Of Engineers and Visionaries: Germany and France as Partners for Saving the Multilateral Order


Close coordination and smooth cooperation between Berlin and Paris is crucial for Europe and its foreign politics, particularly considering rising intricate geopolitical rivalries. Differences in style and approach must not impede cooperation on substance and common interests.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron
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Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron at the European Council meeting in June 2017

“Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most”. Dozens of recent articles refer to Antonio Guterres’ assessment in making their case for reinforcing global cooperation. This one is no exception. And quite clearly, the UN Secretary-General is right. Faced with unprecedented transnational challenges, international organisations are deadlocked (UN Security Council), taken hostage (World Trade Organization) or labelled ‘braindead’ (NATO), while states pull out of global regimes on climate (Paris Agreement), migration (Global Compact) or human rights (UN Human Rights Council). At the same time, power politics are experiencing a neo-Westphalian revival. In this arduous international environment, “saving the rules-based multilateral order” has become the S.O.S. of the hour.

But what is needed for middle powers like Germany to save the multilateral order as we know it? There are at least two necessary, even if not sufficient, preconditions, which are closely interlinked: First, states need to formulate a response to power politics, first and foremost by defining the relations to the great powers and positioning themselves towards them. Second, they have to better deliver on solving the world’s most pressing global challenges, not least in order to safeguard and revamp their citizens’ trust in the global system.

Berlin and Paris: Incrementalism meets disruption

Germany and France could be natural allies on both of these matters. In the Aachen Treaty, a bilateral agreement renewing the 1963 Élysée Treaty that was signed in January 2019, both countries emphasised their “firm commitment to an international order based on rules and multilateralism, with the United Nations at its heart”. In line with this ambition, France joined the German initiative to create an Alliance for Multilateralism, and now acts as a co-sponsor of the project. The German population seems to support such joint undertakings: According to a recent survey, more than half of the German public asserts that France is Germany’s most important partner in international affairs. A striking 77 per cent furthermore believe their country should engage more intensively with its French partners.

Despite these positive signs, Franco-German relations are sailing some rough waters these days. Nerves are raw on both sides of the Rhine, it seems. Berlin is increasingly worked up with President Macron’s proclivity for disruption, while Paris has lost patience with the German attachment to the status quo. The different characters of Angela Merkel – a sober and meticulous pragmatist – and Emmanuel Macron – a trained philosopher with a penchant for visionary but largely broad-brush ideas – do not help to ease the tensions.

But one should not mistake style for substance. The current flurry about Franco-German relations being at a new low overlooks that on the majority of foreign policy matters, Germany and France are still on the same page – at least when it comes to their analysis of the multilateral to-do list. The main source of disagreement lies in the fact that France appears more poised to engage in geopolitical thinking than its partners in Berlin, and thus formulates farther reaching responses. Germany, on the other hand, continues to rely on a cautious step-by-step approach – an obvious choice for a nation of engineers.

Similar analysis, different conclusion: Europe and the great powers

Berlin and Paris evidently share the analyses of Trumpist America, rising China and neo-imperial Russia, but they differ regarding the actions they derive from their assessments. Amid deteriorating transatlantic relations, both European partners drew the conclusion that Europeans will have to ramp up their independence in security and other areas. This was the essence of various speeches and public statements, whether they were held in Bavarian beer tents (Merkel) or French universities (Macron). The difference is, though, that President Macron went for the ultima ratio – calling the transatlantic alliance, on which European security is destined to rely on for decades, ‘brain dead’, thereby forcing his European and American allies to react and position themselves. Let us be honest: The subsequent German proposal to create an ‘expert group’ to rejuvenate NATO would not have induced President Trump to defend the value of the alliance.

Similar patterns can be discerned in the relationship to China. Berlin and Paris have a largely congruent assessment of domestic trends in China (both are concerned about the increasingly authoritarian features of the Party State and its massive economic interventions) as well as the challenges that the ascent of the People’s Republic poses to the international system. However, Germany, whose export-oriented economy is highly dependent on trade with China, has a hard time coming to an unequivocal political answer. In contrast, the French inference is clear: A rising dictatorship (and a looming Sino-American conflict) calls for a strong European counter-action. Because of this, Emmanuel Macron invited Angela Merkel and then President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker to his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Paris in March 2019. While this move caused some diplomatic hick-ups – the French President had allegedly blindsided the Chancellor and the Commission chief by simply announcing their presence, rather than liaising beforehand and developing a joint strategy – it sent a strong European signal to the Chinese leadership, even though the Germans would have preferred a more cautious and systematic proceeding.

