The Multilateralist

Are Europeans Better Negotiators?

I spoke recently with a U.S. State Department official who’s been immersed in the world of complex multilateral negotiations and he pointed out something interesting: European diplomats, for the most part, love the process of multilateralism while many other major delegations find it cumbersome, frustrating, and even a little anxiety-inducing. On its own, this is ...

I spoke recently with a U.S. State Department official who’s been immersed in the world of complex multilateral negotiations and he pointed out something interesting: European diplomats, for the most part, love the process of multilateralism while many other major delegations find it cumbersome, frustrating, and even a little anxiety-inducing.

On its own, this is not surprising. Today’s European diplomats were born, raised and educated with the EU project all around them. The European preference for extended negotiation, comfort with supranationalism, and aversion to conflict has by now become part of the diplomatic conventional wisdom. As Robert Kagan wrote almost a decade ago:

Europeans insist they approach problems with greater nuance and sophistication. They try to influence others through subtlety and indirection…. They are quicker to appeal to international law, international conventions, and international opinion to adjudicate disputes. They try to use commercial and economic ties to bind nations together. They often emphasize process over result, believing that ultimately process can become substance.

But it’s not just that Europeans are dispositionally more inclined to complex, open-ended multilateral negotiations. The geometry of many of today’s global negotiations works strongly in their favor. As the State Department official pointed out: 

Often, you’ll  have many if not all EU countries represented. That means you have more than twenty voices that have coordinated their policies. Then you’ll have delegates from the European Commission. In some settings, Europe might have 28 voices saying the same thing, while China or the United States has one.  On top of that, you have the formal linkages with other parts of the world that several European states maintain, including the Commonwealth and France’s links with francophone Africa.  In global conferences, Europe ends up heavily represented.

The phenomenon raises an interesting question. Does Europe’s amplified voice and its affection for and experience with multilateral processes give it a comparative advantage in global negotiations? Do they get more of what they want because they embrace processes that drive other states slightly batty? It would be a tough proposition to test empirically, but it might be worth it.

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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