Incompetent multilateralism?

The Economist?s Charlemagne asks: if Obama’s American can’t make soft power work, what hope does Europe have? Richard Gowan answers: it has to work. Europe has no other option.

The Economist’s David Rennie asked a disturbing question last
if Obama’s America can’t make soft power work, what hope does Europe have?

His thesis is that Obama has followed just the sort of multilateral,
engagement-before-confrontation type of strategy that the EU advocates, and
been rebuffed by Iran, Israel, China, etc.  Meanwhile,
Baroness Ashton and her fellow EU-builders still hanker after soft power…

But here is the question that I am starting to turn over in my mind. If our
big bet in Europe is that speaking with one
voice will make our norms-based, soft power approach work, what lessons should
we draw when Mr Obama’s outstretched hand of   friendship  is smacked away?
Because even in a perfect, parallel universe, in which the EU magically falls
in line behind Catherine Ashton and the new EU diplomatic service, we will
struggle to become one half as united as the American government is. Our 27
countries will always find it hard to match America when it comes to
identifying and defending our interests. And though there can of course be
differences in the messages sent out by the White House, the State Department,
Congress and so on, in general America speaks with one voice to the outside
world, in a way that the EU can barely hope to match.

And yet all that speaking with one voice, in defence of agreed, common
interests, does not seem to shield the Obama administration from snubs.

This is an eloquent version of a problem that wonks who worry about multilateralism
and transatlantic relations
have been aware of for some time. The EU did a
huge amount to sustain multilateral institutions during the Bush years, and
benefited from playing good cop to Washington’s
bad cop. Now Washington
wants to be a good cop too, and European leaders feel vulnerable. If Obama’s
strategy fails it won’t just discredit him, but the EU’s international approach
since 2001 (or earlier).

Rennie quotes a European official who claims the problem isn’t the strategy,
but the execution: the Americans are guilty of “incompetent
multilateralism”. The implication is that, if only the U.S. applied
its power with a little more European finesse, Obama would be in a better place
right now. I’m not so sure.

There’s quite a lot of evidence that the EU is guilty of incompetent
multilateralism too. In a report
Franziska Brantner and I wrote for ECFR in 2008, we showed that European
officials at the UN spent vast amounts of time in coordination meetings (over
1,000 a year!) but that the EU was losing more and more votes in New York and Geneva.

And as I recently pointed out in a
paper for FRIDE
, European leaders have fumbled diplomacy around the rise of
the G20. They were taken aback by the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for the
G20, and their reactions varied wildly. Britain
embraced the G20 enthusiastically, while Germany
came round to it fatalistically, but Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi
tried to push a G14 that would have preserved a greater role for Europe. Meanwhile, middling European powers like Spain and the Netherlands forced their way into
the G20, reducing its efficiency and credibility.

But if Rennie is right, this doesn’t really matter because multilateralism
may be doomed anyway. The rising powers are more concerned with their hard
power and immediate interests. As I noted on Global
last month
, there are growing signals that the 21st Century
is going to be an era of old school power politics, not a new era of cooperation
on transnational threats.  Nonetheless, my
is that the rising powers have a continuing interest in
sustaining the international system – and that the US can learn how to use its
leverage in this system over time.

The EU will have a harder time responding to the net decline in its
influence, for precisely the reasons Rennie identifies. The irony is that,
while the U.S. can still revert to Plan B (for Bush) and project hard power –
as the Obama administration has done in Pakistan and is starting to do
vis-a-vis Iran – the EU has little choice but to stick with the soft power
option. Its efforts at hardness (Afghanistan,
er, Chad…)
highlight its lack of room for maneuver. So the EU is trapped in a pessimist’s
: it can’t be sure that multilateralism will work out, but it has to
keep working on the assumption (or faith, or bet) that it might.

That doesn’t mean that the EU has no leverage. If it gets its act together,
it can use its remaining leverage more effectively than it does today.
Ironically, the difficulties facing both Barack Obama and Catherine Ashton may
stimulate serious thinking in Brussels
on that score. I live in hope (and America).

This piece was first posted on Global



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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