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How to save multilateralism
Slow Views

How to save multilateralism

Friday 29 October 2021

On the eve of Cop 26, we need to rethink completely how the international community collaborates, interacts and prepares for a perilous future


Why this story?

According to the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, the G20 summit, which opens in Rome on Saturday, “marks the return of multilateralism, after the dark years of isolationism and of isolation linked to the health crisis”.

Excuse us for being so blunt, Signor Draghi – but what planet are you living on, let alone describing? Absent from the summit will be Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, along with other world leaders including the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 

So why the high hopes? The Rome conference is no more likely to achieve anything of substance than did the UN General Assembly last month, or President Biden’s wash-out Covid summit on 22 September.

In June, the G7 meeting at Carbis Bay delivered a pitiful outcome on global vaccination – a failure which was the principal spur of Tortoise’s #TheArmsRace campaign. On Sunday, delegates from more than 200 countries will convene in Glasgow for Cop 26 – with Xi and Putin again absent, and the prospects for a meaningful agreement on emissions apparently diminishing by the day.

We should be frank: what we are witnessing is not the “return of multilateralism” but its decline into meaningless verbiage and ritual. Without Donald Trump in the White House, there is no longer a bogeyman to blame for this failure – and no sign, in what used to be called the West, of political will or leadership to fill the gap. Precisely when it is most needed, global collaboration is at a feeble ebb.

In this essay, the former senior diplomat, Tom Fletcher, tackles this crisis head-on and offers a blueprint for multilateralist recovery. This is the first in a series of pieces that Tortoise will run on this pressing theme – and we hope that you will send us your thoughts and ideas, too.

The world has never been more connected, or more disaggregated. What are we going to do about it?

Matthew d’Ancona, Editor

David Cameron used to tease me about the way I spoke of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, where I had supported his predecessor, Gordon Brown: “You talk about it like it was Vietnam.” He would switch to a cod Christopher Walken accent: “You can’t understand how bad those emissions negotiations were, man, you weren’t there.” 

He was right. Copenhagen left the Number 10 team with a resilient sense of fear about what happens when summits focusing on genuine global challenges (as opposed to the usual grip and grins) fail. And fail badly. 

Two images, seared on my memory, capture the experience. First, a newly elected Barack Obama pleading with a junior Chinese official to get his president, or indeed anyone empowered to negotiate, back to the table. 

And secondly, the leaders of France, the UK, Germany and Italy as they sat together insisting to each other that their position was the blueprint for the final communiqué. Obama arrived, reported a deal he had struck directly with the Brics (the increasingly assertive coalition of Brazil, Russia, India and China) and sauntered off to his plane, leaving the Europeans furious (Sarkozy) or glum (Merkel) at our collective impotence. 

Rancour, parochialism and distrust. It was the low point of 21st-century diplomacy. Or so we believed at the time. 

The final night of the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, December 18, 2009

Fast forward twelve years and we are gearing up for Cop 26 in Glasgow, the successor summit to Copenhagen. This will be the latest in a long line of climate emergency conferences billed as “the final chance”, “a minute to midnight”, the “last chance saloon”. Specialist advisers and campaigners have a shared interest in creating a sense of imminent jeopardy so that they can focus the minds of national leaders (and, more importantly, finance ministries) not just on announcing what must be done but then actually implementing what they promise to do.

The first is usually possible. However, like much of the biodiversity Glasgow is tasked with saving, the second hope is close to extinction. Meanwhile, at each failed summit, the actual jeopardy increases. 

But it is of course not just in respect to the climate emergency that the international system is struggling. In 2017 a group of over 200 tech leaders, including Elon Musk, wrote to the United Nations to warn that they were creating risks faster than they could manage them. What were the rules that should govern the new threats? What limits should we place on lethal autonomous weapons? The tone was imploring, urgent. The UN took two years even to agree on who should draft the reply.

