What the Rugby World Cup teaches us about Tackling global problems

23.10.2019 - Article

We Germans have learned our lesson from history: Only if our neighbours, friends and partners thrive as we do, we will do well in the long-run. In Africa, this is called Ubuntu, writes Ambassador Martin Schäfer for News24.com.

There are some things one simply cannot do alone. Winning the Rugby World Cup, for example. As much as we have been admiring Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen's performance in Japan, I think we agree that neither of them would be able to bring the Cup home on their own.

Ambassador Schäfer's latest column
Ambassador Schäfer's latest column© News24.com (Screenshot)

Not even the great Jonah Lomu was able to win it all alone against a passionate Springbok defence in the 1995 World Cup final in Ellis Park Stadium. It's a team effort and I wish the Springboks all the best for this team endeavour next weekend against Wales. #GoBokke. One for all. All for one.

World politics is not that different to rugby. No country on its own is able to tackle the many challenges we face as a world community. We will only get ahead through cooperation, coordination and joint efforts.

It seems easy to see why: In the age of globalisation, almost all countries on earth are interconnected. Conflicts raging thousands of miles away may have a direct impact on people's lives in South Africa, through migration or changing trade patterns, for example. Climate change causes problems that do not stop at any borders. Science does not have any borders anyway. Cumbersome negotiations on Brexit have a direct and very concrete impact on jobs in South Africa. That's why team work, or in the world of diplomacy – multilateralism – is more important than ever.

In the field of foreign policy, multilateralism means that states refrain from pursuing their own interests with no regard, respect or empathy for other countries. This is not something they do out of a sense of charity, but in the enlightened and rational pursuit of their own interests. They do this because they know that, ultimately, all states reap the greatest gains if they work together. Such cooperation relies on certain principles and rules that are being shared by all.

Pushing the multilateralism agenda

We Germans have learned our lesson from history: Only if our neighbours, friends and partners thrive as we do, we will do well in the long-run. In Africa, this is called Ubuntu.

Germany and South Africa strongly believe in the values of multilateralism. We have been pushing this agenda as non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – on issues ranging from peace and security to the crucial role of women in conflict resolution.

“We strongly believe that a purposive system of multilateralism is necessary to deal with the global challenges we face.” That's how Naledi Pandor, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, put it in her speech at the UN General Assembly last month. “We are all inter-dependent in an ever globalising world and can ill afford the pursuit of narrow self-interests.”

Minister Pandor was one of more than 50 ministers who joined German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at an event in New York to boost the alliance for multilateralism – a new network of countries working together in a wide range of policy areas that is committed to further developing our rules-based order. The aim is to bolster the values of the UN, strengthen cooperation, enhance the legitimacy of fair rules and tackle the challenges of the future together.

Why do we need such an alliance now?

I'm afraid to say that the multilateral order is experiencing its perhaps gravest crisis and most serious threat since its emergence after the Second World War. It has come under pressure from critics who find compromises too laborious and who believe that things can also be achieved by going it alone. The “my country first” brigade is very loud. I believe this is extremely short-sighted and dangerous.

We need more, not less, of a multilateral order. We need to defend international rules and institutions, particularly when they are coming under attack. The nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate agreement are some examples. That also holds for our human rights architecture, the humanitarian system and the crumbling agreements on arms control.

Global threats don't stop at national borders.

But we must also strengthen international cooperation where new challenges demand new answers. Climate change, migration, religious intolerance and cyber threats don't stop at national borders. So we need to address them jointly. And we can.

We agree with our South African partners that we need to reform international institutions like the United Nations. These must reflect the world as it is now and not 75 years ago. They must espouse the realities and priorities of our century. This is not just a matter of fairness. It is a matter of credibility, representation and legitimacy.

The fact that multilateralism is under attack should neither frighten not stop us – to the contrary. Coming back to the rugby comparison: Would the Springboks throw the towel when facing the massive scrum of the All Blacks in the final? Or would they give their all as a team to fight the challenge? Looking back to the 1995 World Cup, it was a joint team effort that brought about that glorious victory.

I admit that the sports allegory only goes that far. Contrary to the Rugby World Cup, multilateralism is not a one-off event that takes place every few years. It is a continuous endeavour. There neither is a medal to be won – no fame, no glory. But I firmly believe that multilateralism is our best and only shot at tackling our global challenges.

If the trophy is the path to peace, security and a better future for our children, we should all join hands and reach for it. Crouch, bind, set!

- Schäfer is the German ambassador to South Africa.

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