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Author: Tony Brown


“ To protect the Rule of Law, you must really accept that the Law should be above Power” –  (Donald Tusk at the UN General Assembly, 2019)

Current challenges to the multilateral, rules-based order have dominated the discourse of world leaders, heads of global and EU institutions and distinguished Heads of State in Ireland and France in recent times.  In this blog, Tony Brown describes the challenge posed by the presumption of power over a rules-based international legal system and highlights recent calls to update the current multilateral order and to secure its legitimacy by making it more inclusive, rooting it in civil society and the business community and making ‘responsible leadership’, based on respect for the Rule of Law the defining feature of EU and national foreign policy.


The G7 summit in Biarritz, for the first time in its almost fifty-year history, was unable to agree a joint communique on its demanding agenda of global issues. The discussions on the Iran nuclear agreement, trade wars, climate change, relations with Russia and the raging Amazon fires produced confusion over what, if anything, could be agreed upon. The single page ‘Declaration’ which eventually emerged contained no more than “a handful of aspirational thoughts about trade, Iran, Ukraine, Libya, and Hong Kong”[1]. The absence of the traditional communiqué means that “no carefully negotiated written record of what leaders have actually agreed, no solid commitment to any particular course of action”[2] .

President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to find issue-by-issue agreements on a number of key agenda items – in particular, the Iran deal and the suspension of Russia from the G7 following the Crimea invasion – may have produced some progress but serious questions exist about the present and future standing of the multilateral global system.   As Lara Marlowe pointed out in the Irish Times, events after the summit closed showed how fragile Macron’s achievements were with the Iranian and Brazilian Presidents refusing to go along with the Biarritz initiatives[3].

The Position of the European Union

In the ‘New Strategic Agenda 2019-2024’ agreed by the European Council, commitment to multilateralism is pervasive. The document states that: “The EU will remain a driving force behind multilateralism and the global rules-based international order, ensuring openness and fairness and the necessary reforms. It will support the UN and key multilateral organisations”, alongside insisting that the EU “increase its capacity to act autonomously to safeguard its interests, uphold its values and way of life and help shape the global future”[4]

Commission President designate, Ursula von der Leyen, affirmed her commitment to multilateralism as “[Europe’s] guiding principle in the world” in her personal manifesto ‘A Union That Strives for More’, calling on Member States to strengthen the Union’s unique brand of “responsible leadership”. This echoes previous speeches in which she endorsed the rules-based international order: “We want multilateralism, we want fair trade, we defend the rules-based order because we know it is better for all of us”, adding that multilateralism is in Europe’s DNA and that it is now time to update our rules-based global order.[5]

The Trump Factor

Following his talks with Boris Johnson in Biarritz about the prospects for a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal, Donald Trump said “We’re going to do a very big trade deal […] and now at some point they won’t have the obstacle, they won’t have the anchor around their ankle, because that’s what they have.”[6]  This viewpoint was further reflected in the calculated attack on the European Union by the US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, during a visit to London, speaking of “the fashion in the European Union: When the people vote the wrong way from the way the elites want to go it’s to make the peasants vote again and again until they get it right.”[7]

The Trump administration has identified the EU as a threat to US interests with the President calling it “a foe”.  According to them, EU states “not content alone with transferring their own national sovereignty to Brussels, they have also decided, in effect, to transfer some of ours to worldwide institutions and norms, thus making the European Union a miniature precursor to global governance”.  The EU has become the target of a political offensive from Washington, and Moscow, “not just because of what it does, but what it is.”[8]

Such remarks are indicative of an escalation of the unilateralism which is a key element of the ‘philosophy’ of the Trump era.  For many observers, this has raised the question of just how far the administration is prepared to go to undermine the global rules-based system of which the US was a founder, promoter and supporter from the Truman-Marshall post-war days.

Under Mr Trump’s command, the US has exited the Paris Agreement and has started rolling back policies designed to reduce emissions. Mr Trump has pulled his country out of the Iran nuclear deal, the product of a long and difficult negotiation, going on to pressurise his unwilling European allies to contemplate ending the fragile structure.  He has embarked on trade wars, notably with China, and set out to weaken the World Trade Organization by blocking the appointment of judges for the dispute settlement process.  Most recently the US has withdrawn financing for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), a move greeted with concern even in Israel.  A serious attack has been mounted on the International Criminal Court, and, the US has effectively ended the crucial Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.

This American assault on the multilateral order is paralleled by similar approaches by other players, not least Vladimir Putin’s Russia which, for example, has worked hard to discredit the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  Other countries are actively working to weaken key international organisations and reduce their effectiveness.  It is clear that some of these powerful countries will seek to pressurise international bodies to make them more compliant.  There is a real risk of damage that may be permanent or not be easy to undo.  There is also a serious risk that the multilateral organisations themselves will compromise their roles and philosophies in the hope of protecting them.

