A Plenary Speech on Revitalizing Global Multilateralismat the 9th World Peace Forum

By Herman Van Rompuy

Beijing,3 July 2021

I am not telling you anything new when I say that major changes have taken place on a global scale in the last thirty years. The landscape looks completely different. Let me give you a few examples.

First, there is the end of the Cold War after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fifteen years later, the EU expanded to include 10 countries of Central and Eastern Europe with almost 100 million inhabitants. Today, unfortunately, one speaks of the possibility of a new Cold War even though history never repeats itself in the same way.

The globalisation of the economy accelerated after China joined theWorld Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001. China’s export-led growth and access to world markets meant that China is already the world’s largest economy in purchasing power parities. However, this interdependence means that relations between major powers look different from those at the time of the Cold War, when there was almost no economic interaction between the USA and the former Soviet Union.

The rapid rise of renewable energy is causing a quiet revolution in the energy market. It is also reducing the economic and geopolitical importance of oil and gas producers by the day. The goal of many countries to become carbon neutral by 2050 or by 2060 indicates how irreversible this trend is. I come back to globalisation. The growth of world trade has slowed down considerably in recent years. Trade restrictions and trade wars also play a role in this. In the advanced economies with their vibrant democracies, globalisation is increasingly seen as a threat to employment. Wrongly, by the way. Deindustrialization has turned some regions into depressed ones where populists make grateful political use of them. These domestic developments have geopolitical consequences as we have seen in recent years.

As a result, there is a tendency to be less dependent on each other economically. It is not a movement towards autarchy or isolationism but towards avoiding excessive dependence. Global  actorswant to become less dependent especially in economically, medically, digitally and politically sensitive areas. Diversifying supply chains is one method. The pandemic has given further impetus to this new tendency. In the USA, even after the previous presidency,“Buy America” is still a major policy option and is a major theme in domestic politics, which makes it difficult to change this policy. In the EU, the concept of“strategic autonomy” has become a central policy goal. It touches many domains such as trade, investment, strategic sectors, batteries and chips, industrial data, defence, the digital, cyberspace, migration, climate and energy, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, raw materials, and in the future, certainly, food. In all these areas,numerous initiatives have already been taken by European authorities.  In China they speak of“dual circulation” and of“technological self-reliance”. The development of domestic demand instead of overly one-sided export-led growth should make China less dependent on the world economy. All these developments among the three main geopolitical actors are not so visible today but will become clearer in the course of the years. It is political choices that underlie them and not economic reasoning. In the EU we have a concrete example of the latter phenomenon. Brexit is not economically in favour of the UK. It is a political choice. History will tell if it is irreversible.

The consequence of the evolution just described is that multilateralism is losing its appeal despite the continuing high level of interdependence. Normally, there should be more global governance towards such a phenomenon.

With regard to trade, the WTO does not really work today as before. The dispute settlement mechanisms are still dysfunctional. The reform of the WTO to take more account of e-commerce, subsidised exports, intellectual property and others is not happening. The EU has traditionally been the biggest defender of“open, fair and rules-based trade” but has become suspicious because it has the impression that some global actors pay too much lip service to this concept or even ignore it. Hence, voices in the EU to be less“naive” are becoming louder. Nevertheless, the Union still wants its“strategic autonomy” to be embedded in rules-based multilateralism. The EU does want to protect itself from unfair competition and to secure a level playing field. It also wants its internal market— which has the highest purchasing power in the world — not to be dominated by companies that have a quasi-monopoly or by enterprises that operate on subsidies. The EU dreamed at the time that its internal rules would be adopted worldwide. This dream of projecting its model has now been increasingly replaced by protecting it. I repeat:we are still working in accordance with the multilateral philosophy.“Strategic autonomy” is a defensive concept. If there were enforceable international agreements, Europeans would have much less need of strategic autonomy.

However, it is time for reform, especially for the WTO. It should be a top priority on the international agenda. The less the time is ripe, the more we must do to make it ripe. The alternative to the pure market is brute force, the law of the jungle. No one knows who will emerge from it as the strongest. For world prosperity, it is in any case a lose-lose story.

