Making multilateralism work

Making multilateralism work

Bulletin article
Lord Hannay
01 February 2005

At their December 2003 summit, EU leaders nailed the concept of 'effective multilateralism' to their foreign policy mast. The governments said they were committed to upholding and improving international law; and to strengthening the United Nations (UN), by giving it the tools to do its work more effectively. The UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel published a report in December 2004 which made over 100 recommendations for change, such as the adoption of a proper definition of 'terrorism' for the first time in the UN's history. This report, and the forthcoming debate between the UN's 191 member countries over what to do about it, give EU governments an opportunity to show that they are as good as their word.

Convincing all the UN's members to support the panel's proposals will not be easy. There will be plenty of nay-sayers in different parts of the world. Some dislike the UN on ideological grounds. Others fear that a stronger UN might hold them to higher standards of conduct than they are capable of, or willing to, provide. There will be distractions, such as the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal which in fact strengthens the case for reform. There could be unexpected events like the Indian Ocean tsunami which, quite rightly, require overwhelming attention, but also show the case for collective action. And there will be the risk that the UN General Assembly will continuously water down the proposals until they are meaningless.

The good news is that the fit between the panel's proposals and EU objectives is astonishingly close a remarkable fact since only two of the16 panel members came from the EU. This fit suggests potentially widespread support for the EU's aim of effective multilateralism. But it also presents the EU with a fundamental challenge: can its foreign policy move beyond warm words and fine-sounding communiqués to action; and can it deploy its influence to convince less enthusiastic members to move forward?

In particular, the EU should agree with the panel's proposals on the collective use of force, including the responsibility to protect human security. The EU should support the panel's ideas on strengthening policies for dealing with terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Nor should the EU disagree with the proposed new approach to preventing and handling state failure, to re-doubling efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and to reforming the UN's institutions. All these and many more of the proposals are ones where the EU can make a real difference, not only through advocacy but also by example. For instance, EU governments have agreed to offer the UN their 'battle groups' rapid reaction military units for the critical early stages of future peace operations.

However, the EU is just as divided as the panel itself on one key issue: how to enlarge the UN Security Council (UNSC) beyond 15 countries. Some governments, like Germany, agree with one of the panel's options, which would be to extend the permanent members beyond the current five; others, like Italy, go for the panel's other option of a new category of longer-term elected members (currently the elected members sit on the UNSC for two years). And Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, wants the Union to have its own seat on the UNSC. Reforming the UNSC is evidently a question for the whole UN membership, rather than the EU alone, to decide. But EU governments must try and ensure that divisions on this issue do not distract them from supporting the other proposals.

The High Level Panel report could also help the EU rebuild the transatlantic relationship. It is too soon to predict how EU-US relations will develop during the second Bush term, but there are some encouraging signs. The personnel changes in Washington, the president's decision to visit Europe in February, and his willingness to press ahead with the Middle East peace process, provide reasons to be hopeful, if not confident. In Europe, a greater sense of realism seems to be prevailing. After the Iraqi elections, European opponents of the war should stop saying "I always said no good would come of it", and do their bit to ensure that the new Iraqi state is stable, prosperous and democratic. Europe's interest that Iraq should succeed is as great as that of the US.

The goal of making the UN more effective should be at the heart of any new transatlantic partnership. The new and recently re-elected incumbents in Washington will need a little time to catch their breath and decide how to deal with the panel's proposals. But the Europeans will need to discuss all these issues with the Bush administration in depth very soon; and they will need to make it clear that, for them, these are matters of fundamental importance.

There is one trap that Europe and the US should avoid. Reforming the UN should not become a titanic struggle between European supporters of multilateralism, and those in the Bush administration who prefer to put their national interest first and last. Nor should it be an argument between people who believe that every threat must be handled by international organisations alone, and those who say that governments can deal with them all on their own. Such polarisation of the UN debate makes no sense.

What we should be discussing is the right balance between national action and the work of international organisations. The Europeans have some experience of getting this balance right, and are learning from their past mistakes. The relative effectiveness of the EU in the recent Ukrainian crisis, compared with the US, makes that point. But the Europeans also have a lot to learn about judging policies by results, not just by aspirations.

Diplomats are discouraged from being apocalyptic. Normally that is wise. But the panel report offers an opportunity to make effective multilateralism work; and one which, if fluffed or fudged, is unlikely to recur anytime soon.

Lord Hannay is a former ambassador to the EU and the UN, and a member of the CER's advisory board.

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