The Debate

Appraising Germany’s ‘Alliance of Multilateralists’ Idea in an Asian Context

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The Debate

Appraising Germany’s ‘Alliance of Multilateralists’ Idea in an Asian Context

Can Germany lead an “alliance of multilateralists”? Is there a constituency for the idea in the Asia-Pacific?

Appraising Germany’s ‘Alliance of Multilateralists’ Idea in an Asian Context
Credit: Sandro Halank via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: The below is an edited and expanded version of remarks prepared for delivery by the author at a private meeting in Berlin, Germany, on the country’s role in the Indo-Pacific and the prospects for German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’ “alliance of multilateralists” proposal.

I want to begin with an attempt to underline some of the assumptions and motivations that appear to underlie the “alliance of multilateralists” idea and its fundamental appeal to Germany. To do this, I’ve borrowed language used by the idea’s progenitor, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The phrases quoted below appear in an interview Maas gave Der Spiegel just earlier this month. Later, I also refer to Maas’ speech in Japan last July, where he also discussed the idea.

  1. Great power politics is back in a big way (whether it ever left is debatable). Post-2014 Russia, post-18th Party Congress China, and now post-January 2017 America have intensified great power competition dynamics in complex ways.
  2. The return of great power politics is of concern to several middle powers, many of whom are “concerned that the principle of might makes right is once again being applied internationally.”
  3. Regional powers, middle powers, and states below these states on the rungs of the international system have an interest in “a reliable international order.”
  4. Absent liberal great power leadership in the form of the United States, the onus falls to these states to take the reins themselves and coordinate to preserve the international order through an “alliance of multilateralists.” On this point, there is no doubt: “For Trump, the U.S. is no longer the leading power among liberal democracies.”
  5. The alliance “should be an open network for all those who value the power of law and who feel bound by a rules-based order.”
  6. The purpose of the alliance, at this point, is to improve cooperation and coordination among its participants at “international organizations.”
  7. There is tremendous demand for an alliance of this sort.

The above is complemented with the more calibrated description offered by the German foreign minister last July in Tokyo. The alliance was described as one of countries:

  • that defends existing rules together and continues to develop them where this is necessary;
  • that shows solidarity when international law is trampled underfoot on each others’ doorsteps;
  • that fills the vacuum that has continued to emerge following the withdrawal of others from many parts of the world stage;
  • that is committed to climate protection as one of the greatest challenges facing humankind;
  • that assumes responsibility in international organisations together – financially, but also politically.

In many ways, Germany is particularly well-suited to lead an alliance of this kind. Under its current leadership, Germany has served as an anchor for a Europe with a fundamentally multilateralist foreign and security policy outlook. This has been true even as challenges have emerged from within the continent as  both conservatives and hard unilateralists have gained political power and a greater voice in domestic politics among member states.

The “alliance” is not envisioned as a true alliance and, in fact, Maas’ descriptions of the idea have greatly underemphasized any hard power component. There’s something to how ideas are branded, however, and the idea of an alliance of multilateralists might inadvertently limit potential membership to a shortlist of primarily western, advanced liberal democracies. (Per Maas, Canada, Australia, Japan, France, and South Africa are among the countries that have expressed interest in the idea.) There is reason to believe that there are governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, that may fall short on their liberal democratic bona fides, who may nonetheless be interested in this kind of a concept.

Germany’s traditional focus on leveraging diplomacy and institutions means that promoting such an “alliance” won’t be a step into the unknown entirely. The greatest risk involved is in decoupling Berlin’s multilateralist advocacy from that of the United States. We are here in Berlin discussing these ideas with half of Donald Trump’s first term elapsed. U.S. politics have, for decades, had the unique quality of drawing disproportionate global interest because of their consequences for world affairs.

This quality has only increased since the November 2016 election. Now, with a range of candidates in the Democratic Party declaring their candidacy to take on Trump in 2020 and the president’s domestic approval rating at record lows for his term, we have the possibility of yet another power transition in 2020. The good news for Germany–and all prospective members of this emerging multilateralist alliance–is that nearly all of Trump’s Democratic opponents would work to restore a multilateralist lean to U.S. global priorities. The damage of the Trump era won’t be undone overnight and there remains yet the possibility that Trump, like many two-term presidents before him, leverages the powers of incumbency to his advantage in 2020. Nevertheless, the odds of a reversion to the mean in U.S. foreign policy tendencies in 2021 appears not all-too-unlikely.

The greatest opportunity, in the meantime, presented by Germany’s proposed alliance is to unite those states that do seek to preserve rules-based institutions against their challengers.

I will briefly take the opportunity to address how this multilateralist alliance might be received in Asia, the part of the world I know best. The greatest risk–one that I suspect Germany is already well aware of–is that the minute this alliance becomes cast as a coalition to contain or balance China, many Asian states will be prone to keep it at an arm’s distance. Recent history shows that many states in this region–particularly in Southeast Asia–are not keen to choose between their admittedly real support for the once-U.S.-led liberal order and Beijing’s increasingly robust alternatives. For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the alliance may be perceived as yet another challenge to its “centrality” in Indo-Pacific affairs. Indeed, recognizing this challenge, both former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the opportunity at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to underline that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific would not seek to displace ASEAN centrality.

Speaking of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), it’s readily apparent to me that it and the German alliance concept have quite a few areas of overlap–at least with how the FOIP idea has been discussed by Japan and the United States. The general set of principles underlying both ideas is similar: a respect for international law, existing institutional arrangements, multilateral consultation, and support for an accessible global commons. The two programs diverge in important ways on the specifics. First, for the United States, climate change simply has no place in the Indo-Pacific strategy given the political predilections of the Trump administration. (Japan and India, meanwhile, emphasize climate risk mitigation as part of their priorities.) Second, the German alliance concept fundamentally enshrines existing international organizations, including the United Nations. FOIP, meanwhile, is largely agnostic about the role of existing institutions, instead prioritizing national statecraft.

One bit of constructive feedback on this idea that I might offer is for Germany to create a positive message around the value of multilateralism. Instead of arguing for multilateralism for its own sake, Germany might counter-message ascendant nationalist movements worldwide by underlining how strong multilateralism can actually strengthen the sovereignty of states below the superpower on the rungs of global power. Multilateral, rules-based arrangements can provide recourse for these smaller states from coercion at the hands of superpowers and, in doing so, protect their freedom of maneuver in their own foreign and domestic policies. For me, this is a core benefit of multilateralism.

I’ll end there for now and look forward to discussing this. I suspect we’ll learn more about the trajectory of this German idea in 2019, as many of the challenges in 2017 and 2018 that led to the point of this idea being articulated in the first place are here to stay and may amplify in magnitude.