Cornelius AdebahrNonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe
It should and will at least try to. After all, multilateralism is what the EU is made of. Yet the more interesting question is: What will happen if Europe cannot defend multilateralism?
It is no coincidence that EU integration advancements over the decades were marked by the multilateral world order. Obviously, the EU’s effective multilateralism strategy did not always work, if only because most states still struggle for power, not cooperation. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—the latest in a string of unilateral decisions against multinational cooperation—throws Europe off balance because it touches on the essence of what European integration (and, by extension, the transatlantic alliance) is about: working with partners and neighbors on compromises that further the collective good. America First is as incompatible with this approach as are the nationalist–maximalist approaches of China and Russia.
So if the EU cannot find strong enough allies like Brazil, Canada, India, Japan, and others to fight for the multilateral system, or it fails to even try, then two scenarios are possible: either the EU will disintegrate, and nationalism and conflicts will reemerge; or (some) European countries will take a leap and integrate into truly supranational structures in order to survive in an increasingly Hobbesian world. Take your pick.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Jean Monnet chair at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
It has to. During a recent tour of the House of European History, I thought that a visit to the museum should be compulsory for all European government officials to remind them of the alternative to peaceful cooperation through multilateralism.
To keep multilateralism alive, Europe first needs to make it work within the union itself. The presence of four ambassadors of EU member states at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem shows we are not quite yet there. However, Europeans need to keep working together within and in defense of international multilateral institutions and agreements, such as the Iran deal, knowing that there may (hopefully) be a new U.S. administration in place in a little more than two years. As Jean Monnet used to say: people pass, institutions remain.
Krzysztof BledowskiCouncil director and senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
This will be difficult. The EU’s embrace of multilateralism relies on the union’s love of rules. Yet rules only go so far. The framework works best where agreements cover quasi-public goods. A commanding share of international stakeholders perceive world finance, fisheries, or intellectual property worthy of protection, so multilateral dialogue follows.
This is less the case when overwhelming power or large private gains come into play. The United States has upheld a large number of multilateral initiatives but has acted unilaterally in a myriad of others. The EU is no wallflower, either. Its recent attempts to regulate international taxation or digital flows outside existing institutions, such as the WTO or OECD, are examples of its unilateralism.
Yet America First embodies a particularly isolationist streak in world affairs. This should open the door for Europe. Paradoxically, without U.S. patronage the EU may struggle to take up the mantle of multilateralism. The Europeans like to talk the talk much more than walk the walk—unless the United States is nearby. Still, this is as good a moment for European leadership as any. Whether it is free trade, digital regulation, or clean air, the EU has a chance to move. It should embrace the challenge.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Asia Centre
Europe must defend multilateralism and keep pressing the United States to return to the fold. Whether this occurs during the Trump presidency (unlikely) or post-Trump (possible), the EU cannot afford to give up on the United States given its importance in world affairs.
The strategy must be threefold. First, work with different actors in the United States (including Congress, federal states, media, business, trades unions, and youth) to emphasize the importance of the multilateral approach, also for America. Second, try and build a coalition in favor of maintaining and strengthening the multilateral system. This could be different groups for different issues. Third, demonstrate that the EU is a shining example of multilateralism at work.
Heather ConleySenior vice president for Europe and, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies
It will be very difficult for Europe to defend multilateralism by itself. The practice of multilateralism and the creation of alliance structures that emerged from the post-World War II era were viewed as the best way for the victorious powers to rebuild Europe and stabilize the international system—all underwritten by U.S. leadership with the support of Europe and Asian partners.
However, we now find ourselves at a transitional moment in the international system where continued U.S. leadership of that system is now in question. The multilateralism and international organizations of the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries are giving way to a networked, horizontal approach to resolving international challenges that involve governments but also must include the private sector and civil society. The question is whether Europe can support and effectively function in this new, networked multilateralism or remain in its own, rigid definition of the old multilateralism.
Mahaut de FougièresPolicy officer at the Institut Montaigne
One lesson Europeans should learn from President Trump’s recent unilateral decisions—to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, to renege on the Iran nuclear deal, and to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, to cite a few—is that they cannot rely on the United States anymore. In this new context, where the American superpower is increasingly disengaging from international affairs, Europeans may be the only global player left that is willing to defend the multilateral order.
The question remains: can Europe defend multilateralism? In the case of the JCPOA, Europeans appear to be committed to maintaining the agreement with Iran, Russia, and China—even if the United States is no longer a party. But this can only be done if Europe finds a way for its companies to invest in Iran without being subject to American sanctions. The same goes with the Middle East. If Europe wishes to promote a multilateral approach to crises such as the Syrian conflict at a time when the United States appears to be willing to disengage, it needs to speak in a unified voice and assert its willingness to fully engage. However, in a context characterized by instability in the EU, nothing is less certain.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe
The Brexit-Trump neoisolationist axis is certainly a major threat to multilateralism, but so too is Iran’s aggressive sponsorship of anti-Jewish terrorism in the Middle East, its rejection of UN resolutions on Syria, and its proxy religious war against Sunnis in Yemen.
