Speech by State Secretary Michaelis at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs

12.09.2018 - Speech

Farewell to Multilateralism? - Building a Strong Europe for a Strong World Order

Dear Simon Tay,
Ladies and Gentleman,

I am grateful to the Singapore Institute of International Affairs for giving me the opportunity to speak to such a distinguished audience. For me this feels like a home-coming. I have very fond memories of the four years (2002-2006) I served in Singapore – a city and nation unlike any other. It’s good to be back.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
“The jungle grows back” – this is how Robert Kagan has titled his most recent book. Kagan paints a rather bleak picture of our world returning to its natural state of affairs.

A world in which the withdrawal of the United States as a benevolent hegemon gives way to power politics and a fragmentation of the rules-based order. A world in which might makes right and in which many see multilateralism on its way out. This is the issue I would like to discuss with you tonight, and this is why we chose the rather gloomy heading “farewell to Multilateralism”. Please note the question mark at the end of that statement. Not all is lost, I believe.

Because for foreign policy practitioners like myself and others here in the room, it is not enough to simply complain about the alleged end of the liberal world order. It is our duty to formulate policy responses. These responses have to be built on “common ground”. Therefore, let me start by pointing out some of the fundamental interests Germany and Singapore share:

Firstly: Both of our countries are highly integrated in the global economy and highly depending on trade. For Germany, Asia is our biggest market outside Europe both in terms of exports and imports, and it is growing rapidly. Much of our trade passes through your port here in Singapore, the busiest transshipment port in the world. The prosperity of our nations depends on free trade, on the security of international sea lines of communication and on freedom of navigation.

Secondly: We can only prosper in a secure and stable environment. Insecurity is anathema to business. Around the world regional security fora, however, are at risk of instability both because of external pressures, but more importantly because the American pillar has become shaky. We are all required to assume more responsibility for our own security as well as for the security of our neighborhood.

Finally: we as middle powers depend on cooperation on a level-playing-field that respects the sovereignty of our partners – be it in business or politics. Bullying or “divide and rule” practices undermine trust in our international relations. Trust is our most important asset!

These, in a nutshell, are our joint interests. Now let me turn to Germany´s policy response. I will focus on the contributions that Europe and Germany in particular can make to assume more responsibility and counter the erosion of the rules-based international order. And I am keen to hear your views, later on, on what your approaches to this changing world are.

Germany´s no. 1 strategic goal is a strong and sovereign Europe. Therefore our foreign policy aims at

  • strengthening Europe as a force for security and order in our neighborhood and beyond;
  • strengthening Europe as a global economic power house and an advocate for an open and just international economic order; and
  • strengthening Europe as a pillar for a strong and resilient rules-based international order.

Let me start with the issue of security and defence: The rise of new powers with sometimes revisionist geopolitical agendas, the numerous crises around the world and the approach taken by the current US government have created a new strategic reality that we all have to respond to. Both in Asia and Europe we feel the wavering commitment of the US to our common security. It puts us in a tight spot. While the US is still our single most important ally on security, with “America First”, the US is today taking a much more narrow approach to world affairs.

Where Washington is withdrawing, we will need to develop new approaches and step up our cooperation with other partners.

We have come to realize that Europe has to become, in its own right, a force for security and order in our neighborhood and beyond. This will require a dual approach: While we continue to invest in our transatlantic partnership, we will also have to further develop our means and mechanisms to translate our Common European Security and Defense policy into practice.

We want to speak with one voice on the world stage, but being 28 – after Brexit 27 – sovereign states, this is not easy – especially when outside powers try to undermine our unity. I know you can all relate to this as ASEAN is facing similar challenges. In the EU, we have taken first steps to address this problem by grouping together countries willing to take European security and defense cooperation to a new level, a project called PESCO. There is more to come: Another initiative, developed in Berlin, aims at furthering the EU´s role in civilian crisis management by establishing a Civilian Stabilization Corps. And we have triggered a discussion about the future of unanimity in European Foreign Policy decision making. In the run-up to our EU presidency in the second half of 2020, we want to make serious progress on those three fronts.

In addition, we will strengthen the European pillar of NATO by pooling capacities (e.g. in the field of infrastructure/military); several dozen projects have been agreed to this effect at the last NATO summit in Warsaw. NATO is the natural partner for the EU to boost security cooperation, but not the only one. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN has been the primary driving force for peace and security. We are proud of the EU-ASEAN cooperation that goes back more than 40 years. We certainly seek to expand it further.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our second strategic priority centers on strengthening Europe’s role in the global economy. Both Germany and Singapore hold key positions in the global economic order that now has come under strain. The more others withdraw from multilateral frameworks and agreements, the more they employ power politics and take advantage of economic asymmetries – the more we have to push back. We must serve as dependable pillars of an open, just and sustainable global economic order!

