Events & News


The European Union in an era of multipolarity – Perspectives from non-European lenses

Professor Richard Higgott Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Research (Faculties of Arts and Social Studies), Professor of Politics & International Studies, Department of Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick

05 Apr 2010

LT 301, Level 3, NTU@one-north campus, Executive Centre, 11 Slim Barracks Rise (off North Buona Vista Road) Singapore 119595

10.00am – 12.00pm


Report on research seminar

In this research seminar, Prof Higgott addressed the challenges facing the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy in the changing international arena, and also challenged some of the common assumptions held by the EU foreign policy community.

Prof Higgott said that there is a growing interest in multipolarity in Europe with four assumptions preoccupying both scholars and practitioners that (1) there is an inevitable shift from the United States hegemony to multipolarity; (2) the EU will become one of the poles in the new world order; (3) multilateralism will be the principal agent of management in that order; (4) transatlantic relations will be the key driver of this order. Prof Higgott stressed that these assumptions are not axiomatic, and that it is important to distinguish between multipolarity as a normative goal and multipolarity as a reality.

According to Prof Higgot, multipolarity is plausible, but not inevitable. After the brief “unipolar moment”, there is a consensus now that new powers are rising. But what does it really mean? The answer to this question is far from clear. From one point of view, there is a strong perception that the US economic model is challenged and the “moral value of the West” is diminishing, especially after the global financial crisis that started in the US. From another point of view, the US “structural power” is still there: its share of global income – 22% – has not significantly changed since 1975; the enormous Pentagon budget is supporting its military preponderance. There are also no clear alternatives to the so-called “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism and the current efforts in the world are focused on mitigating its negative effects, not replacing it altogether.

Prof Higgott described the current situation as “the rise of the rest” (using the expression of Fareed Zakaria), since there is no clear multipolarity emerging, especially in its traditional meaning as balancing against the hegemonic power. Even the fashionable term BRIC, used to describe Brazil, Russia, India and China, is not useful as an analytical concept. These countries are not in a position to challenge the US alone, nor do they act together, as this connotation suggests. Prof Higgott stressed that the diplomatic cooperation between these four countries is limited and there are no common policy positions. For example, regarding the issue of Chinese currency, Brazil has taken a position close to the US and the EU, not China. This can be also observed in other areas, for instance in trade or climate change. Moreover, there are also comparatively less-powerful states, like Turkey and Iran, which are issue-powerful countries. There is also a growing influence of non-state actors and different kinds of networks. All these indicate that the distribution of power in today’s world is becoming more and more complex. The world is moving away from the unipolarity, but it is unclear what will be the structure of tomorrow’s international system. Prof Higgott used the term “non-polarity” as one possible way how to describe it.

In the meantime, the assumption of an emerging multipolarity is still driving the EU’s foreign policy. Prof Higgott stressed that the EU does not give enough importance to other actors apart from the US. Europeans tend to focus on the gentle rhetoric and historic relationship, but it is clear that the Barrack Obama’s administration – as different as it is from the previous George W Bush’s administration – does not “take rhetoric for granted”. The differences between the EU and the US are more substantial than it is accepted in the EU’s policy circles. American politicians mostly think in terms of leadership, freedom to manoeuvre, andRealpolitik while the Europeans focus on interdependence and risk-aversion. The US approach towards the transatlantic relationship is “more instrumental than sentimental”. Besides, the US interests are more and more focused on “Trans-Pacific” cooperation and the rhetoric of “Atlanticism” is slowly disappearing.

Given this mismatch between EU’s aspiration and the actual situation across the Atlantic Ocean, the EU’s prospects to play a role in international politics depend on an integrated strategy. It should take into account all these trends when analysing its potential place in future world order. It should address the question how to accommodate the interests of both the existing and new actors within the international system and how to make appropriate institutional provisions for collective action in order to solve the multitude of challenges facing the world – from the financial regulation to climate change. The main problem, according to Prof Higgott, is that the EU Member States does not show much commitment to multilateralism, despite all the rhetoric. The EU is overrepresented in international organisations, which largely still reflect the power relations of the post-WW II world. The rigidity of the existing power structures within these international organisations is one of the reasons why they find themselves unsuitable in solving many public policy issues which transcend national borders. Currently, the European countries are unwilling to pool their representations to make way for other countries. Thus even G20 is often perceived merely as an “extended consultation group for G7” to engage with the rising powers.

Prof Higgott said that the EU has a very optimistic view of its own summit diplomacy, which does not always correspond to reality, as reflected by events that took place at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. Much will depend on how the new European External Action Service will develop. Prof Higgott said that the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton “needs time”, because there are many structural constraints and the “EU leaders want her to be their servant, not rival”. Prof Higgott stressed that the EU’s foreign policy can be successful only if there is a collective consent on major issues.