The Fairy Tales of Multilateralism


With the US tied down in the Iraqi quagmire, leftist intellectuals urge the US to abandon allegedly neocon unilateralism and return to concepts of multilateralism. Multilateralism is praised as a panacea for handling failing states, terrorism or proliferation. The op-eds are full with multilateral recipes for handling crises in all corners of the globe.

Those advocates however hardly ever define what they mean by multilateralism. Does their multilateralism call for consensus among the P-5, the veto-holding powers in the SC of the UN, as a noble principle or even force the US to achieving agreement among the P-5 at all cost? What this approach leads to has been illustrated most recently by the disastrous resolution on the Iranian nuclear programme adopted by the Security Council last week. After months of negotiating and back-pedaling, the US, the UK and France have agreed to resolution 1737 (2006) which will by all means will turn out to be utterly ineffective. Russian and Chinese balking resulted in a watered-down version which only causes laughter in Teheran. For the boasted purpose of preserving unanimity, the US and its European allies have accepted a meaningless compromise capable neither of dealing with the perseverant unanimity within the ranks of the veto powers, nor – more importantly – of addressing the Iranian menace in an appropriate manner.

Should multilateralism therefore mean aiming for widespread consensus outside of the framework of the SC? Well, the author is inclined to support such an alternative for the sake of effective approaches to handling threatening crises. But this is precisely not what the champions of effective multilateralism both in the EU and US congress like to adhere to, at least publicly. Yet these hypocritical advocates of international law tend to forget that only in 1999 many of them had supported the NATO air war against the FR of Yugoslavia, which – as we all know – was not authorized by the UN. So sometimes it obviously seems appropriate also for these multilateralists to abandon SC consensus for the sake of achieving humanitarian or interest-based outcomes in conflict cases. While I consider it right to sack legality for the sake of legitimacy in some cases, the multilateralists try hard to conceal their collusion with this approach back in 1999.

But even if we were to subscribe to multilateralism and inclined to urge the US to return to multilateralist approaches to international crises we have to answer one crucial question: Are there any reliable European partners for multilateral bargains with the US except for the UK? France, Germany and Russia have all rejected US calls for support and help in dealing with the Iraqi crisis in 2002/2003. Even if we were to concede that the military intervention by the US and the UK in Iraq in 2003 was wrong, even if we were to agree that the planning for post-war rebuilding and re-organising Iraq have been utterly simplistic, there is one thing western powers have to agree too: it is in our vital interests to stabilise Iraq. We must not accept the dismemberment of Iraq which will end in a broad military conflict in the entire region. Europe and the US need an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.

Most EU countries however prefer to sit on the fences and bark at the US; self-opinionated as they are, countries like Germany and France prefer to stick to the ‘we told you so’-position while irresponsibly denying any substantial help for the military stabilisation and the civil reconstruction of Iraq.

Multilateralism is indeed a valuable concept though not as the legalist construct of P-5 consensus. Relying on multilateralist approaches to international crises however requires leadership – which the US is to provide – and reliable partners. Most European countries do not live up to this at the moment. At the end of the day, the European mantra seems to be: We expect the US to lead and take the burden, and we will tell her when and where… and, by the way, don’t ask the EU to contribute to the effort militarily, she enjoys her peace dividend…

A commentary based on these arguments was published in German language exclusively by the Austrian Daily ‘Der Standard’ on December 30th, 2006:

Joschka Fischer mahnt also die Rückkehr der USA zum Multilateralismus an. Leider erklärt er nie, was er darunter versteht. Bedeutet Multilateralismus die Einbindung der hegemonialen Macht in den Konsens der kollektiven Ordnung der Vereinten Nationen? Meint Joschka Fischer denn, die USA sollten sich durch die Vetomächte des Sicherheitsrates – allen voran Rußland und China – einhegen lassen? Die jüngsten Fehlgeburten dieses Rates sind die zahnlosen Sanktionen gegen das islamistische Regime des Iran. Um den Eindruck des kollektiven, d.h. multilateralen Vorgehens, die auch von Fischer beschworene Geschlossenheit der internationalen Gemeinschaft zu bewahren, wurden substantielle Sanktionen unterlassen; der Multilateralismus hat ein dürres Gerippe an Verhaltensregeln ausgespuckt, das die Nuklearoption des reaktionären iranischen Regimes nicht verhindern wird.