The French conclusion that a common front is needed towards China and that an axis Beijing-Moscow must be prevented at all costs also influences Macron’s Russia strategy. Yet his overtures towards Vladimir Putin, reflected by an invitation to the French President’s summer residence in the Fort de Brégançon ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz and calls for a “new European security architecture” sound like a concession to Russian claims not only to transatlantic ears. Clearly, Germany sings a different tune in its relations to the Russian Federation, not least because of its geographic proximity and a different history of relations to the EU members in Central and Eastern Europe. But one should not overlook that the baseline for the relationship with Russia is the same in Berlin and Paris: Both partners emphasise critical engagement as reflected by the maintenance of EU sanctions, while at the same time keeping communication channels to Moscow open. A recent meeting between Macron, Merkel, Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the so-called Normandy Format is also an expression of this shared agenda.

The message is clear: In all three cases, the German and French starting positions are not more than a stone’s throw away from each other. Similarly clearly, however, France is determined not to sit back and wait for geopolitics to go by. Rather, Paris is actively addressing the great power postures that are currently en vogue on the global stage, whereas Berlin seems somewhat uneasy with strategic challenges that it finds itself confronted with.

Adapting the multilateral order to a new era

This divergence also characterises French and German initiatives to deliver on global challenges, the second parameter that determines the success of the multilateral project. Both countries have come up with commendable initiatives that are intended to increase the output on global issues. On the one hand, German foreign minister Heiko Maas has initiated an Alliance for Multilateralism, a network of like-minded countries that attempts to “stabilize the rules-based international order, uphold its principles and adapt it, where necessary”. Together with France as a co-sponsor, the alliance has now singled out six concrete initiatives (on humanitarian action, cyber security, and freedom of information, among others) where it seeks to make a difference.

With similar objectives in mind, Emmanuel Macron has initiated the Paris Peace Forum, an annual platform for multi-stakeholder projects on global governance challenges. The two initiatives share a lot of common ground (acting as a convener for ‘multilateralists’, focus on concrete outcomes). But yet again, the different ‘dialects’ of German and French responses to the multilateral decay resurfaced: While the creation of the Alliance for Multilateralism dragged on for over a year until the correct format was found, the Paris Peace Forum was launched with a big bang in November 2018 with the participation of more than 65 heads of state and government. More importantly, Germany seems to cherish the hope that the alliance could be a means to circumvent great power politics. Tellingly, the network has so far failed to formulate a response to rising geopolitical tensions. France, on the other hand, continues to play the geopolitical chessboard in addition to its penchant for multi-stakeholder projects. It is clear for the French that promoting bottom-up solutions is only one instrument in the multilateral toolbox.

How, then, can the two countries up their game as a Franco-German ‘force for multilateralism’, both on addressing the geopolitical revival and on meeting global needs by delivering output? On geopolitics, it is Germany that needs to learn the language of power that France has spoken fluently for many years. But Paris also needs to better understand Germany’s (lack of) strategic culture. One must not forget that Berlin’s geopolitical awakening has only just begun. Concerning the multilateral output, the foundation stone has already been laid in the shape of the Alliance for Multilateralism. France and Germany should continue to push for concrete outcomes on global challenges like climate change, digitalisation or artificial intelligence – inside the alliance, but also outside of it. Notably, the two countries will be able to address power politics and make concrete progress on global issues in 2020 at the heart of multilateral diplomacy: The two will once again sit in the United Nations Security Council together. Here, they will be able to build on the successful cooperation of 2019 that found an expression in ‘twin presidencies’ in March and April.

But above all, amid the mutual annoyances that have characterised recent months, Berlin and Paris should refocus on the substance of their mutual relations, and not obsess with the different styles with which they pursue largely similar aims in saving multilateralism. In the end, both would do well to take a leaf out of the other’s book. Because engineers without visions will run out of ideas rather soon, and visionaries without a sense for structural engineering run the risk of seeing their constructs collapse.