French President Emmanuel Macron’s embrace of diverse views offers hope for ‘true multilateralism’

Nov 21, 2022By Kishore Mahbubani

I think I may have made President Emmanuel Macron blush a little.

This happened at the Paris Peace Forum on November 11. Macron had invited me to join a panel discussion with him, the presidents of Argentina and Guinea-Bissau, the prime minister of Albania, and other “intellectuals” (in the words of Macron).

The subject was “universalism in the face of war”. By universalism, the organisers were referring to the universal principles embedded in our global multilateral system.

I may have made Macron blush by saying he represented humanity’s last great hope for saving multilateralism. To explain this hope, I made three points.

First, having heard Macron speak in various forums, I know he genuinely believes in multilateralism as the fundamental cure for our world’s ills. So do I.

Second, France is a country of some significance. What it says carries weight. So does the voice of Macron.

Third, multilateralism is clearly under threat. The time and energy Macron devoted to this panel reconfirmed his commitment to it.

Since Macron had personally picked the three fellow heads of government to join the panel, I assumed they would endorse his views on the war in Ukraine.

However, Macron explained that the panel was meant to promote understanding of countries’ differing postures on the war so as to retain unity in the international community, saying that it had struck him from the very beginning that “what was experienced by Europeans as blatant aggression … was understood differently in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa, countries of the Pacific, because they saw it from a different angle”. And indeed, his guests on the panel provided very different perspectives.

Argentina’s President Alberto Ángel Fernández said the issue of Ukraine was not simply an ideological dispute and was in no way contained to the countries involved. Instead, he said it was having a massive impact on the rest of the world, especially the poor.

“The countries of the [Global] South are bearing the brunt of the war,” he said. “The war has generated major problems of food security worldwide. The pandemic cost us six million lives; now we’re predicting that the famine, as a result of this war, will cost 10 million lives.”

“We need to put in place negotiations for peace,” Fernández concluded.

The president of Guinea-Bissau, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, visited Moscow two weeks before coming to Paris and surprised the audience by saying that Putin had asked him to convey his warm greetings and give a big hug to “my brother Macron”. After speaking to Putin for nearly three hours, Embaló came away with the impression that the war could be ended very quickly if only there were true dialogue – but the West had not been open to it.

“It is the West that decides for us on our soil,” he said. “It was the case in Libya. In Africa, our continent Africa was not consulted. Our voice was not heard … We have solutions, but that requires a dialogue between North and South. We are poor, but we still have our dignity.”

Western interventions, he said, had not made the people of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan or Somalia any happier but had instead destroyed peace in those countries. He noted that the safety of Europe could not be guaranteed without Russia. “Peace cannot be in the hands of a single continent,” he argued. “We also have to hear the voices of other countries. It has to be international.”

The prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama, also failed to praise the West. He complained about Western selfishness during the pandemic, noting that the Balkans received vaccines from China, Russia and Turkey first rather than the EU.

I was the second-last speaker on the panel. After explaining why Macron was the last great hope of humanity, I emphasised that our global multilateral system was under great threat from the largest ever geopolitical contest that has broken out in human history, between the US and China. I used a simple metaphor to explain the danger. As a result of growing global interdependence and interconnections, the Earth has shrunk. Now all eight billion humans live in a perilously small boat. This boat is being rocked by a contest between two elephants, China and the US. Clearly, since all of humanity is being endangered by this tussle between these two elephants, all the rest of us should speak out against the contest. We should do this in global multilateral forums.

Unfortunately, we were running out of time when we spoke. If there had been more, I would have added an important point from French intellectual culture. The French are great believers in logic. And the laws of logic are ruthless. Here’s a simple example. If we say “all dogs are animals” and “Fido is a dog”, then the inevitable and unavoidable logical conclusion is that “Fido is an animal”. Similarly, if we say “all nations that ignore UN General Assembly resolutions should be condemned” and “Russia has ignored UNGA resolutions”, the inevitable and unavoidable logical conclusion is that “Russia should be condemned”.

However, these laws of logic are ruthless. When the US and UK ignore UNGA resolutions on withdrawing from Diego Garcia, logically speaking, they also have to be condemned. “Universalism” means “universal validity”. Hence, if either Russia or the West violates these “universal” norms, it has to be castigated. Universalism doesn’t allow exceptions.

In Paris, I did manage to squeeze in one very important concluding point. Even though it has been a long-standing policy of the US State Department to keep global multilateral institutions weak (since they constrain American power, as I document in my book The Great Convergence), former President Bill Clinton advised the US to reconsider this policy.

He said: “If you believe that maintaining power and control and absolute freedom of movement and sovereignty is important to your country’s future, there’s nothing inconsistent in that … But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behaviour that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn’t do that.”

By inviting speakers whom he knew would raise critical and dissenting points of view, Macron displayed a remarkable understanding that true multilateralism requires deliberate and concerted efforts to not merely tolerate diverse opinions, but to actively court them and give them the platform to be heard. Over time, this could lead to compromise, consensus and, possibly, concrete solutions.

As Embaló suggested, global problems cannot be solved unilaterally. They require global solutions. Macron’s November 11 panel was an example of how to begin building the partnerships and collaborative habits of behaviour that will be needed to solve the crises of the 21st century. Hence, I hope that Macron will continue his heroic efforts to defend and promote multilateralism.

Kishore Mahbubani, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is the author of ‘Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy’ (2020).

Source: South China Morning Post

You can watch the full panel discussion on the Paris Peace Forum YouTube channel.