Don’t disengage, shape the change

14.02.2020 - Article

Contribution by Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas published in the Security Times.

This year’s Munich Security Report diagnoses the world with a condition it calls “westlessness”, whose symptoms include signs of Western paralysis in view of a loss in global significance. Many political observers share similar concerns. While our countries and societies increasingly question their own norms and values, the argument goes, we are losing the power and will to shape the global order for the better.

Indeed, Western power and heft in the world, both economically and politically, may no longer appear as dominant as they once were. But we should not forget that this current state of affairs is a result of Western success, not a sign of failure. The very system built, led and defended over decades by liberal democracies all over the world – including their support for open markets – gave rise to an international order that was stable and balanced enough to allow other countries to thrive, prosper and rise. This should not be a cause for anxiety and self-doubt, but a source of additional motivation to preserve and strengthen the rules-based system that we helped create in order to get here.

The speed, force and ubiquity of change may no longer surprise us, but it still challenges our capacity to adapt. Globalisation and the digital transformation are accelerating the worldwide reshuffle of power and wealth – within and between countries. Germany, in concert with other liberal democracies, supports the legitimate claim of billions of people to have their say on the global stage. There is no reversing the shifts, nor should there be. We should be ready to brace ourselves for change.

In order to peacefully manage this change and to sanction foul play, we need a critical mass of countries willing to stand up for the norms and rules that have served us so well. As the world is turning into an ever more interconnected chess game, we cannot flip a coin to determine our next move. We must uphold the rules of the game and strengthen the organisations, institutions and alliances that enforce them. This must include the willingness to reform institutions when they lack effectiveness and amend the international order where new challenges require new norms and rules. Prosperity, security and, ultimately, peace will otherwise be at stake.

Last year – at the 55th Munich Security Conference – Jean-Yves Le Drian and I introduced the idea of an Alliance for Multilateralism. As no individual state has full control over its destiny any more, we will need flexible, strong and manoeuvrable multilateral formats and forums in order to tackle issues from climate change and security to arms control, global trade and migration. At a time when key principles of the rules-based international order and well-established instruments of international cooperation are being challenged, the Alliance for Multilateralism aims to bring together those who believe in strong and effective multilateral cooperation. An international network of states willing and able to mobilise partners and to leverage our political influence can solve critical issues incrementally, one by one.

In September 2019, over 60 foreign ministers from all continents met in New York to show their political commitment to the Alliance for Multilateralism. Since then, the idea and the informal network have spread. We will jointly work to protect and preserve international norms where they are coming under pressure. We will help advance the reform of key multilateral institutions where this is needed to keep them effective and to adapt to changing realities. And we will take the initiative to devise multilateral solutions for policy areas where new challenges require collective action. The recent adoption of guiding principles on lethal autonomous weapons systems by the 125 States Parties to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons is one such area in which the Alliance has started to deliver.

The European Union remains the cornerstone not only of Germany’s perspective on multilateralism, but of our approach to engaging with the world. Brexit has just demonstrated that the merits of EU membership are not self-evident. The EU was created as a project for peace and prosperity within; in today’s world of new great-power competition, Europeans are becoming increasingly aware that it is also their only hope of controlling their own fate vis-à-vis the rest of the world.

During Germany’s EU Presidency in the second half of 2020, we will focus on Europe’s position in the world: how can we become more resilient in an interconnected world? How can we achieve and maintain digital sovereignty, and at what cost? We will have to continue to improve the competitiveness of our national economies while preserving and strengthening our common social standards. Consequently, we will need to expand and deepen existing networks. With the EU-China Leaders’ meeting and the Summit between the EU and the African Union, we will emphasise Europe’s global aspirations and perspectives alike.

In the field of security and defence, close transatlantic cooperation with the United States and other European partners will remain crucial. NATO has guaranteed security and prosperity in Europe for 70 years; it has been our life insurance. Our goal remains a strong European pillar on which our transatlantic alliance rests. Just recently, I suggested that NATO embark on a process of reflection on the political dimension of the Alliance, which was endorsed at the NATO Leaders’ Meeting. To my mind, this is a case in point for NATO’s problem-solving capacities – and for democracies and networks of democratic states more broadly.

International crises right on Europe’s borders remind us not only of a need for collective action by the West, but also of our neighbours’ need for a united Europe. In Ukraine, we are continuing to work together with France to help resolve a conflict at the heart of Europe (the OSCE’s crucial role along every step of the way is another testimony to effective multilateralism). While progress is far from satisfactory, the past year has seen renewed serious efforts to improve the humanitarian situation and chart a path towards a peaceful solution.

On Libya, we have taken the initiative to corral international actors in support of the United Nations‘ Special Representative’s peace plan, to help get the conflict parties to the negotiating table and restore compliance with the Security Council’s arms embargo. This “Berlin Process” has only just begun – indeed, so far, all sides have continued to supply weapons and personnel to the conflict parties in spite of their commitments. However, this new cycle of escalation has only solidified the military stalemate, at increasing cost to both sides. The Berlin Process offers the parties an off-ramp from this destructive cycle – we believe it is in their interest (not to mention the Libyan people’s interest) to take it sooner rather than later. At our meeting in Munich, we will work to keep this open for them.

None of this is easy, and success is far from guaranteed. But we are convinced that, in an unsteady world, a steady hand can make a difference. Our untiring efforts will ensure that the future will not be a “Westless” one.


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