CONFERENCE CALL: Making multilateralism work in the face of a nationalist backlash

By Ben Aris in Rhodes, bne INTELLINEWS

Joschka Fischer

CONFERENCE CALL: Making multilateralism work in the face of a nationalist backlash 1The world is changing. Or rather the population is growing and that is changing everything. With the global population growing exponentially over the last hundred years, the advent of globalisation and the telecoms revolution that has put all corners of the world in instant communication with each other, the challenges have changed out of recognition. But the world is still ordered along the lines of nation states and there are still only two truly global institutions. Are we up to the new challenges created by this globalisation, asked the delegates at the annual Rhodes Forum held at the start of October on the Greek island. The responses were mixed, but all of them pointed to the need for more multilateralism as the only possible answer.

“Seventy years ago there were only 2.5bn people on the planet and today there are 7bn-8bn. There will be 9bn-11bn when my children have their own children. And the question is: how can all these people live together peacefully?” asked Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister and vice chancellor, who was a member of the multilateral panel during the Dialogue of the Civilizations summit at Rhodes. “There are brand new challenges that we are facing. “Mankind” is a reality in a way that it has never been before. There is no choice: we have to have a multilateral outlook,” Fischer said.

Multinationalism grew out of the aftermath of WWII as a way to prevent another devastating war. But today the resulting globalisation is facing a backlash, partly brought about by the financial austerity that was forced on the world following the 2008 crisis. The rise of nationalism across Europe is one manifestation of the reaction against increased multinationalism, Fischer argued. The familiar national identities have been replaced with the spectre of “faceless Brussels bureaucracy,” a meme that plays into the hands of right-wing parties across the continent and in the US.

“Nationalism is back but the EU will survive as it is the most advanced experiment in multilateralism in the world,” Fischer said. “Eight billion people can’t fight a war. The Stone Age is over. We have to develop together. The EU will survive and flourish. There is no alternative.”

Fischer was confident that the pan-nationalism of the EU will win out in the long-run as the economic benefits of cooperation trump the vague fears engendered by the dilution of national identities that globalisation causes. But the institutions of this multilateral system are young and confused by members’ insistence on retaining elements of sovereignty in order to be able to sell the EU to their populations. The most obvious example was the decision to largely give up control over monetary policy in the creation of the Eurozone but keep sovereignty over fiscal policy that has contributed to the imbalances seen in the EU today.

Nowhere is the backlash against multilateralism clearer than in America, where US President Donald Trump rejected “global governance, control and domination” in a fiery speech during the UN general assembly at the end of September.

“America is governed by Americans,” he said to the UN General Assembly. “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism,” he went on, expanding on his “America First” policy that the Europeans on the panel interpreted as the antithesis of multilateralism.

“The US is the most corrosive force for multilateralism in the world today,” said famous journalist and foreign affairs expert Robin Wright, who was also on the panel. “The president has encouraged all countries to think of themselves and think of their own wellbeing first. He has encouraged the UK to Brexit and other countries to leave the EU.”

Trump has been working to undermine the infrastructure of globalism, Wright went on. He has walked away from the North America Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), “although the deal that has been put in its place is not dissimilar and not that bad,” believes Wright, and has started multiple trade wars with both rivals like China and allies like the EU.

Keeping up with globalism

Fischer argued that part of the problem is globalism is going so fast that politics is struggling to keep up.

“As we advance and globalisation accelerates we don’t have the means to make it work. We have the advantage now that we can see things as they happen, unlike our forbears, but we are not educated to understand how it works,” said Fischer.

Russia has found itself in the front line of this debate, argued Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian special presidential envoy for the Middle East and a highly respected Arabist. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a decade of optimism as Europe was united for the first time since WWII, but in the last decade the barriers have been going up again as the newly reintroduced neighbours get into multiple rows over influence, economics and security arrangements.

“There is a constant attempt to meddle in the affairs of other countries that is raising the danger of military confrontation. The US has unleashed a trade war and follows a unipolar model, but that model is doomed to failure,” Bogdanov said, reading from a paper in prepared remarks that highlighted the Kremlin’s now routine objections to the criticism it receives from Brussels and Washington. “We are entering a new era that is by default multinational. Africa is rising and setting its own independent foreign policy and the G20 has a growing voice. These countries don’t impose their views on other countries but are seeking compromise,” Bogdanov went on to say.

There is a tension in international affairs due to the shifting landscape that is driven by demographics as much as anything else. Bogdanov’s emphasis on the importance of the G20 over the G7 is telling as the rise of the emerging markets in the last decade has played a major role in the changing nature of the balance of power in the world. However, politically the G20 is an immature and uncoordinated body when set again the G7, according to both Fischer and Bogdanov, and Africa’s rise is even less acknowledged by the Old World powers than that of the newly remade states in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin joined the panel by video link and highlighted the changes in Africa where the demographic explosion will be even more extreme.

“By 2050 Africa will have 4.5bn people and we have to take the changing demographic developments from around the world into account. The emerging markets world is facing many challenges and problems which makes dialogue more important than ever,” said de Villepin.

Washington in retreat

The theme of the US’s leading role in global affairs in retreat was something all the panellists kept returning to, saying this has thrown geopolitics into flux. Earlier this year the new German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the US an “unreliable partner” and painted an unvarnished picture of a European policy that needs to “stand on its own feet.” The post WWII global world order is changing rapidly, but Fischer was more pragmatic about the consequences, reminding the audience that the US remains an “incredibly powerful country.”

“In the twenty-first century even the most powerful country is not powerful enough to solve all the problems on its own,” said Fischer. “The challenges we face – climate change, terrorism, demographics – neither the US nor China can solve these problems on their own.”

The problem, warned Fischer, is the world’s leading countries are not engaged with these problems nor trying to find solutions. Several delegates brought up the problem of climate change. The UN recently warned there are only 12 years left to halt climate change or there will be an irreversible phase change in the problem, yet the US is pulling out of the Paris Climate Change accord. Fischer was scathing about the current US administration’s attitude to this and other problems.

“They are actively destroying the multilateral set up. But the future of the US policy is in the hands of the US people. The situation is complex. There is a huge disarray in US politics, but that is countered by the multilateralism of the EU. Even Britain, if it leaves the EU, will align with Europe… in the long-term I am optimistic as we can’t avoid globalisation. But there will be lots of fights along the way,” said Fischer.

But there is a long way to go. Picking up on Fischer’s point that the world is not organised to deal effectively with these challenges, Vladimir Yakunin, the former Russian railways minister and now on the board of the Dialogue of the Civilisation think tank, pointed out that there is no true global infrastructure to coordinate the global actions to address these challenges.

“Multilateralism is not the invention of Russia or China. There are only two truly multilateral institutions: the dollar based financial and trade system and the WTO. That’s it,” said Yakunin.

The UN is an international organisation but it has a hard time implementing its decisions, Yakunin continued. “It is impossible to implement a decision in only one country any more,” Yakunin added. “The USSR destroyed itself as it tried to do exactly that: manage the whole economy from the centre. But the world is too complicated. And if one country fails to make a command economy work what hope is there for a unipolar world? It doesn’t work.”

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