Emmanuel Macron – an Alliance for a new Multilateralism

In a speech to French Ambassadors on 27 August, 2019, French President, Emmanuel Macron, an ardent defender of Europe, spoke of the beneficent role that the EU continues to play in global affairs, claiming that “a multilateral framework [is] part of the answer to […] imbalances and inequalities” and that acting unilaterally instead is “ not in our interest”. He took this position whilst outlining a new initiative which will focus on finding allies that [France] would introduce on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in order to build “an alliance for a new multilateralism”, which will seek to unite not just “European powers but [all] democratic powers of goodwill who share this vision of the world and are sensitive to achieving these balances”. He claimed that this initiative will be necessary for maintaining the “structures of multilateralism” and will “give them a new vigour” and warned that failure to do so would lead to an “alternative multilateral framework being built by others, particularly China”[9].

President Macron had previously defended multilateralism, and its contribution to the fight for international peace, which is “still incumbent upon us”, arguing that this fight can only be won in the “21st  Century by restoring a strong multilateral system capable of resolving conflicts in a pragmatic manner, but also and more broadly by tackling the causes of these disturbances”. He contended that multilateral institutions are not incompatible with national sovreignity, and that he supported  “strengthened cooperation taking multiple forms and the renewed legitimacy of international engagement in this context”[10]

On 28 April, 2018, President Macron made a strong personal statement to the US Congress, in which he outlined how he saw the role of the United States in shaping this rules-based order as being a proactive one. He argued that in order to tackle the “global threats that we are facing”, it will be required that we “build the 21st century world order, based on a new breed of multilateralism, based on a more effective, accountable and results-oriented multilateralism -. a strong multilateralism”. This process itself would require “the United States’ involvement,” “more than ever,” “as [their] role was decisive for creating and safeguarding today’s free world”.[11]

The Case for Multilateralism – A UN perspective

United Nations Secretary General, António Gutteres, made a major contribution to the discussion on multilateralism at the Paris Peace Forum in 2018,  stating the United Nations’ position on multilateralism – namely, that cooperation and institution-building were invaluable in creating a post-war order marked by peace and prosperity, sentiments reminiscent of Jean Monnet. “Over the past 100 years, the desire to settle conflicts peacefully on the basis of common rules has been converted into a universal system of institutions in the political, economic, social and environmental spheres.   The horror of those great global conflicts cannot be forgotten […] But horror must never prevail over hope.  It was that same hope that gave rise to the development of multilateralism in the twentieth century.”  He made specific reference to the creation of the League of Nations in 1919, following World War I and the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, following the Second World War in 1945.

Explaining that multilateralism has become a “necessity”, he stated that nations working together has “yielded undeniable results,” including: a reduction in child mortality and extreme poverty over the last few decades; major battles won against public health threats such as smallpox, polio, and AIDS; and several successful conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts.   “More than a million men and women from 125 countries have served in peacekeeping missions over the last 70 years to prevent the spread of crises, protect civilians and support political processes.”   He remarked that the existence of a multilateral framework had been indispensable in facing up to nuclear proliferation crises, referring to the Security Council’s unity in dealing with the Iranian and North Korean situations.

Recognising the challenges faced by the multilateral system by the return of power politics, António Gutteres argued that: “Without the multilateral system and respect for international rules, we risk a return solely to power relations, reward-sanction mechanisms and a cycle of frozen conflicts.  That is why I will not sit back and watch an assault on multilateralism just when it is most needed”.  He continued: “I strongly believe that strong multilateralism only comes from strong states. Only robust States have the power to make commitments.”

Echoing Macron’s statement on the importance of anchoring the legitimacy of international institutions in civil society, Secretary General Gutteres called on States to renew their Compact with Citizens.   “We need an inclusive multilateralism that is closely related to civil society and the business community.  The multilateralism that is now part of our daily life is at risk of disintegrating just when it is most needed.”[12]  Speaking at the European Parliament in August 2019, Ursula von der Leyen stated that multilateralism is the best tool we have “to defend our values and to protect the most vulnerable in our Union. That is why there can be no compromise when it comes to respecting the Rule of Law”.

From the perspective of Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins, a commitment to peace-building and strong multilateral institutions have been the defining marks of Ireland’s foreign policy. In his Inaugural Address in 2018, he argued that these values must be underpinned by a deeper global consciousness […] where we can recognise the complexities of history, while coming together to address common global challenges.


[1] Borger, Julian in The Guardian on 26/09/2019

[2]  Herszenhorn, David & Momtaz, Rym in Politico on 8/26/19

[3] Marlowe, Lana in Irish Times on 09/09/2019

[4] New Strategic Agenda 2019-2024, European Council

[5] Excerpt from speech delivered by von der Leyen to the European Parliament on 16th July, 2019

[6] Mason, Jeff & James, William in Reuters on 25/08/19

[7] Holland, Steve in Reuters on 12/08/19

[8] Nougayrede, Natalie in The Guardian on 18/02/2019

[9] Excerpt from an address delivered by President Macron to France’s Ambassadors on 27th August 2019.

[10] Excerpt from an address delivered by President Macron to the UN General Assembly, on 30 September 2018

[11] Excerpt from an address delivered by President Macron to United States Congress on 25 April 2018

[12] Excerpt from UN Secretary General António Gutteres’ address to the Paris Peace Forum in November 2018