As in this century, the 19th and 20th witnessed rapid technological development leading to new threats: the industrialisation of conflict and the export (through steam and coal-powered colonisation) of violence. But there were also huge leaps forward for living together: the codification of rights, the advance of freedoms of speech, press, religion, and the development of globalisation. 

All this is – evidently – still very much a work in progress. The French revolution of 1789 paved the way for the US Bill of Rights and eventually (in response to the horrors of the 20th Century’s conflicts) to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. 

This is humanity’s greatest text so far, the most powerful, revolutionary and under-appreciated document of all time. The problem is not that we don’t understand our duty to our fellow citizens, but that we don’t have the will or patience to act upon it. The 1948 declaration established the “four freedoms” of speech, religion, from fear and from want. They are as powerful and fragile today as when they were set out in the original document. 

The mid-20th Century also witnessed the codification of the rules for globalisation. Leaders accepted the basic trade off at its heart: we might become collectively stronger by ceding some sovereignty and power to global rather than national institutions. At Bretton Woods, with the end of the Second World War in sight, 44 nations established for the first time an international banking system. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) created a global currency conversion system. 

Alongside the UN, this postwar international system was built after immense sacrifice by previous generations to protect us from the dangerous individual or ideology that claims to have all the answers. Over time, those systems expanded to tackle the great global challenges: infectious disease; migration; the health of the global economy; climate change; terrorism; new weapons. The UN is imperfect. It sees the best and worst of humanity. It can be cumbersome and slow. But we haven’t found a better lubricant for global coexistence.

Issue by issue, we are – once again – learning the hard way that these threats cannot be tackled within national borders alone. Yet, issue by issue, we repeat the same mistakes. The global body blow of Covid, you might have thought, made an unarguable case for thinking and acting on a planetary basis. 

“Issue by issue, we are – once again – learning the hard way that these threats cannot be tackled within national borders alone. Yet, issue by issue, we repeat the same mistakes.”

But the pathogen also very quickly became another weapon in the armoury of those who believe that the answer to the 21st Century is to build a bigger wall and pull up the drawbridge. As the pandemic has continued to expose the weaknesses of key systems for international cooperation, so many politicians doubled down and championed national distancing alongside the social kind. 

So why is our postwar global architecture failing? It is easy to cite the treble shocks of Donald Trump, Covid and the Afghanistan debacle. But these are symptoms not causes. The deeper underlying reasons are recession, resources, representation and retreat – plus a consequent failure to renew or reform.

To start with, we should acknowledge unambiguously that the 2009 global crash has had and continues to have a seismic impact on politics and society – comparable to the great crash of 1929. The 1930s were a time of polarisation and extremism, followed by conflict. The 2010s have served up a similar decade of polarisation and extremism – a surge that has continued into the 2020s. 

Economic downturns make countries look inward at the very moment when it is most important to look outward. Even as we left the G20 summit of 2009 – the high water mark to date of 21st-century global cooperation – Barack Obama said to Gordon Brown, “unless we restore a sense of global coordination, the next crisis will be worse.” Evidently, we did not. Probably, it will be. 

Obama, Trump and Biden have all been complicit in the second great underlying cause of the degradation of the multilateral system: retreat. The era of US-led global cooperation began in 1948, peaked in 1989, and ended in 2016. 

Our strength in the West is in our democratic model and our internationalism. Yet the rapid turnover of democratic leaders and governments makes it harder to be strategic about the defence of that model. This retreat is partly the lights once again flickering on and off in the shining city on a hill, as America finds itself exhausted abroad and insecure at home. The US and UK used to write the international list of problems to fix. We now appear high on that list.

And Europe has also played its part. Five seats at the G8 table – really? Like the attempt to set up a European super league, the continent often appears to care more about preserving its current status than understanding what got it there. 

That sense of retreat, leaving the international system stagnant, also represents a much broader sense of decline. What we are witnessing is not just the West in reverse, but the hollowing out of an idealistic worldview shaped by the events of 1989: a widespread belief that history was somehow a one-way street, and that the arc of the geopolitical universe bends towards global cooperation.

