EU: Unilateralism or multilateralism?

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Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran has placed the European Union in a dilemma of unprecedented gravity. We are talking about the fact that Brussels, as the city of European institutions of integration and leadership, must choose between unilateralism, as a manner of conduct in international affairs, and multilateralism, basically its own DNA, source of the creation and growth of continental unity. Namely, it must choose between negating the existential legitimacy of “the 28,” or submitting to the hegemon’s attitude in its rushed march toward the restoration of an “America First” system.

In this choice, Europe has to flexibly weigh its own vulnerabilities but also to identify its strong points. The major vulnerabilities are obvious. The tearing asunder of transatlantic unity leaves Europe harmed first of all militarily, especially in the nuclear domain, because, in the absence of the American umbrella, the two EU-member nuclear states on the Old Continent – France and United Kingdom – cannot ensure the necessary deterrence in relation to major global strategic actors, Russia in particular. Let us add that, in the United Kingdom’s case, Brexit, which is still being negotiated, is, in a certain way, actually similar to the unilateralism promoted by U.S. President D. Trump. First of all, in the world which we have recently entered, it seems might makes right, to use the known principle of the Hobbesian universe. The economic, trade, and even cultural effects prompted by the potential diminishing of unity, thus imposed on the West by the recent American move, are incalculable at first sight, given the decades of cooperation in the northern hemisphere between the states that claim to be the inheritors of a millennia-old joint background of ideas and historical evolution.

Can the EU take this major step, namely to undertake the defence of multilateralism, of its own DNA, and to challenge the decision of the hegemon?

Opinions vary, two main currents standing out, one which gives an affirmative answer, and one which gives a negative answer to that question. Based on Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey’s recent query (May 17) addressed to a series of experts and ex-officials from EU member states, and on the reactions to it, this strict identification of the said currents is easy to make. The ones pleading for the positive answer to the question are in a hurry to point out that the EU is duty-bound to accept the challenge because it is the only one able and justified to do so. As one of the respondents puts it: because this is about “the essence of what European integration (and, by extension, the transatlantic alliance) is about: working with partners and neighbors on compromises that further the collective good. America First is as incompatible with this approach as are the nationalist–maximalist approaches of China and Russia.” Or, in the words of another respondent (Fraser Cameron): “Europe must defend multilateralism and keep pressing the United States to return to the fold. Whether this occurs during the Trump presidency (unlikely) or post-Trump (possible), the EU cannot afford to give up on the United States given its importance in world affairs.” Similarly, it is worth mentioning the frequency with which the experts note that the EU can no longer rely on the U.S., however without taking that opinion to its final conclusion, namely that the U.S. would seek the destruction of the organisation. Of course, the necessary capacity to pick up the glove thrown by Washington must also be outlined and, from this standpoint, the respondents’ opinions are divergent. While some are sceptical in what concerns the chances of success, others, few, come up with a series of proposed actions that would operationalise the EU’s affirmation as the main support of multilateralism and of the rules-based international order. Some are firm in showing that, if the EU is unable to identify allies in the system and to draw them in this challenge to the hegemon – from Brazil to Canada, India and Japan, to Russia and China – then the organisation will disintegrate and split. Others, just as few, consider that the EU’s main preoccupation must be maintaining, at any cost, the institutions meant to promote multilateralism, which are under siege, and to wait out the passing of the systemic tsunami triggered by D. Trump. Others, almost the majority, agree that the EU must necessarily respond to the challenge raised by Trump’s decision and must not lose the opportunity offered to undertake a leading systemic role. A former British minister for Europe opines that multilateralism is under the assault of several actions lately – “The Brexit-Trump neoisolationist axis is certainly a major threat to multilateralism, but so too is Iran’s aggressive sponsorship of anti-Jewish terrorism in the Middle East, its rejection of UN resolutions on Syria, and its proxy religious war against Sunnis in Yemen” – and its future is uncertain, even though we cannot say it has already died. Also standing out among the answers are some considering a wide systemic alliance – “the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal also serves as a wake-up call for Europeans to elevate their engagement with non-Western global players beyond the economic sphere—and not only with Beijing, the self-proclaimed torchbearer of multilateralism, which has yet to walk the walk when it comes to defending the rules-based international system” – but also some that are sufficiently cautious: “The multilateralism and international organizations of the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries are giving way to a networked, horizontal approach to resolving international challenges that involve governments but also must include the private sector and civil society. The question is whether Europe can support and effectively function in this new, networked multilateralism or remain in its own, rigid definition of the old multilateralism.”

Hence, a wide range of opinions. From the necessary reply to the U.S., to the devastating impact that this action could have for the future of the EU, and from the hypothesis of an alliance with Russia and China in order to overcome this delicate moment, to the hypothesis that the EU must not lose the opportunity to stand out as a major independent actor in the system.

In what concerns us, we assess that it is obvious that the EU is not yet able to stand up to the level of the real challenge it has to manage – including because of its lack of internal unity –, that it will have to treat very carefully its relationship with Washington in order not to tear asunder the unity of the West, the only one able to keep the Euroatlantic world at the centre of global politics. Otherwise, the U.S. will walk alone on the already announced path and the future will be one that the logic of the Westphalian system has proven twice in the past century alone, namely the threat of hegemonic war. Europe must remain in partnership with the U.S., consolidate the almost eight-decades-long transatlantic link, calm down the White House’s effusions of hubris or its fear of losing the top systemic position to its Chinese competitor, and militate for a future world that is both multilateral and globalised. It is the only viable option for the unity of the West and the continuity of its traditional global role.