Published: 02 February 2021 Author: Mirjam Reiter
As a consequence of growing nationalist and populist tendencies in several countries in recent years, Germany identified a “worldwide crisis of multilateralism”. To counter this development, in the summer of 2018 Germany’s Federal Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, held talks with his counterparts in several countries, including Canada, France and Japan, on what could be done to prevent the disintegration of the international order. This gave rise to the idea of “an alliance for multilateralism” – a network of partner countries who stand up together for the preservation and further development of the rules-based order and who defend multilateralism. Foreign Minister Maas defined multilateralism as follows:
“Multilateralism means investing in an order when doing so does not lead to an immediate benefit for oneself, but secure in the knowledge that one can rely on this order when needed one day.”
The alliance for multilateralism was not to be an exclusive club of liberal democracies but was to be open to all States which believed in multilateralism. It was not to be directed against anyone but was to strive for joint solutions to global problems, including climate change, increasing protectionism and the refugee crisis. In reply to parliamentary questions, the Federal Government set out the goals of the envisaged alliance for multilateralism as follows:
“The aim of the initiative is not to create a new organisation or a closed group with permanent members. On the contrary, based on a network approach particularly committed partners are to come together on topics of regional or global relevance, coordinate with one another, and agree on a joint response.”
The alliance was to defend existing rules and continue to develop these rules where necessary, show solidarity when international law was trampled underfoot on each other’s doorstep, and assume responsibility in international organisations together. Participants were also to be committed to climate protection as one of the greatest challenges facing humankind. In a joint opinion piece with his French counterpart, Foreign Minister Maas wrote on 14 February 2019 in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung:
“The international order is under huge pressure. 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. […] We firmly believe that a new commitment to multilateralism, an alliance for multilateralism, is more necessary than ever if we are to stabilize the rules-based world order, to uphold its principles and to adapt it to new challenges where necessary. We therefore want to establish a global network of like-minded states which are convinced that pursuing legitimate, national interests and protecting the collective property of humankind are fully compatible, not mutually exclusive.”
During a meeting in New York on 2 April 2019, Federal Foreign Minister Maas and his French counterpart presented their plans for an “Alliance for Multilateralism” to 14 countries which shared their concern for multilateralism. The Alliance was presented as “a renewed commitment to multilateralism and to the United Nations” The objective of the initiative was “to show that the States that support multilateralism and are attached to the United Nations remain in the majority. It is a majority that has long been silent because we have long taken international cooperation for granted. However, this is not the case today, and states committed to multilateralism must make themselves known, and unite their forces and their voices.”
One of the first States to join the initiative in April 2019 was Canada. On 12 June 2019, Germany launched the “#MultilateralismMatters”-campaign. In a video, the Foreign Ministers of Canada, Chile, France, Ghana, and Germany raised awareness of multilateral issues and promoted the new “Alliance for Multilateralism”. The Foreign Minister said: “We put the strength of the law before the law of the strong. And we call on all like-minded partners to join our common cause!” By mid-August 2019, countries from Latin America, Africa and Asia had joined the initiative, as well as the European Union. On 20 September 2019, Federal Foreign Minister Maas further promoted the initiative with another video “Together we are strong!”, inviting every Member State of the United Nations to join.
The Alliance for Multilateralism held its first meeting during the ministerial week of the 74th General Assembly in New York on 26 September 2019. At the ministerial meeting under the title “Building the Network and Presenting Results”, which was organized by France and Germany, together with Canada, Chile, Ghana, Mexico, and Singapore, the co-chairs issued the following statement:
“At a time when key principles of the rules-based international order and essential instruments of international cooperation are challenged, the Alliance for Multilateralism aims at bringing together those who believe that strong and effective multilateral cooperation, based on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and justice, are indispensable foundations to secure peace, stability and prosperity and who want to join hands to act along this endeavour. We confirm our conviction that the major challenges of our time, by their nature and global scope, cannot be addressed by countries separately but must be tackled jointly – and that such a rules-based multilateral cooperation is also a key guarantee for the sovereign equality of states as epitomized in the United Nations General Assembly.
The Alliance for Multilateralism concentrates in particular on the three following streams of action:
– To protect[,] preserve and advance international law, including internationally agreed norms, agreements and institutions, including through political initiatives, budget contributions, the provision of capabilities and expertise;
– To drive strong initiatives where there is the need to further develop and thereby strengthen the multilateral system, in particular where governance is absent or insufficient;
– To reform and to modernize existing international institutions, in order to make them more inclusive, representative, democratic, transparent, accountable and more effective in their functioning as well as capacity to deliver tangible results to citizens.”
At the meeting, Germany and France presented the following six initiatives and called for their endorsement:
- Call for Action to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law and principled humanitarian action,
- The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace,
- The Information and Democracy Partnership,
- The Gender at the Centre Initiative,
- The Climate and Security Initiative,
- 11 Principles on Lethal and Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).
Further initiatives for tackling global challenges together were to be launched later.
The Alliance for Multilateralism is not an international organization or institution but a loose network of States. There is no founding document to sign up to and there is no formal membership. The Alliance can be described as a project incubator or an aggregator of goodwill. Engagement in a specific initiative does not entail automatic participation in other initiatives pursued in the framework of the Alliance. Participation in the Alliance remains open to all States interested in participating, making it a rather random enterprise.
While initiatives to protect and promote multilateralism are generally to be welcomed, there may be questions about the added value of the Alliance. It looks very much like a project of some foreign ministers trying to distinguish themselves and to promote their countries’ own agenda. The Alliance has not developed any new initiatives but has simply tried to drum up support for a hotchpotch of existing initiatives. The Alliance seems to be lacking a clear agenda and direction. The position documents which participants can sign are political statements which in terms of international law may at best, if at all, qualify as soft law instruments. The number of States attracted to the new Alliance was rather limited. Only 47 States and the European Union registered for the ministerial meeting on 26 September 2019. Almost half of the countries that registered came from Europe. States attending from outside Europe included Australia, Afghanistan, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Ghana, India, Jordan, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Singapore, South Africa, and Tunisia. Notable absentees were the three non-European permanent members of the Security Council – China, Russia, and the United States. This gives the impression that the Alliance, rather than being open to all States, is a counterweight to these powers.
Category: International law in general