Richard Gowan

´╗┐Richard Gowan is an Associate Director at NYU's Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy ...

Richard Gowan

Multilateralism without money

December 2011

´╗┐European policy-makers like to boast that they have multilateralism in their DNA.  Their history of cooperation within the European Union, they say, means that they are naturally inclined to work with international institutions like the United Nations and World Bank. 

Over the last year, however, many European officials have become disillusioned with multilateral deal-making both inside the EU and beyond it.  The European Council has proved to be a poorly-adjusted mechanism for making hard choices about the euro crisis. 

At the global level the G20, once trumpeted as the saviour of the world economy, has made only faltering progress in addressing global imbalances and currency issues.  The UN has become entangled in fruitless debates over Syria and Palestine’s statehood.  And the UN-led talks on climate change, having stalled in Copenhagen in 2009, remain adrift.

Western diplomats express concern that rising powers like China and India do not have a fundamental interest in making multilateralism work.  The new Asian superpowers are gaining influence in the UN and international financial institutions.  But they have devoted a lot of their new-found leverage to restraining the West over crises like Syria.

While the BRICs countries have offered to help the ailing eurozone by injecting more funds through the International Monetary Fund, European and American officials worry that they will demand more power over the IMF as a quid pro quo for their generosity. 

The EU’s grim financial situation has had broader effects on its members’ commitments to multilateralism.  Budgetary pressures have caused France to cut back its support to UN humanitarian agencies.  The Dutch government has reduced development aid.  Britain has clashed with the US over the costs of UN peacekeeping in trouble-spots including South Sudan and Liberia.  Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, recently accused the Europeans of adopting a “holier than thou” attitude in calling for austerity at the UN. 

These tensions raise questions about whether the Europeans are really such committed multilateralists after all.  Before the financial crisis, EU members saw investing in international institutions as an affordable way to maintain their international influence.  The IMF could bail out wayward economies like Argentina while UN peacekeepers could stabilize basket-cases like Somalia.  All the Europeans had to do was write the cheques.

Now, however, the IMF’s primary challenge is supporting the eurozone and Argentine politicians are lecturing the Greeks about how to escape their debt trap.  Stabilizing far-off fragile states in sub-Saharan Africa looks like a luxury not a necessity.  In Brussels, Catherine Ashton is believed to be less interested in “effective multilateralism” than her predecessor Javier Solana, who reportedly had ambitions to be UN Secretary-General.

Not everyone has grown cynical: the European Commission has scraped together extra funds for humanitarian projects to make up for cuts by member-states.  But the EU’s overall loss of enthusiasm for multilateralism is having a negative effect on its influence.

“The Europeans have lost their soft power in the UN,” one peacekeeping official told me some months ago.  As if to prove the point, the UN General Assembly voted this October to elect Azerbaijan to the Security Council rather than Slovenia, in spite of the fact that the Slovenes had been preparing their campaign for a decade and were the EU’s candidate. 

The EU has not given up all influence of the multilateral system yet.  Britain and France led the charge for Security Council action over Libya (although they needed US support to secure it). Paris was able to ensure that Christine Lagarde succeeded Dominique Strauss-Kahn as head of the IMF, despite much grumbling from non-Western countries.

But if the EU’s financial position worsens – or simply stays as bad as it already is – the Union’s influence over international institutions will fade.  Europe’s supposedly ineradicable faith in multilateralism may prove to be much weaker than it once seemed. 

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