Daniel W. Drezner

Some perspective sauce for European international affairs observers

Some perspective sauce for European international affairs observers

Zaki Laïdi has a fascinating op-ed in the Financial Times blasting the current state of global governance. It’s fascinating because of the mix of not-entirely-accurate observation and breathtakingly naïve prescription. The good parts version:

In principle, the emergence of a multipolar world, in which the US is no longer the only very powerful country, should boost “multilateralism” – institutionalised co-operation among states in pursuit of shared objectives. It should boost efforts to achieve free trade via the World Trade Organisation, poverty reduction through the World Bank, and international security through the UN.

Yet the reality is different. Countries are seeking to extricate themselves from global agreements in order to extract concessions from partners on a bilateral basis or to protect national sovereignty.

Take the case of the WTO. A conflict between India and the US over agricultural subsidies derailed a final compromise in the summer of 2008. This would have – finally – concluded the Doha round of trade talks, which were launched in Qatar in 2001. Negotiations have stalled since the US-India spat. The main responsibility for this failure falls on the US, which believes the system of multilateral trade no longer offers the advantages it used to. The priority for the US is to secure access to markets through enhanced bilateralism. Hence the Obama administration’s drive to agree the trans-Pacific Partnership for Asia and, more recently, to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership for Europe.

In each case, the strategic objective is to contain China’s rise by setting a high bar for regulatory standards. The novelty is that Europe, which has long defended multilateralism, is now succumbing to the temptation of bilateralism even while it remains completely incapable of assuming political responsibility for its trade policy…

It is important to understand that the collapse of multilateral trade we are witnessing today is far from being an isolated case. Climate talks since the 2009 Copenhagen conference have challenged the multilateralism heralded by the Kyoto protocol of 1997. The idea then was to move forward on the basis of a shared objective – the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Today countries only make commitments on climate change on the basis of a very narrow assessment of their national interests. The idea that shared commitments – rather than individual interests – shape behaviour is now dead….

Since the end of the cold war, Europeans have believed deeply in the existence of a global commons – and the declining importance of national sovereignty. The conduct of both the US and emerging countries suggests the opposite. Power politics is back. Multilateralism is dying.

OK, a few things here: 

1) It was a lot easier to take this "Europeans don’t really believe in national interests anymore, we’re so above all that, so the rest of the world should listen to us" guff prior to the Eurozone crisis. Watching Germany and other Northern European nations make sure that their national interest gets executed through EU institutions, however, makes this canard a bit harder to swallow. 

2) I hate to break it to Laïdi, but during the 1990s the Europeans could afford the luxury of believing in the growing power of multilateralism. That suited their beliefs and seemed to accord with the facts on a surface level. In point of fact, however, it was the growing power of the United States — along with the strong support and coordination of its European allies — that made multilateralism work. The idea that multilateralism should work better when power is more dispersed is an … odd notion. 

3) If Laïdi is really gonna go there on trade, let’s ask  blunt question — exactly which jurisdiction triggered the explosion in bilateral free-trade agreements and preferential trade agreements?  Hold on, I’ll wait … but I bet everyone already knows the answer

4) As I’ve argued at length elsewhere, focusing on Doha and Copenhagen will lead to Laïdi’s conclusions — but those cases are not necessarily representative of global governance writ large. On a raft of other dimensions, the multilateral system has worked surprisingly well.

5) Finally, the real problem with  Laïdi’s argument is that it fosters a spectacularly naïve narrative about how multilateral arrangements are created in the first place. This is hardly the first moment when great powers have created club-like arrangements in an effort to move the multilateral status quo. In fact, I’m pretty sure that some big books have been devoted to this topic.   

The reason the European Union has had success in pushing its version of global rules has little to do with its love of multilateralism and a lot to do with its market power and institutional capabilities. The sooner that European international relations commentators appreciate this, the better.

Am I missing anything?