“What we are witnessing is not just the West in reverse, but the hollowing out of an idealistic worldview shaped by the events of 1989: a widespread belief that history was somehow a one-way street, and that the arc of the geopolitical universe bends towards global cooperation.”

I was 14 in that memorable year, able to watch on television and absorb for the first time a feeling of living history. Tank Man with his shopping bags in Tiananmen Square: a viral image long before Facebook or Instagram. The anti-apartheid movement, long before Twitter. The Berlin Wall falling amid denim and euphoria, long before YouTube.

Francis Fukuyama was not saying, as so many have claimed, that history would effectively stop, but that free market liberal democracy had seen off autocracy, communism and authoritarianism. An East Berlin quantum chemist called Angela Merkel traded academia for democratic politics, moved like many of us by the potential for change. 

But not everyone in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and the mountains of Afghanistan shared this perspective. A middle ranking KGB officer called Vladimir Putin sulked at the failures of Russian leadership. And a grandson to German immigrants, heir to New York real estate tycoon Fred Trump, launched a board game based on his life.

More than 30 years on, it is easier to discern the fragility of the model for global cooperation that my generation of Western diplomats thought had won. It has proved far better than the systems it saw off at delivering security, justice and opportunity to much of the world’s population. But not good enough. Like the models it replaced, the 1989 religion has proved vulnerable to decadence and decay, corruption and corrosion. 

It has failed to adjust to the digital age by converting citizen agency into more accountable government. It has too often been dominated by those who consider themselves superior trumping our rights to be equal. Viewed with humility from 2021, the events of 1989 are a reminder that history somersaults and progress zigzags. 

The third reason for the fragility of the global scaffolding is related to representation. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, arguments about who should be in the room where it happened centred on states and their statesmen. No-one thought that a corporation, NGO or youth representative should be in the room. Clearly for an issue as destructive and pervasive as the climate emergency, that won’t work. 

But once you agree we need to open the doors, who decides who comes in? Who convenes? And can the people in the room really claim to speak for those they say they represent? Contemporary debates on gender and race are an additional reminder that the institutions built in the postwar period were shaped by and in the image of a tiny fraction of humanity. This leaves much of the world disenfranchised, and the multilateral system unable to respond. 

Fixing all that will take serious determination and patience. Reform of this sort is especially important in a time of great power rivalry – but, of course, that’s precisely when the great powers least want it. In the meantime, events get in the way. As former US president Dwight Eisenhower warned, long before social media and Oval Office tweeting proved him right, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

The fourth reason for the limits on what multilateralism can achieve is resource – or, rather, the lack of it. We subcontracted the responsibility for global risk to the UN and international institutions without the authority to respond. The UN is underfunded, with Secretary General Guterres hamstrung from criticising leaders like Trump or Putin by the need to secure their overdue financial contributions. Pro-multilateral governments come and go, with competing domestic spending priorities, declining attention spans, growing trust deficits and – in the recent case of the US and UK – erratic and destructive lurches away from international law.

These factors have all contributed to the failure of the post-war institutions to genuinely reform and renew. As it staggered past its 75th birthday, the UN found itself orphaned and abused by the Trump White House and paralysed by the great pandemic of 2020. No leader seems to have the appetite or patience to try to make the UN great again. 

In 2017, I wrote a report for the United Nations’ Secretary-General that set out the steps the international community needed to take – urgently – in order to prepare itself for the massive geopolitical transformation implicit in dramatic technological and social change. With a host of recommendations – from a new Geneva Convention for cyber security to crowdfunding of compassion – we pressed the UN to marshall the opportunities of the digital age to counter the threats of the digital age. We got a committee instead, which came up with a further list of important recommendations. These are now buried in the UN’s pending tray.

Why does this matter? Reform is urgent, because of a series of overlapping megatrends. 

