Europe and the G20: Between Obama and Sarkozy

Most Europeans agree that the EU needs to sharpen up its act in multilateral institutions like the G20. The US won’t take us seriously if we don’t. The trouble is working out how.

This is an abridged version of The Obama Administration and
Multilateralism: Europe Relegated, a
policy brief published by FRIDE this week. 
The full paper is available here


George W. Bush frightened the
EU’s leaders with his unilateralism. 
Barack Obama has scared them with his multilateralism.  Europeans are, of course, meant to love
multilateral cooperation – and they still have far more in common with this
president than his predecessor.  Yet
Obama’s vision of international engagement rests on working with rising powers
like China and India, rather
than palling around with old European friends.

This has been encapsulated in his
administration’s advocacy for the Group of Twenty (G20) as a forum for dealing
with the emerging economic superpowers.  Europe is well-represented at the G20, but EU leaders
have an uneasy sense they’ve been downgraded.

When Mr. Obama took office
thirteen months ago, he wasn’t set on boosting the G20’s importance.  Senior figures in the new administration had
advocated a wide array of multilateral options: their ideas included a stronger
UN, a “global NATO”, a concert of democracies and “network diplomacy”
transcending specific international institutions. 

But the administration could not
continue without a hierarchy of institutional priorities for too long.  It needed to find a framework for
coordinating the international response to the still-boiling financial crisis –
unlike the G8, this had to fully involve the expanding Asian economies.  In this context, the G20 stood out as the
focus for American policy.

The US
showed its hand last September, announcing prior to the Pittsburgh summit that the G20 would act as
the “premier” forum for economic discussions, displacing the G8.  The rising powers formally welcomed this
choice, but have hardly responded to US efforts to accommodate their interests by
embracing American positions on every issue.   China
has confronted the US in
multilateral discussions over climate change and Iran.   

Yet for many serious and senior US
officials and foreign policy thinkers, the single greatest problem in the G20
is the sheer number of Europeans in the club. 
Some have asked whether the EU needs a dose of “tough love” from Washington and other capitals
to persuade it to rationalize its presence in multilateral negotiations.  President Obama’s decision not to attend the
regular EU-US summit in May 2010 looks like just that.

It is hard to find serious-minded
European officials who do not agree (in private) that the EU needs to sharpen
its act in multilateral forums – although exactly how to do this is a matter of
dispute.  But Europeans also worry that
the US
has embarked on a radical transformation of the international system without a
clear grasp of the consequences. 

Rather like Lewis Carroll’s White
Queen, they complain, the Obama administration foresees “jam tomorrow” (i.e. a
new era of international cooperation) but has yet to receive much “jam today”
(i.e. Chinese support on climate change or Iran).  They also note that will be hard for the
administration to win Senate approval for new international treaties,
potentially undermining its rhetorical commitment to multilateral engagement.

Perhaps most galling for
Europeans is the suspicion that the US
has made a high-odds bet on reforming multilateralism, but Washington is largely gambling with European

The US may be taking a risk in
promoting the G20 – but it has done so in a way that asserts its claim to
leadership, and reduced European influence in doing so.  One of the main decisions at the Pittsburgh summit was to reallocate some European voting
rights at the International Monetary Fund to emerging economies – but the US did not
propose to give up its own unrivalled power in the IMF.  Here was a win-win gamble for Obama.      

American analysts are
unsympathetic.  The EU still has greater
voting weight in the IMF than its share of the global economy justifies.  There is a hard-headed mood in Washington:
accommodating the rising powers is a necessity, and European leaders cannot detach
themselves from that.  Yet it is worth
both US and European policy-makers seeing what lessons they can learn from how
they have handled the G20’s ascent.

The main lesson is that neither
side has been truly strategic in its approach. 
The US
approach was often ad hoc.  European leaders did no better.  After last year’s G8 summit in Italy,
Nicolas Sarkozy began talking about an intermediate G14 – whereas Angela Merkel
appeared to believe the G20 was the only option.  Eurogroup president Jean-Claude Juncker has
put up a rearguard action in defence of the old G7, although he also wants a
seat in the G20.  Herman Van Rompuy also
wants a guaranteed invitation.  

Last year, the sheer urgency of
financial crisis precluded deep thinking on international architecture on both
sides of the Atlantic.  Now that this urgency is passing – and, for
all its faults, the G20 is seen as having mitigated the crisis.

This may be a chance for Europe to adopt a more constructive stance.  France will hold both the G8 and
G20 presidencies in 2011.  President
Sarkozy should use this opportunity to rationalize all the G-summitry, in consultation
with his EU partners – and the US. 

President Sarkozy should open up
debate on questions including whether the G20 could develop a role in security
issues (a popular topic in Washington)
and how it relates to the UN system (which makes many developing countries extremely
uneasy).  France could also forge an
agreement clarifying the balance of G20-G8 relations. And it could initiate a
dialogue with the US
and emerging powers on how the EU can consolidate its presence in the G20 without
sacrificing its economic and political interests.  The alternative to transatlantic debate on
these issues is more ad hoc
cooperation between the US
and the rising powers – with the EU a marginalized player, and more often than
not a big loser.

A podcast with Richard Gowan talking about Obama’s view of Europe is available here.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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