Germany and France have recently proposed a new project to shore up international stability and security: an Alliance for Multilateralism. Floated a year ago and presented at the UN General Assembly meeting this September, it is an idea of the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas. His French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, joined the initiative, coauthoring an article last February in which the two ministers warned that the “international order is under huge pressure.” The threats are power politics, and an unwillingness to address through global cooperation challenges ranging from climate change to cyber security. This Alliance for Multilateralism would not be opposed to any particular state, and anyone can join provided they are willing to advance shared international rules of behavior. The goal is “to form intelligent networks of committed states in order to achieve maximum effectiveness through variable geometry and fluid membership.”
What this means in practice is anyone’s guess. While the United States is not mentioned in any of the statements of this new Alliance, the gist of the effort seems to be to oppose Washington and, in particular, its reentry into great power competition. The biggest threat to world order, that is, is not Russia invading Ukraine and violating arms control treaties, or China expanding its territorial claims and putting Uighurs in concentration camps, but the United States “engaging in power politics.” States that do that are a menace to the so called “rules based order” because they seek to counter power with power rather than with rules.
Beyond this thinly veiled anti-U.S. posture, what exactly is the purpose of this Alliance for Multilateralism? The name is quite unfortunate because, perhaps on purpose, it is meaningless. Sometimes the easiest diplomatic success is one with absolutely no meaning and no consequence, and this may be a perfect example of it.
The name chosen for this diplomatic initiative combines two words—alliance and multilateralism—that are almost synonyms. Alliances are multilateral by definition because they bring various states together to act in concert, requiring compromise and coordination. Multilateralism describes the action of coordinating multiple states together to address a problem. Both terms refer to a means of foreign policy, tools by which to pursue some other objective. An alliance has little meaning if its goal is simply to have the alliance; multilateralism for multilateralism’s sake is, literally, purposeless. The Alliance for Multilateralism establishes a tool for a tool. It’s like acquiring a mallet for hammering or a car for driving but never specifying the what and where.
This may sound pedantic but terminology matters. It points to the core problem of this German-French initiative: What is it for? Will this “Alliance” counterbalance the rise of China? Will it push Russia out of Crimea and the eastern territories of Ukraine? Will it deter the nefarious activities of the Iranian mullahs? The answer is negative. None of these threats will be on the agenda of this new “alliance.” Rather the focus is on climate change, digitalization, and nuclear weapons. All are global challenges apparently demanding global solutions.
As for nuclear weapons, the German position seems to be in favor of “nuclear zero,” a position that will certainly create strains with France, a proud nuclear power, and putting in doubt the whole Alliance for Multilateralism. For instance, Maas said at a UN Security Council meeting earlier this year that “world peace is threatened by nuclear weapons.” The menace is not nuclear proliferation or the nuclear capabilities of aggressive states such as Russia or unstable dictators such as Kim Jong-un but nuclear weapons per se, which is akin to saying that world peace is threatened by tanks or bayonets. To imply that French or British nuclear weapons are threatening the peace of Europe does not win Berlin any good will; and to equate U.S. nuclear forces with Russian or North Korean nuclear capabilities is moral equivalency of the worst kind. For example, Russia has clearly violated the 1987 INF Treaty with the development, testing, and deployment of the 9M729 land based missile (SSC-8 in NATO’s designation), and this violation threatens European security. To respond to such a violation by focusing on weapons in general, combined with a slew of other generic problems, rather than on the bad actor (Russia), does little to advance peace. But Germany wants to do business with Russia, and thus it is safer to talk about abstract threats and global challenges than the particular aggressions of Moscow.
This initiative is an exercise in verbal posturing, restating the tenets of global progressivism and proposing nothing concrete except more meetings. Though it is likely to fizzle away, it is nevertheless a worrisome symptom of the persistent anti-Americanism in some European capitals. The proposed Alliance for Multilateralism ignores the foundation of order in Europe: NATO. A tested multilateral alliance that incardinates the United States in Europe, NATO has a clear purpose and working mechanisms for coordinating the actions of its members.
The question for Berlin, then, is this: Why not invest more effort and resources into NATO, built to protect Europe from clear and present threats, instead of spending time pursuing global, purposeless talking shops?