Incompetent multilateralism?

The Economist’s David Rennie asked a disturbing question last week: if Obama’s America can’t make soft power work, what hope does Europe have? His thesis is that Obama has followed just the sort of multilateral, engagement-before-confrontation type of strategy that the EU advocates, and been rebuffed by Iran, Israel, China, etc.  Meanwhile, Baroness Ashton and her fellow EU-builders still hanker after soft power…

But here is the question that I am starting to turn over in my mind.If our big bet in Europe is that speaking with one voice will make our norms-based, soft power approach work, what lessons should we draw when Mr Obama’s outstretched hand of friendship is smacked away? Because even in a perfect, parallel universe, in which the EU magically falls in line behind Catherine Ashton and the new EU diplomatic service, we will struggle to become one half as united as the American government is. Our 27 countries will always find it hard to match America when it comes to identifying and defending our interests. And though there can of course be differences in the messages sent out by the White House, the State Department, Congress and so on, in general America speaks with one voice to the outside world, in a way that the EU can barely hope to match.

And yet all that speaking with one voice, in defence of agreed, common interests, does not seem to shield the Obama administration from snubs.

This is an eloquent version of a problem that wonks who worry about multilateralism and transatlantic relations have been aware of for some time. The EU did a huge amount to sustain multilateral institutions during the Bush years, and benefited from playing good cop to Washington’s bad cop. Now Washington wants to be a good cop too, and European leaders feel vulnerable. If Obama’s strategy fails it won’t just discredit him, but the EU’s international approach since 2001 (or earlier).

Rennie quotes a European official who claims the problem isn’t the strategy, but the execution: the Americans are guilty of “incompetent multilateralism”. The implication is that, if only the U.S. applied its power with a little more European finesse, Obama would be in a better place right now. I’m not so sure.

There’s quite a lot of evidence that the EU is guilty of incompetent multilateralism too. In a report Franziska Brantner and I wrote for ECFR in 2008, we showed that European officials at the UN spent vast amounts of time in coordination meetings (over 1,000 a year!) but that the EU was losing more and more votes in New York and Geneva.

And as I recently pointed out in a paper for FRIDE, European leaders have fumbled diplomacy around the rise of the G20. They were taken aback by the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for the G20, and their reactions varied wildly. Britain embraced the G20 enthusiastically, while Germany came round to it fatalistically, but Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi tried to push a G14 that would have preserved a greater role for Europe. Meanwhile, middling European powers like Spain and the Netherlands forced their way into the G20, reducing its efficiency and credibility.

But if Rennie is right, this doesn’t really matter because multilateralism may be doomed anyway. The rising powers are more concerned with their hard power and immediate interests. As I noted on Global Dashboard last month, there are growing signals that the 21st Century is going to be an era of old school power politics, not a new era of cooperation on transnational threats.  Nonetheless, my suspicion is that the rising powers have a continuing interest in sustaining the international system – and that the US can learn how to use its leverage in this system over time.

The EU will have a harder time responding to the net decline in its influence, for precisely the reasons Rennie identifies. The irony is that, while the U.S. can still revert to Plan B (for Bush) and project hard power – as the Obama administration has done in Pakistan and is starting to do vis-a-vis Iran – the EU has little choice but to stick with the soft power option. Its efforts at hardness (Afghanistan, er, Chad…) highlight its lack of room for maneuver. So the EU is trapped in a pessimist’s paradox: it can’t be sure that multilateralism will work out, but it has to keep working on the assumption (or faith, or bet) that it might.

That doesn’t mean that the EU has no leverage. If it gets its act together, it can use its remaining leverage more effectively than it does today. Ironically, the difficulties facing both Barack Obama and Catherine Ashton may stimulate serious thinking in Brussels on that score. I live in hope (and America).