With regard to Europe, this requires measures to be taken within. This includes developing our capabilities to act more autonomously on international trade-, economic-, and financial policy. We need to invest our common financial resources more efficiently in the field of innovation, research and development as well as European infrastructure – one of our priorities for the next multiannual budget of the EU.

And we need a new set of European rules for investment control that will help defending against a sell-out of European strategic assets to foreign investors.

But it also means that Europe will have to strengthen its economic ties with partners around the globe. We particularly look toward the East. The EU’s recently signed free trade agreement with Japan is a major step in this direction. It not only creates the largest free trade area in the world. It also sends an important signal against protectionism. We welcome the signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in March this year, which Singapore already ratified. Further agreements should follow with states and regional alliances that also stand up for free trade. The EU has already concluded trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam and it has started negotiations with five more members of ASEAN.

Our goal remains to conclude a region-to-region agreement with ASEAN as a whole. I would be particularly interested to hear your views on this project – is this a project we should push for with a view to sealing the deal under the German EU presidency?

On a global level, we are prepared to discuss ways to reform the WTO in order to safeguard this crucial institution. We have to adapt it to changing realities. To be clear: We think that tariffs and quotas – such as those imposed by the US – should be subject of negotiations in the relevant bodies. They should not be used as instruments to punish other countries. On the other hand, China’s interpretation of free and fair trade poses a risk to us: There needs to be a level playing field, a fair chance for all market participants. And that is not compatible with forced technology transfer, foggy state subsidies or the export of overcapacities. On these issues, we see eye to eye with Washington.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
The third strategic priority I had identified is boosting a rules-based international order. In fact, all countries that are not great powers depend on this order for their security and their economic development. When the system is hit, a trading nation like Germany and a regional hub like Singapore feel the blow most strongly. Add to this Germany’s history, and you can well say that multilateralism has – over the past 70 years – become part of our DNA. We see multilateralism and a rules-based international order as the best way to preserve prosperity, stability and peace not only for us, but also for our partners around the globe. The alternative concept – unilateralism and power politics – not only leads to more conflict but also jeopardizes the prosperity of our people. And I believe that the vast majority of Singaporeans would sign that statement, too.

This is why the strengthening of the rules-based international order is of utmost importance for us. Europe wants to become a central pillar and a strong partner for all those dedicated to upholding this order.

One way is to ensure that Europe serves the interests of the United Nations. The UN is at the forefront of addressing global issues such as climate change, free trade and security. In January, Germany will assume its seat on the Security Council as a non-permanent member for two years – and although the vote was (as always) secret, I have a strong inkling that this happened also thanks to the vote of Singapore. We will do this in as much of a European spirit as possible. And while we thought that our previous stint on the Council in 2011/12 was a challenge, the global landscape and Council politics may have become even more challenging today. Crises and conflicts on the agenda of the Security Council abound. For now, it includes:

  • working towards UN-led political solutions to conflicts in Syria, Libya and elsewhere;
  • defending the nuclear non-proliferation regime as an essential pillar of our collective security
  • supporting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, one of the most important diplomatic achievements of the past decade
  • enabling the UN to prevent crises and conflicts, including those caused by climate change.

But our commitment to the international order goes beyond the Security Council. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has launched the “Alliance for Multilateralism”. We see this as an informal network of countries who understand that multilateralism means investing in order as a common good, even if one does not immediately benefit from it. For this we seek partners around the globe. The initiative is as much a rallying cry for action as it is policy-oriented. We do not envisage a new “G-Format” or formal structure.

The aim is to strengthen the pillars of global order by working more closely in existing institutions and through “issue-based coalitions”.

This initiative is open to everyone willing to invest in defending the rules-based international order and developing it further where required. South Korea and Japan have already shown interest, but we also look forward to cooperating with ASEAN countries. For me, Singapore feels like a natural partner in this endeavour.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
In closing, let me stress one point: When we in Germany work towards a sovereign and strong Europe, our goal is not a “Europe First”. To the contrary: We strive to strengthen our ties with partners around the world, to accept compromise where is serves a common interest, and to work towards addressing global challenges together, building on other partner´s views and ideas.

This is what Europe has always stood for – we are more the Renaissance garden than the jungle.

Farewell to multilateralism? I would sum up: no way, but we have to work on it. Now I am looking forward to hearing your views. Thank you very much for your attention!


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