in Crimea and its role in Syria as well as “uncertainty about US foreign policy under the Trump administration”.
The idea of an alliance of multilateralists
Maas first publicly introduced this project in a speech in Tokyo on July 25 this year, in which he outlined its objectives. The new alliance is supposed to uphold existing rules and further develop them where this is deemed necessary, show solidarity when international law is being violated, take financial as well as political responsibility in international organizations, fill the void that “others” – read: the US – have left by withdrawing from their global role, and be committed to climate protection.
Whereas the shape of the alliance is still vague, Germany’s initiative does not envisage the establishment of a new organization or dialogue format for the time being, but instead intends to build a network of countries based on liberal values such as cooperation, free trade, and respect for international law with the aim to strengthen existing institutions, in particular the United Nations.
According to the Federal Foreign Office, Maas already agreed on the first steps for this “alliance of multilateralists” with Japan, South Korea, and Canada in recent months. During Maas’ visit to Japan in July, he and his Japanese counterpart Taro Kōno decided to expand the communication between their countries’ foreign ministries. However, their joint declaration does not explicitly mention the new alliance, but expresses the foreign ministers’ shared commitment to “a rule-based world order, especially to the principles of universal human rights, free trade, climate protection including strong support for the conscientious implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, and multilateralism” and announces their agreement to enhance cooperation on these issues. Later in July, Maas met with South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung in Seoul and in August he discussed the idea with his Canadian colleague Chrystia Freeland during her visit to Berlin.
Other states that are being considered as potential partners for the initiative are Australia, Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa. Maas also spoke about the proposal with Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide in September.
Estrangement between the US and allies not new
As much as Maas emphasizes that he is not seeking an alliance against Trump, but a network every country committed to cooperation and binding rules is welcome to join, especially the US, calibrating the initiative’s relationship with Washington will be difficult, since they pursue fundamentally different objectives in many respects. This was best illustrated in his speech at the General Assembly when Maas proclaimed that the United Nations thrives on the pledge of “together first.”
Maas: The United Nations thrives on the pledge of “together first”
On a different note, the estrangement of Germany and the US had started well before Trump became president. The trust in American leadership as well as in the liberal order as such has eroded worldwide in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the global financial crisis in 2007/08 and the ensuing economic recession. It thus seems uncertain whether the alliance of multilateralists will be merely a placeholder for the eventual return of the US as a global leader like the “G9” grouping of Washington’s traditional allies that foreign policy experts Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay propose as temporary guardian of a rules-based order in a recently published essay.
A purely intergovernmental approach is not sufficient
At a time when even the most fundamental norms of conducting international relations seem under pressure, Maas’ initiative is an important step towards the collaborative defense of a global order based on multilateralism and the rule of law. However, the further development of the present system of global governance requires a vision that goes beyond the maintenance of existing institutions, addresses their shortcomings and can attract supporters in the emerging divide between autocratic and democratic approaches.
Germany should back a UN Parliamentary Assembly
Moreover, a purely intergovernmental approach can barely address the symptoms of nationalist populism that occur in world politics, let alone the roots of the current autocratic trend. Therefore, the German government should also back the European Parliament’s call for the establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly.
On the one hand, the discontent with national democratic institutions is at least in part fueled by the actual loss of domestic control over political decisions that are increasingly taken in intergovernmental fora, as Andreas Bummel, the executive director of Democracy Without Borders, pointed out in a recent blog post. On the other hand, a global parliamentary body may not only partly compensate the suppression of political rights within states by giving oppositions and minorities a voice in world affairs, but thereby also offset some of the disruptive effects of autocratic regimes on international cooperation.
After all, as Maas said in his own speech at the General Assembly: “The United Nations belongs to the people.” It is time to improve their representation.
Top image: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in New York, 28 September 2018. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/photothek.net. Licensed publication.