Germany in Search of New Global Partners


The international rule-based order is under threat. The "Alliance for Multilateralism", initiated by the German and French Foreign ministers, aims to re-establish stability and reliability between nation states. What are its chances of success?

Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, and Heiko Maas, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany

The Free and Open Order Under Threat

The international system in which Germany was embedded for decades, and which allowed it to be more free, more secure and more prosperous than ever before, has started to unravel. This system, which is called the "rule-based order", or the "liberal international order", or the "free and open order", is increasingly under attack by a revisionist Russia and a rising China, both authoritarian countries who want to change the international system to suit the needs of their ruling elites. At the same time the U.S. is increasingly sceptical with regard to its support for this order: US-Americans have the impression that they do not get much in return for playing the role of a "global policeman", that the "Pax Americana" is too costly for them. That is why Trump's slogan "America First" reverberates so strongly with many of them. Meanwhile the EU, often considered the fourth power pole in the world after the US, China and Russia, remains unable to overcome the many divisions between its diverse member states and to turn into a united, forceful actor on the world stage.

What emerges on the horizon is a global future beyond the liberal, free and open international order; a global system largely based on the competition of a few global poles, turning everybody else into an object of great power calculations. A future in which the battle over zones of influence and control defines the international system, where military power is the most important currency, and where tensions and clashes lead to the closing of borders, the end of globalisation and of the multilateral win-win approaches to tackle joint global challenges. In short, confrontation instead of cooperation — the return of the jungle, in which only the most powerful beasts survive.

For almost all European countries, such a scenario is a nightmare. Germany is particularly dependent on the international free and open order, as its economic success story has been built on the security guarantees of the "Pax Americana": the rules and institutions of global trade ("Bretton Woods"), as well as a global physical infrastructure that allows sending goods and information around the globe at low cost and high speed. With regard to security, Germany is, unlike France or Britain, not able to provide for its own defence. Here the American engagement remains equally vital for Germany, especially as Europe is confronted with a Russia that is using military force in Ukraine and is again using its nuclear weapons arsenal as an instrument to intimidate Europeans.

In short, Germany has every reason to support the liberal, free and open order, built around the Western core, which still shapes the economic and political behaviour of countless actors around the globe - states, companies as well as individuals. In the past, the costs of this order for Germany were relatively low. Now they are rising: It becomes more difficult to counter Russian and Chinese initiatives to undermine this order, and it becomes more difficult to convince America to play the role of an inclusive, responsible leader, acting not just on behalf of narrow, short-term American priorities but in the wider interest of the free and open order.

Yet the costs of raising Germany's international profile, to invest in a strategy of strengthening the free and open order and of adapting it to new challenges are low compared to the costs of a breakdown of this order. Additionally, Germany has more responsibility because it matters: it is not a small country, it is a player in the global top league — a central power in Europe, an influential global economic player, and a widely trusted member of leading "clubs" such as the G7 and the G20. Given its potential and its interests, Germany has every reason to increase its efforts to strengthen, stabilise and develop the free and open order.

There are many ways to do this. One is to keep Europe together in times of growing fragility; the EU is an important building block of the liberal order and its most advanced and successful example. A second path is to make sure that the U.S. is not permanently drifting towards narrow-minded nationalism, but remains engaged globally as a backer of the free and open order. A third way to strengthen the liberal order is to withstand Russian and Chinese pressure, to stand up for liberal values and especially the right of smaller countries such as Ukraine to shape their own destiny. A fourth path to pursue is to build global alliances with like-minded partners: other mid-sized and smaller powers who share Germany's concern about the fragility of the free and open liberal order, and are willing to increase their own investments in this order.

The Alliance for Multilateralism

This last path is the idea behind the "Alliance for Multilateralism" launched by German foreign minister Heiko Maas together with his French counterpart Jean-Ives Le Drian on the side lines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2019. Besides Germany and France, other co-hosts of the event were Chile, Mexico, Ghana, Singapore and Canada. While Britain had declined, a large number of European countries participated. There was considerable interest across Asia, especially India, as well as Australia, and some interest among Latin American and African countries.

What is this initiative about? It is driven, as Maas and Le Drian have explained in a joint op-ed, by the sense that the multilateral, liberal order is under threat: “Some players are increasingly engaging in power politics, thus undermining the idea of a rules-based order with a view to enforcing the law of the strong. At the same time, criticism of seemingly inefficient international cooperation is growing in many societies, also in some Western countries. […] The rivalry among major powers and growing nationalism [has] resulted in an increasingly fragmented world order — in political, economic and social terms. […] To counter this trend, like-minded states must make common cause and double their efforts to promote multilateralism. France and Germany intend to lead the way.” The goal of the Alliance, they write, is „to stabilize the rule-based world order, to uphold its principles and to adapt it to new challenges where necessary.”

The Alliance has started with a number of projects in areas such as cyber security, climate change, freedom of press or autonomous weapon systems. It has defined itself as “a global network of like-minded states”, not as an institution or club with a restricted membership base.

While the Alliance has had a promising start, there remain a number of questions regarding its further development:

  1. Terminology: Alliance usually means an institutionalised format for cooperation, often in the area of security — is this the proper name for a loose network? And is multilateralism the proper term for the ambition to strengthen a specific order? Isn't multilateralism rather a method than a goal in itself (as there could well be a group of states who multilaterally endorse an authoritarian order)?
  2. Focus: is it sufficient to focus on the "soft" dimension of the order — given the state goal "to stabilize the rule-based order"? Isn't the "hard" dimension — to deal with conflicts, with the security part of order — more important?
  3. Commitment of participants: Can a rather loose network without clear structure really make a difference? Can it actually have an impact on global power politics?
  4. Membership: is the Alliance about mid-sized powers only? Or is the U.S. an indispensable part of any effort to counter Chinese and Russian ideas of order?

Deepening and widening the approach

In this new fragile international environment, Germany obviously needs to look beyond Europe and the U.S. The Alliance for Multilateralism is a building block for such an approach, especially if the network will be filled with more substantial content and if heads of governments fully embrace it. In any case, it points into the right direction: Germany needs to further reach out to like-minded global partners who are able and willing to invest more into a free and open, liberal international order.

This is the issue that the 20th Annual Foreign Policy Conference of the Boell Foundation wants to explore in more depth: Who are those like-minded partners, and which policy areas could and should cooperation be focusing on? What could new global partnerships contribute to specific challenges — such as combatting climate change, fair international trade and secure sea-lanes - to keep the nervous system of a globalised world intact?