  • Unless fertility rates drop dramatically, we obliterate each other with nuclear or new weapons or future pandemics hit us even harder than Covid-19, we will be ten billion by 2050, having only hit one billion in 1800. By 2100, we will take up almost 30 times the space we did in 1500 (when we could have fitted into one of today’s medium sized cities) and half of us will live in just five countries. 
  • By 2050, we’ll also be collectively older. In 1950, the old made up just 11 per cent of the global population. The proportion they account for will overtake the young somewhere around 2075. Advances in healthcare could mean that there are 20 million centenarians by 2100, with pensions – if they still exist – absorbing 10 per cent of global GDP. We have not experienced our last pandemic. Covid-19 may be a dress-rehearsal.
  • Climate change will drive what the New York Times has described as “the greatest wave of global migration the world has seen.” The planet will probably see a greater temperature increase in the next 50 years than the last 6000. By 2070, a fifth of the world will be extremely hot. With every degree of temperature increase, a billion people will move. As the Sahara spreads south and land fails from Central America to Sudan to the Mekong Delta, hundreds of millions of people will be forced to choose between flight or intense heat, hunger and death. 
  • This combination of climate change and population growth will accelerate the eastward shift of economic and political momentum. China and possibly India are likely to overtake the US economy by 2050. China already has over six times as many STEM graduates as the US. Europe’s share of world GDP could fall below 10 per cent by 2050, with the UK down to tenth, France out of the top ten and Italy out of the top 20, overtaken by faster growing economies like Mexico, Turkey and Vietnam. Those retaining the assumption that the West is the world’s centre of gravity will be in for a shock. 
  • Power will also move South. Since 2015 Africa has experienced almost thirty leadership changes, increasing accountability and democracy. Since 2000, the number of African children in primary school has increased from 60 to 150 million, with literacy rates up 10 per cent. Connectivity is going to be a great leveller.
  • There is a risk though that, while the South and East will narrow the gap, inequality will increase within our societies: the bottom half of the world’s population own less than 1 per cent of total wealth and the top 1 per cent has just under half. Migrants and refugees already make up the equivalent of the fifth largest country in the world. We’ll see greater pressure on food production, especially cereals. By 2050, over half of the world’s population will face water scarcity.
  • New weapons make the challenge even more urgent. The rules for cyber warfare are dangerously opaque, creating a free-for-all. We have developed strong international systems on conventional, nuclear and chemical weapons, cluster bombs and the arms trade, but we have nothing to manage this new area of rapid growth. As in the past, this risks remaining the case while a few countries have the technological advantage, and therefore lack the incentive to agree to restraints. But that will not be the reality for long. These new weapons won’t fit into existing international legal systems. They will have to redefine them. 
  • Meanwhile, technology companies will continue to grow in size and power. In 2021, Twitter effectively switched off a US president, and one who had become one of their most followed users. Already, Apple has a bigger economy than Nigeria and Microsoft is more of an economic powerhouse than Egypt. Automation and artificial intelligence will affect countries in different ways and at different paces. In some sectors and regions, there will be great economic benefits to users and businesses. In others they will be destructive. 

Automation. Population growth. Climate crisis. Demographic earthquakes. Geopolitical power shifts. New weapons. Failure of international cooperation and national strategy. The onward march of big tech and authoritarian capitalism. This is a tumultuous combination – and one that requires new ways of organising humanity to respond.

Facing these megatrends, it should be no surprise that most of us feel the world is more or less out of control. And the more experienced leaders can see that too. As former prime minister Gordon Brown told me recently: “I think what happened during the pandemic was that leaders got themselves so locked into national issues that they couldn’t understand that this is a global pandemic that cannot be solved without coordinated action. You have got to find a way of talking about the big picture and the big picture matters. But you also need a mastery of detail. That’s getting harder. We used to say that the past was a foreign country. For policy makers and leaders today, the present is a foreign country.” 

