Germany Listening – A Lecture with Nathalie Tocci

Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome, will delivered a lecture on 25

“Making Multilateralism Great Again in the Digital Age: What is Europe’s role?” Under this title, Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome and author of the EU’s 2016 global strategy, delivered a lecture on 25 November. The lecture was part of the series “Germany Listening” initiated by Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft and the Master of Arts International Relations in Berlin.

Since the appearance of the EU Global Strategy in 2016, multilateralism has risen up the ladder of European policy priorities, playing a significant role in the discourse of the new Commission. But what is really at stake? Why is multilateralism so important? And what can the EU do to preserve and foster it?

According to Nathalie Tocci, the profound transformation of the international system that we are currently living through in part reflects a transition in the distribution of global power. The world is moving away from US hegemony and the system of multilateral institutions that it guaranteed. Where it is headed is not yet clear.

During the Obama years, the US already recognized that it could no longer sustain the post-war order on its own. This resulted in an attempt to reallocate global responsibilities. Under President Trump, US policy reflects not only inability, but also unwillingness to remain in the role of global hegemon. A crude transactionalism, along with the governing principle of unpredictability, have taken the place of a commitment to multilateral institutions.

Is the end of US hegemony something to be lamented? The pax americana did bring misery to some, especially in the Middle East, but in absolute terms it brought an unprecedented degree of peace and prosperity to the world. In Europe, the end of this era is most acutely felt in the fragmentation of its security architecture, which the US no longer seems to have a real interest in maintaining.

While these issues might all be inscribed into the timeless logic of the rise and fall of empires, there is something historically unique about the current situation. According to Tocci, it is not only the distribution, but also the very nature of power that is in the midst of a transformation. Whereas power used to reside in things and in actors, it now resides in the flows between them.

Particularly relevant to this change in the nature of power is the increased importance of flows of information in the digital age. Referring to the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, Tocci points to a historical split between consciousness and intelligence. Humanity may reach a point where machines know us better than we know ourselves, leading to the risk of an unprecedented form of dictatorship.

Why is this all so important for the EU in particular? The nations of the EU are rich but small. In times of such radical change, without the shelter of multilateral institutions they will find themselves in a position as helpless as “fat chickens in the jungle”. The EU already represents the most radical form of multilateralism that history has ever known, and in order to survive it needs a system in which some rules are shared by everyone.

But according to Tocci, it is not all doom and gloom. There is significant reason to believe that the new global order will be one in which shared rules will exist. While liberalism will likely survive in it, it is just as likely that the new order will be more inclusive than it was under American hegemony, entailing a greater degree of normative contestation.

In order to ensure the survival of multilateralism and thereby its own survival in the digital age, Europe needs to get its act together, find common positions and join forces. Decisions such as the blocking of the Alstom-Siemens merger by the Commission make sense from an internal perspective, but not when one is aware of the need for “critical mass” on the global scale. The necessity to think globally is even more apparent in matters of security and defense. And when it comes to digitalization, the EU only has a seat at the table in terms of regulation, but not in terms of innovation.

Tocci also contends that there is an increased need for issue-based partnering rather than the usual logic of “like-mindedness”. Yet there needs to be a balance between effectiveness and legitimacy. The latter can be ensured in part by anchoring ad hoc partnerships in larger, global institutions. Here, the JCPOA serves as a positive example, as negotiations taken on by three European states were embedded both in the EU and the UN.

What it ultimately comes down to according to Tocci is a need for “autonomy” in the etymological sense of that word (autos = self; nomos = law): Europe’s ability to act according to its own laws and norms. In a networked age in which power is defined by borderless flows, that will entail a great deal of external and internal cooperation.

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