Where progress was made on multilateralism, however, is on combating climate change. The Paris Agreement of December 2015 is a milestone, provided of course that it is implemented by all signatories. It is a good thing that the USA is back part of the convention. The EU has given a legal basis to the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. So it is much more than political rhetoric. Both the EU as such with its emissions trading scheme and other instruments and the Member States, are fully engaged in implementation. It is a huge transformation of the economy and of society. It is urgently needed because global warming is happening much faster than we thought in Paris. In my country’s capital, there will be no place for fossil fuel vehicles within 14 years. Other cities in Europe and China are going even faster. Almost 40% of the massive European economic recovery plan is going to the fight against climate change. So economic relaunch in Europe is now much more than building classical infrastructure. That time is over. The EU countries already have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990. It is a legal obligation. In 2020 we were at -22%, which was better than scheduled while the economy grew by 60%. Today the EU is responsible for less than 10% of global pollution. We are well aware of our historical responsibility, although at that time the economies and populations were much smaller than today. I am glad that the USA and China are willing to cooperate on climate issues. The importance to humanity is too great to play the game of geopolitical rivalry here. By the way, it is not possible to cooperate only with countries that are ideologically like-minded. There are also common values alongside the differences. Climate is one of them. That is why the EU will also honour its financial commitments to support poorer countries which, by the way, suffer more from climate change than the more prosperous economies.  Taken together, the EU and its 27 member countries are the biggest provider of climate finance to developing countries, contributing €21.9 billion in 2019. I repeat: now is the time for implementation. The International Energy Agency calculated that by 2030, investment in renewable energy must triple if the world is to meet the Paris targets.

A huge factor of mistrust in the world are cyber-attacks.  Sometimes it is about destabilising democracies or economies. This is interference in the internal affairs of a country by acts. It goes without saying that this is provoking counter-reactions. It is one of the most serious developments. It is a matter of collective security.

The world order must be based on trust. The latter is too much lacking today. Until that is restored, multilateralism based on rules respected by all, will not really be restored either. We must learn to live with differences between countries. Those differences can be of many kinds: political, religious or ideological. It is the basis of harmony, solidarity and peace. That is our experience in the European Union with its 27 countries and 24 official languages. At the global level, one can be competitors and rivals of different kinds but that does not make one an enemy of each other. One can even be strategic partners in well-defined fields or projects even if the countries are not like-minded and even if they say so publicly. Trust is also based on predictability of behaviour. It must also be based on respect for international law and on the integrity of each country’s territory. Building trust is a process. Certainly restoring it. In my region there is an expression that says that trust goes away on horseback and returns on foot.

We live in a new world in which each one is looking for his place. This is accompanied by tensions and uncertainties that must not, however, be derailed. Precisely because it is a new world, references to a so-called glorious past are meaningless. As a matter of fact, history is often rewritten in function of the present. Nostalgia and revenge are bad counsellors. Again, the EU has a lot of experience with this. It drew lessons from the tragic first half of the twentieth century and restarted a new chapter in its history. Therefore, the EU is anything but in decline. On the contrary the decay was there exactly at that tragic time. There is no trace in the EU of nostalgia for the Empires of that time. We now focus on the well-being of all our citizens and on protecting, if necessary, our“way of life”. This is the deeper justification for“strategic autonomy”. At the same time, the Union wants to contribute to global stability and prosperity. Denigrating this is called“soft power” but I have not seen many military and political successes in recent decades of“hard power”. Quite the opposite.

That said, the restoration and modernisation of the WTO is a top priority along with implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change. A kind of cyber-peace must be established between global actors, perhaps first based on bilateral agreements. We must also work together to avoid new pandemics because the risk of a repeat of what happened since the early 2020s and now, is real. Besides, the current crisis is not over. The G20 would work towards a future where pandemics can be brought under control quickly.

We must also continue to watch over financial stability. The economic consequences of the COVID crisis were absorbed around the world by a sharp expansion of private and public debt. This was perfectly justified to avoid a repetition of the economic downturn after the banking crisis. But once the recovery is well underway, a gradual return to greater stability should be considered. This is primarily a matter for the countries themselves, but there is also a collective responsibility. It should also be a topic for the G20.

The COVID crisis has also increased inequalities within countries and between them. Extreme poverty has increased again for 100 to 200 million people, after a decline for decades. We were in the same storm but we were not in the same boat. The EU has not imposed an export ban on vaccines and is the largest donor to COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access).But it is insufficient. I endorse what has already been said on this: each one is only safe when everyone is safe. The poorer countries must be able to count on us for vaccines, for debt relief, for infrastructure, for cooperation in their human development, for the fight against climate change. This is called solidarity. Africa remains the most vulnerable in all these areas, not least because of the demographic explosion that will take place in the next few decades, while other global players will have to cope with a dramatic fall in their population, including the number of people of working age. But my point here is that increasing inequalities must be combated. TheSustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are more topical than ever. At the millennium goals for the years 2000-2015, theUnited Nations Organisation (UNO) could look back on numerous successes especially in poverty reduction.  The result for 2015-2030 could be negative.

More than ever, it is time for dialogue among leaders and among peoples. Cooperation starts with dialogue. Concrete agreements on concrete problems must improve the international climate. Concrete implementation of past agreements contributes to more“détente” and above all to the solution of problems such as climate change where it is a matter of general human interest. The pandemic is a global phenomenon unlike the financial crisis. Unfortunately, it has not received the response in terms of global governance that it deserved. Preventing the rapid spread of new pandemics though, could be a matter of international dialogue and cooperation. At least many hope so. We can spare ourselves this collective disillusionment. I remain a man of hope.

Herman Van Rompuy is former President of the European Council.