The rise of new powers like China and India and the insistence by Putin that the Russian economy can stay at a third-world level as long as he is a unilateral global player means that the classic multilateralism as fashioned since 1945 is under serious threat.
At Chatham House this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for a new setup for the UN Security Council. He, like many new arrivals on the global scene, sees one-sided northern dominance (that is, the United States plus Europe) at the UN hiding behind claims of multilateralism.
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, and probably the new Italian government make a mockery of intra-EU multilateralism.
Rule-of-law nations committed to respect for international treaties will be the losers if multilateralism loses its salience. Britain’s assault on the best example of effective multilateralism in history—the EU—is as big a threat as the United States turning its back on the League of Nations in 1920.
Multilateralism is not dead, but its future is uncertain.
Nora MüllerExecutive director of international affairs at Körber-Stiftung
For Europeans, multilateralism is like air: taken for granted for many years, it leaves us gasping for breath when it becomes thinner. Our prosperity depends on free trade, our security hinges on the rules-based international system. A Hobbesian “might makes right” world will render us vulnerable. From a European point of view, there is no alternative to defending multilateralism.
The significance of salvaging the JCPOA therefore goes far beyond keeping an imperfect-but-working arms control regime intact. It is the ultimate effort to underscore the value of multilateral diplomacy and to uphold the principle of pacta sunt servanda, without which international agreements would be reduced to worthless pieces of paper.
Yet it would be foolish to assert that Europeans will be able to shoulder the task of defending multilateralism on their own. We need partners. Saving whatever we can of both the JCPOA and the transatlantic alliance must remain a priority. However, the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal also serves as a wake-up call for Europeans to elevate their engagement with non-Western global players beyond the economic sphere—and not only with Beijing, the self-proclaimed torchbearer of multilateralism, which has yet to walk the walk when it comes to defending the rules-based international system.
Jonas Parello-PlesnerSenior fellow at the Hudson Institute
Europe can and should defend effective multilateralism, which delivers results for European citizens. Sweeping new data rules (GDPR), which return power over data back to EU citizens and with global reach, is a fitting example. The EU’s multilateralism has also underpinned the Iran deal. Yet the biggest policy area where the EU should proactively shape the multilateral agenda in the years to come is on trade.
It is not enough to sing the praises of the WTO on festive occasions. The multilateral trade system is in genuine flux. A main reason is that China’s state-driven, economic rise creates unaddressed trade-distorting issues, including technology transfers, subsidies, and investment rules. The EU should proactively work to shape international rules either in the WTO, if possible, or through initial “flexilateral” groupings with allies that can later be lifted back to the WTO level.
In contrast to Trump’s America First trade approach, the EU has the multilateral street credit to take such steps. This could also be the multilateral riposte to Trump, who has the right instincts on greater trade reciprocity with China (an ambition shared by the EU), but pays scant interest if he bulldozed the international trading system simultaneously.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Europe not only can but must defend multilateralism for the simple reason that it is one of its raisons d’être. The starting point of the European endeavor in 1950 was twofold: first, to avoid the recurrence of intra-European wars; and second, to reconstruct a devastated Europe under a common project and joint institutions. When the EU developed international relations, it quite naturally became a supporter of multilateralism.
Today, for the first time since the end of World War II, a U.S. president is directly confronting the EU and its policies. The Iran deal is just one example among many. Under the America First rationale, Donald Trump has already challenged the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the North America Free Trade Agreement, and imposed tariffs on imports from the EU and other countries. Scrapping the nuclear deal results in hampering European exports to Iran, when the industrial goods concerned contain U.S. components—which is the case for any Airbus aircraft and most European automobiles.
Attacking multilateralism might seem like a good idea for some in Washington, but it will lead to trade wars at the expense of all. Populism and wise economic policy are not necessarily compatible.
Marietje SchaakeMember of the European Parliament
Yes it can, but must do so with partners.
Globalization and digitization create mutual dependence, and most challenges require rules and solutions beyond borders. From internet governance to trade and from climate change to migration, agreement and cooperation towards shared solutions are essential.
Since the self-defeating withdrawal by the Trump administration from a series of multilateral agreements, the EU has taken over the position of leader in defending and promoting multilateralism. We can never show too much ambition here and should engage with other partners to build a critical mass.
It is in our citizens’ interest—and hopefully Europe will find the United States a more reliable partner toward multilateralism again in the future.
Stephen SzaboResident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
It can and it must. This is a time for tough love for the United States. It is now clear that flattery will get you nowhere with this narcissistic U.S. president and—as is the case with other authoritarian leaders like Putin, Orbán, and Erdoğan—only firmness will be respected.
