International political and civil society leaders gathered again in Paris, this year in digital format because of the COVID-19 pandemic, to discuss “challenges the world faces and to address international cooperation and collective action required”. I intervened in a session on “Multilateralism in a (Post-) COVID World”, alongside Natalie Samarasinghe from the UN, Obiageli Ezekwesili from the Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative and Clément Beaune, French State Secretary for Europe and Foreign Affairs. The combination of the US elections and the Covid-19 pandemic’s resurgence made our conversation very topical.
In my intervention, I underlined that multilateralism is nothing else than the by-laws of the international community, our common house. It defines common standards and introduces stability in the regulation of international relations. This common house is called into question, also because there are more and more co-owners. They have neither the same interests, nor the same vision, let alone the same way of envisaging the reform of our common house. This is what can be called the paradox of multi-polarity without multilateralism.
The crisis of multilateralism did not start with Donald Trump
The crisis of multilateralism did not start just recently with the election of Donald Trump. Which means that it will probably not end up with that of Joe Biden. I see mainly three reasons for this crisis: the multiplication of actors; the return of national sovereignty, above all with actors such as China, Russia or Turkey; and the increasing complexity of problems, which implicitly makes their resolution ever more difficult.
The election of the new U.S. president will certainly change significantly international relations. However, we will not go back to the past. We can expect in different areas some degree of continuity of US foreign policy, with an increasing focus on the Asia-Pacific, and less on Europe. The new administration will certainly also be very much focused on repairing fractures of the American society, which will not go away overnight.
More dialogue and cooperation are expected
This said, there are a number of changes that can materialise rather quickly with the new US administration. I expect for sure more dialogue and cooperation and a better transatlantic understanding, as well as substantive changes with the return on important multilateral projects – in particular the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and a re-engagement with the WHO. On other issues, such as the WTO reform, we need to see what the new administration has in mind.
Be that as it may, a new US administration certainly cannot exempt us from doing our own work. The EU has to set its own agenda and not wait for others to do it for us. The election of Biden cannot exempt us from doing our own work. We must not succumb to what I have called strategic complacency.
No one else can or will take responsibility for our own future. We must be mindful of defending our values and the EU needs autonomous strategic thinking. Strategic autonomy is not a luxury and even less an illusion. Transatlantic solidarity will be stronger if solidarity among Europeans is strengthened, including in the area of security and defence.
Revitalizing multilateralism will be a top priority for the EU
These European efforts will be embedded in working with our partners around the globe. Revitalizing an effective multilateralism will be a top priority for the EU in 2021. Obviously, we cannot achieve this alone and America’s return to the global stage will serve as an important boost to effective multilateralism. We hope that other countries will follow suit in reversing selective and self-serving approaches to global issues.