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21 March 2024, Gateway House

Power brings responsibility

Germany wants to find common ground in a multi-aligned world. For such a world to thrive, actors of consequence must take responsibility for shaping and protecting a free international order that is reliable, yet dynamic, for the benefit of all. When it comes to the global commons, there can be no pick-and-choose approach to foreign policy.

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The phrase ‘We agree on the analysis but doubt the means employed’ is part of the standard diplomatic lexicon. The Emerging Middle Powers Report 2024 presents a somewhat different picture when it comes to expert communities in Brazil, Germany, India and South Africa: while there is substantial disagreement on the causes of current global malaises, a deeper dive into the proposed solutions suggests growing consensus, particularly on global governance reform.

Germany strongly advocates a free international order based on international law. This position is rooted in self-interest as the existing order underpins our security, prosperity and freedoms. Yet, it is equally in Germany’s interest to promote the evolution of the current system. After all, the benefits are greater when rules and institutions adapt to changing realities.

The urgency and opportunities of decarbonization, as well as climate adaptation, call for more shared resources. This encompasses reforming the international financial architecture and common approaches to capital-market regulation. In addition, disruptive technologies bring enormous promise and unprecedented challenges simultaneously. Artificial intelligence will change how we work, cure diseases and conduct science, but it will also transform warfare, transnational crime and disinformation. Although less publicized, biotechnology could have a similarly profound impact on our lives. The associated risks will require new forms of global governance, and we should think about mechanisms that will allow all countries to benefit from the enormous potential.

A changing reality that traverses all issues is the diffusion of hard and normative power. Representation, decision-making and agenda-setting in global institutions and mechanisms need to reflect this.

This is why backing more actors to have a greater say is a fundamental aspect of our support for a free international order. First, the authority and reliability of the international order depend on actors adhering to its rules and norms. Second, our interconnectedness makes our security, prosperity and freedoms inseparable from those of others. Third, we want powers with expanding means to shoulder greater responsibility for global commons, such as peace and security, sustainability, health, and the right to development.

Certainly, a multipolar world comes with greater complexity and uncertainty. But more players with more power is fundamentally a good thing if they accept their individual responsibilities: this offers the potential for greater contributions to global commons.

This development increases the need and the opportunities for partnerships complementing the enduring pillars of German foreign policy: European integration, transatlanticism and multilateralism. Thus, we strategically enhance our engagement with powers of global consequence: those with the intent, means and credibility to shape the future free international order, whether holistically, regionally or on key issues.

With this in mind, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is of little benefit. As underlined by the expert polls, countries like Brazil, India and South Africa have diverging interests, means and contexts. Our approach is therefore region-, country- and policy-specific.

Look at any of the topics outlined in Germany’s National Security Strategy and you will find collaborative processes with Brazil, India and South Africa at various levels. While our goals remain consistent, there are diverse approaches to contribute to their achievement, as exemplified by the EU-India Trade and Technology Council or the EU-Latin America and Caribbean Digital Alliance.

Even when preferences differ, we still share commonalities on critical sub-issues where we work together through policy-specific groups of friends and processes. This proved pivotal to the success of last year’s COP28. The agreement on reforming the World Bank, achieved during India’s G20 presidency, played a crucial role in setting the scene. So did energy, climate and transformation partnerships at bilateral, EU and plurilateral levels as well as Germany’s efforts for an early agreement on loss and damage pledges. Connecting the dots across bilateral, regional, global and multilateral aspects of cooperation allows for a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Grey minimalist business project presentation

As much as we would like our partners to see the world our way, alignment is not a prerequisite for achieving common goals. Also, with consequential powers with which our alignment is more limited we see value in working together on issues pertinent to global public goods.

Germany, as an individual country and as a member of the European Union, is ready and capable of engaging in a world where many consequential actors pursue what some have coined as ‘à la carte’ foreign policy approaches – but we do have our dietary restrictions and the overall menu has to be balanced.

More diffused geopolitical power, the climate crisis and disruptive technologies are major inflection points, but there are others. Our increased engagement with countries of global consequence is also a response to China’s approach to the international order and, foremost, to the implications of the war of aggression that Russia is waging against Ukraine.

In these respects, the survey shows profound disagreement among the expert communities of Brazil, Germany, India and South Africa. While differing views on China are somewhat to be expected, given different national contexts, diverging assessments of Russia’s repeated violation of international law are more problematic. Russia’s war on Ukraine undermines sovereign political choices and the inviolability of territorial integrity also on a global scale. Moreover, targeted attacks on the export infrastructure of Ukraine – one of the world’s major suppliers of grain and fertilizers – amount to an onslaught on global food security. The inflation propelled by Russia, while undoubtedly harmful to Germany, has had even more severe consequences for less affluent countries.

We believe that powers of global consequence have the ability and the responsibility to stand up for the global commons. This is not a defensive endeavour to maintain the status quo but rather an effort to adjust elements of the current system to align with common global challenges: for an international order that is reliable yet dynamic, and for the credibility of global rules to constitute an order that can be leveraged to the benefit of all.

Michael Scharfschwerdt is Director of policy planning, German Federal Foreign Office.

This article earlier appeared in the Listening Beyond the Echo Chamber: Emerging Middle Powers Report.

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