Europe must remain as unified as possible on trade issues and should work with China and Russia to preserve the Iran nuclear deal. The EU must be ready to resist and push back on secondary American sanctions and place its larger world order and geopolitical interests over economic ones. Europe will have to call the bluffs of John Bolton, the U.S. National Security Advisor, and Richard Grenell, the new American Ambassador to Germany, and be willing to inflict economic pain in return if necessary.
Appeasement policies have failed in the past and will fail again. Europeans are best placed to demonstrate to Americans that America First means America Alone. This is a message that those in the United States who still value alliances and are tired of military overstretch—still the majority of the public—need to hear from their friends.
Paul TaylorContributing editor at POLITICO and senior fellow at Friends of Europe
Multilateralism is in trouble mostly because Donald Trump has unilaterally taken the wrecking ball to international accords on climate change, trade, Iran’s nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also because of Russian and Chinese behavior.
Despite its bluster about keeping the Iran nuclear deal alive without the United States, the EU lacks the guts and power to resist U.S. extraterritorial sanctions. European firms remember the massive U.S. fine that French bank BNP Paribas had to pay for breaching past unilateral sanctions. They won’t risk that again, knowing the EU cannot shield their business in America.
So what can Europe do? Show Trump that life goes on without America, if necessary:
- Build a web of free trade agreements with like-minded nations and regional groupings;
- Meet its Paris climate accord targets and set itself ambitious new ones, including for financing climate adaptation in poor countries;
- Use EU trade, aid, and institution-building tools more effectively in our neighborhood, starting with the Balkans, where the goal of membership gives us most leverage; and
- Leverage our rule-setting power over data protection, privacy, and technical norms to build multilateral standards.
We can’t solve the Middle East or nuclear proliferation crises without the United States. But we can make multilateralism work better where our tools are strongest and we’re not yet living up to our own ambitions.
Nathalie TocciDirector of the Italian Institute of International Affairs
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from JCPOA—or, more accurately, to violate this multilateral agreement enshrined in international law—has put Europe in an uncomfortable position of choosing between siding with the U.S. administration or defending multilateralism and the rules-based global order.
Fostering transatlantic partnership is a key European goal, but defending multilateralism is an existential interest for the EU and its member states, trumping all else.
President Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA has paradoxically helped Europeans to finally make the right choice. Having tried and unsurprisingly failed to persuade Trump to abide by the deal, Europeans now have the opportunity to take the far more promising path of actually defending the JCPOA itself.
The Iran nuclear deal is not only about a critical nonproliferation agreement or a contribution to security in the combustible Middle East. It is a major demonstration that multilateral diplomacy and international law can actually work.
Rhetorically, Europeans are united in saying the right thing. But will they act upon their words through a variety of technical, legal, financial, and diplomatic measures? Doing so may concomitantly risk exacerbating transatlantic tensions while being insufficient to persuade the Iranians to remain in the JCPOA. Nonetheless, if Europeans are serious about their “strategic autonomy,” this is without doubt the place to start.
Louise van SchaikSenior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute
When the United States takes a unilateral course on matters of world politics, an opportunity emerges for the Europeans to rally around their flag. Multilateralism is part of the EU’s DNA—the union’s foundation is based on a belief that international cooperation is most effective to address cross-border problems.
The withdrawal by the Bush government from the Kyoto Protocol and International Criminal Court in the early 2000s helped the EU to realize the importance of multilateralism and to demonstrate its ability to defend it. Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement hardly provoked the EU—or others like China and Canada—to reconsider the multilateral approach on climate change. America’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran deal and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem might become the next examples in line.
Unlike in the early 2000s, the EU is less dogmatic and outspoken in its defense of effective multilateralism as reflected in the 2016 EU global strategy. And Europe may well have to bond with China and/or Russia to keep international consensus alive. This might prove sensitive. But the multilateral reflex is strong, and opposing Trump internally could help to forge both EU unity and support for the EU, as has happened before.
Richard YoungsSenior fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at Carnegie Europe
European governments are showing impressive resolve in trying to salvage the Iran deal as a key test case for rules-based cooperative security—although they may ultimately lack the power to make the decisive difference.
Whether the EU has a well-worked, broader policy for upholding and recalibrating the multilateral order is another question. Mike Smith and I recently charted the EU’s drift toward a more selective and instrumental adherence to the norms of liberal order. The EU’s support for multilateral rules and liberal-inclusive security norms is strong in some policy areas, weaker in others. Through this “contingent liberalism,” the EU supports the basics of liberal order while endeavoring to defend its own short-term strategic interests. But to the extent it eschews liberal principles in some policy areas, the EU may find it harder to uphold such norms when they are vital for its own immediate interests.
The challenge ahead is not simply to defend multilateralism against an errantly cavalier U.S. president. It is to fashion a form of global order more attuned to underlying shifts in structural power balances. Even before Trump’s unsettling arrival in the White House the basic challenge was apparent: whether international order can be delinked from unquestioned American hegemony but still retain core liberal elements. The EU is still some way from ensuring its actions contribute consistently to this goal.