Almost 500 days into the war in Ukraine, Europeans and Americans are anxious about their relationship with the global south. While the transatlantic allies are united, they have been left perplexed by the often tepid reaction of third countries to Russia’s aggression. And the gap between north and south appears only to be growing.
The global crises of the last five years – covid-19, Russia’s war on Ukraine, inflation, climate change – have pushed Europeans’ focus inward, while these challenges have plunged much of the developing world into economic decline alongside exacerbating energy and food insecurity. Worse, some of the solutions put in place to overcome these crises – border closures, sanctions, re-shoring – have had major negative impacts on the global south. Meanwhile, the multilateral system has spiralled further into crisis, accelerated by the effects of the US-China rivalry, and has failed to provide relief to developing and vulnerable countries. More deeply affected by this ‘polycrisis’ than the global north, they have much less resource to tackle its consequences: dozens of low-income and medium-income countries now face crippling debt.
To start to address these problems, President Emmanuel Macron is holding an ambitious event that seeks to focus political attention on the injustices and inequities of the current global financial architecture. Hurriedly decided on after last year’s COP27 in Egypt, his Summit for a New Global Financing Pact will bring leaders, civil society advocates, private actors, and international financial institutions together in Paris. The gathering’s goal is to find ways to build a more inclusive and equitable financial system, one that enables the climate transition and promotes biodiversity without jeopardising development.
From its colonial and post-colonial history, and with its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, France maintains many close relationships on other continents. In response to brewing discontent and despair, Macron has stressed the need to address global south grievances, using frequent speeches to do so, whether in New York, Washington, or Bratislava. He is now once again engaged in an ambitious yet hasty endeavour: inspired by COP21 in Paris in 2015, the president believes diplomatic elbow grease goes a long way in mobilising around global issues, and he has made good use of it. As early in his first presidency as 2018, he launched the Paris Peace Forum, an annual event bringing together leaders and civil society to work towards a revived and innovative multilateral order. After President Donald Trump rescinded the Paris Agreement on climate change, Macron launched summit after summit on aspects of the issue (One Planet, One Ocean, and One Forest). To tackle the impact of covid-19 on Africa, in May 2021 France hosted the summit on the financing of African economies.
This time, the goal is to reinvent the global financial architecture. Ever since the paradigm shift brought about by the pandemic, Macron has argued for a new approach – a “Paris consensus,” in a reference to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change – to replace the market-orientated Washington consensus with net zero, sustainable economic development goals. In his view, the metrics used in the past are “not valid any more to fight against poverty, for the decarbonisation of our economy, and for biodiversity”. He is therefore pushing to reform the global architecture to incentivise net zero investments for a sustainable future.
Macron’s idea behind the new summit is to give a political boost to an issue all too often discussed only on a technical level, and in silos. No one expects an actual “pact” to be signed, but France – along with the summit’s steering committee, which is composed of states and international organisations – is aiming for a political declaration that would muster firm commitments from world leaders, and force consequences down the line. And world leaders are indeed showing up: the secretary general of the United Nations, the new president of the World Bank, the president of the European Commission, the US Treasury secretary, the president of Brazil, the German chancellor, and the Chinese prime minister are all expected to attend, along with 40 heads of state, one-third of whom will be from Africa.
As so often before, Macron hopes to be transformational in record time. The summit planning started with high ambitions, but sources say it has had to adapt due to a lack of time and focus. Initially launched around the Bridgetown initiative of Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley, France had aimed to include topics other than climate, such as health and poverty, and sought a G20 presidency endorsement by India. Unfortunately, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi will be in Washington during the summit and, despite the fact that India is co-chairing the summit’s steering committee and the expected presence of Lula and Li Qiang, the event may not in the end be a show of force for the global south. NGOs have been privately critical of the lack of inclusivity and transparency of the working groups, and disillusionment is running high.
Some concrete results could still emerge from the four working groups, if negotiations are successful. Among the ambitions floated are debt suspension clauses for natural disasters, reallocation of special drawing rights, scaling up private capital flows through improved de-risking instruments, freeing up more concessional resources from multilateral development banks, and new international taxes (such as a levy on maritime transport). In an increasingly fragmented world, a united political declaration in support of these changes at the conclusion of the summit would be a win for everyone.
However, a more modest but attainable goal from the summit would be the emergence of a “coalition of ambition,” in which a number of committed countries, or “champions,” take on specific challenges and sustain the diplomatic effort beyond the summit in Paris. Many other opportunities to build on momentum created in Paris will shortly follow: the African Climate Action Summit, the SDG summit, the New Delhi G20 Leaders Summit, and COP28 in Dubai. Since this summit has no mandate, it can only be a success if it is able to agree actions that then endure. For global south countries, the gathering should in turn create opportunities to strengthen support for their demands in all these upcoming forums.
The success of the Paris summit will also depend on the capacity of states and other major players to take on the challenge – including Europeans. Germany is backing France in this effort, but most Europeans have yet to show their commitment to the process. Thirteen world leaders have penned a declaration of good will in an op-ed ahead of the summit, although without offering specific pledges or a timeframe for results. Unfortunately, the American president will not attend the summit, nor will the Italian, Canadian, or British prime ministers. The choice to stay away may stem from irritation at yet another grandiose French summit. But rich industrialised countries have no excuse for lacking interest in the dire situation of developing and vulnerable countries. It also puts responsibility on France to continue to move the ball forward after the summit – and not be content with the impression that it tried.
Even if France may indulge in summit-mania, and however imperfect the event will inevitably turn out to be, Europeans and Americans must realise that France’s solo act is worth supporting. With clear steps taken by France ahead of the summit, such as the reallocation of 30 per cent of its special drawing rights (about €7.8 billion), Macron is defending his concept of an effective multilateralism in action, one that delivers. With Russia seeking to peel global south states away from the West, Europeans and the United States need to take up concrete actions that correct the imbalances of the current system and offer developing countries greater voice and power. By finally accepting that the institutions set up after the second world war must change, they would enhance their own credibility among global south states while escaping multilateralism limbo. The only way to salvage international cooperation – and to push back against the narrative of an inevitable north-south polarisation – is to demonstrate that it bears fruit for all.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.