Erstaunlich aber, sollte Fischer wirklich diesen Multilateralismus der VN einmahnen. Erinnerlich noch ist, als Deutschland unter Schröder und Fischer die – an sich richtige – NATO-Intervention im Kosovo unterstützten, die doch den völkerrechtlichen Multilateralismus des zwingend gebotenen Sicherheitsratsmandates verletzte. Sollten also nicht alle Vetomächte des Sicherheitsrates der VN zustimmen müssen, damit das heilige Prinzip des Multilateralismus gewahrt bleibt? Plädiert Fischer damit für den Multilateralismus weniger Staaten, der sich im Völkerrechtsgewand kleidet, wenn er den eigenen Interessen dient? Muss sich eine Staatenkoalition dem Völkerrecht nicht beugen, sobald sie glaubt, moralisch rechtens oder im zwingenden eigenen Interesse zu handeln? Wieder hätte Fischer damit recht, allein die Botschaft wäre ihm wohl unangenehm.

Und schließlich: ein solcherart verstandener Multilateralismus, der die Zusammenarbeit führender Mächte zur Lösung einer Gefahr auch jenseits des Mandats des Sicherheitsrates einschließt, ist stumpf, wenn die Bereitschaft der großen Staaten ausbleibt, unter der Führung der USA (die Fischer auch immer wieder anerkennt und geradezu einfordert) zusammenzuarbeiten. Multilateralismus braucht Partner. Die europäischen Partner haben sich aber gerade in der Irakkrise 2002/03 verweigert. Sie verweigern sich auch jetzt noch: Was immer man über die Richtigkeit der Entscheidung zur militärischen Intervention 2003 denken mag; was immer an der nicht ausreichenden Planung der Nachkriegsordnung auszusetzen ist; eines ist sicher: die Niederlage der USA im Irak und der Abzug der US-Streitkräfte aus dem Zweistromland würden die Region in eine verheerende Krise stürzen, die unmittelbar vitalste westliche, d.h. auch europäische Interessen erschütterte. Trotzdem bleiben die meisten europäischen Staaten auf der Zuschauertribüne und sonnen sich lieber in historischer Rechthaberei, als konkret zur Lösung der irakischen Zwangslage beizutragen. Multilateralismus ist ein taugliches Konzept – aber er braucht Partner. Führungsleistung einzumahnen, ohne zur Gefolgschaft bereit zu sein, ist nicht genug.

8 thoughts on “The Fairy Tales of Multilateralism”

  1. As much as I agree with this outstanding piece of analysis of yours,
    I beg to differ in one point: You wrote: “countries like Germany and
    France prefer to stick to the ‘we told you so’-position while
    irresponsibly denying any substantial help for the military stabilisation
    and the civil reconstruction of Iraq.”


    It is true of France, it is not entirely true of Germany’s efforts to support
    the stabilization. Concretely and clearly speaking: This endeavor was
    initiated, organized and heavily monitored by the German Ministry of
    Interior, already during the Otto Schily’s time in office. Numerous experts
    have been involved, security advisors and training units of the BKA for
    instance. Details to be found here:

  2. I do admit that your intervention is justified. Of course, I do know about these German efforts in stabilising Iraq. However, given the capabilities of Germany to support the US in Iraq this is only a very modest contribution. Isn’t is more of a face-saving measure on behalf of the German government?

  3. point taken and you are absolutely right. More could be done and more ought to be done. Even "face saving measures" however require manpower. 

  4. European governments including the incumbent German government simply do not recognise what it means if the US fails in Iraq. Even the British government seems to have lost the strength needed at the ‘home front’ to sustain the effort.

  5. I think the German government does get the picture. Fact of the matter is:
    it just cannot afford to sell it to the German public in general. A rocky coalition
    cannot handle an electorate in panic. It is political myopia in the long run, indeed.

    The case of France in this context is a different one and the motivation of the
    Elysée’s policy in the Middle East should be analyzed separately.

    Psychologically speaking, some countries in the EU seem to be playing with fire,
    leaving public opinion in the belief that, since some countries were not involved
    in the Iraq agenda of the current US administration, they will never be the
    target of attacks of any kind. Sort of an “island syndrome” … As long as the
    danger is far away, why should they bother addressing the issue and lose their
    diplomatic credentials at home and abroad? This of course, is a mere absurdity.

  6. I totally agree as to the three ‘I’s but want to emphasize that this irresponsibility imbues whole European society: if you profess this criticism of the three ‘I’s in public you will meet with absurd reproaches ranging from ignorance over militarism to fascism. Complacent Europe has not yet realized how it could evolve in so successful a way. It should, however, do so soon! Some time it will be too late meaning not only immense hardship for the European people(s) but also an erosion of the global dominance of liberal democracies. This then is more than a shame, it constitutes a profound threat to the values of the Enlightenment. Putting it maybe only a bit too dramatic, it would undermine the progress of mankind. Poor Europe!

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