“We used to say that the past was a foreign country. For policy makers and leaders today, the present is a foreign country.”

Perhaps one of the few things that presidents Obama and Trump could agree on is that – whether or not you see yourself as a “very stable genius” – it is getting harder and harder to govern. This is due to a combination of the speed of events, relentless scrutiny of decisions, declining trust in authority and failures of governance. Without a new global social contract between citizens and those who govern on our behalf, we won’t be ready for the greater challenges ahead. 

These overlapping threats do create genuine peril. To focus the mind: British Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees argues that the probability of humanity’s extinction before 2100 is 50 per cent. In 1949, as the international system was being conceived and created, Einstein suggested that we don’t know how World War Three will be fought, but World War Four would be fought with rocks. 

So what do we do?

Most importantly, we need to make afresh the case for global cooperation. 

Perhaps the greatest danger is not the nuclear bomb, environmental catastrophe, the superbug, the robot age or the crazed terrorist, frightening as they all are. The greatest danger is in fact the loss of our desire to live together. 

When Isil target Paris or Brussels, they hit what they call the “greyzone” – places where people interact across communities and races. In doing so, they have pitched camp on the pernicious side of the 21st Century’s key dividing line: between those who want to live together, and those who don’t. In doing so, they also flushed out some in our own societies who don’t either. The fact remains that, whatever the jihadis and the right-wing extremists think to the contrary, there isn’t a 21st-century problem to which the answer is another brick in the wall. 

So how might we apply that courage to coexist to the global challenges? 

Perhaps we can start with a thought experiment. Imagine the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies of the 2020s. We might think of North Korea. Or a grand bargain in the Middle East and the US opting to put out fires rather than start them. Perhaps a US-China deal that averts the Thucydides trap – the apparent tendency towards war when an emerging great power threatens to displace one that is already established – this time around. 

But as important will be the less traditional Nobel Prizes awarded in recognition of new peace processes: peace with nature, with big technology, with machines, with our history.

So I would recommend a Nobel Prize for those who find better ways to mediate between host communities and migrants in a way that protects dignity and opportunity for both. As Europe has found with the waves of Syrians fleeing Assad’s barrel bomb brutality, large numbers of migrants change people’s sense of identity and culture. Who will help us manage that transition? 

Surveying our list of megatrends, perhaps there is also a Nobel Peace Prize for the people who mediate between young and old? Maybe also an award in Stockholm for those who help to design modern living environments that enable coexistence? Or who show us better ways to use the virtual public squares of social media? Or who can find the common ground between religions that too often define themselves by their differences? And beyond 2030, perhaps the last great peace process – between humans and machines?

We have a collective responsibility to put in place the frameworks to mitigate these risks now. We need new global standards, “Statutes of Liberty”, safeguarding freedom of expression, opportunity, movement, rights. Like the Magna Carta barons, we will still need to understand where authority begins and ends; what issues fall under the rule of law; and how to balance the rights of individuals and communities. 

Normally, we would look to governments or international organisations to do this. Without the renewal I have described, I do not believe we have that luxury. 

Amid all this flux, can the UK rediscover both its mojo and its credibility? It must decide, for starters, whether it is an exporter of problems or of solutions. Whether to be magnetic or repellant. Whether to be competent. 

Nations that succeed in the period ahead will, as ever, depend upon economic might, national cohesion and the agility and clarity of their leadership. But they will also need to be self-aware. The world has long enjoyed British comedy heroes from Basil Fawlty, David Brent and Mr Bean to Captain Mainwaring and Alan Partridge. But we can enjoy these characters without thinking we have to run the country like them.

So perhaps a starting point for the UK is to stop doing things that undermine our credibility. Countries that are powerful don’t need to say it: it tends to be recently dismantled empires that feel most sensitive about their diminished status. 

UK leaders will also have to put the cake aside and own up to a reality of modern diplomacy and a foundation of multilateralism: it is often in the national interest not to narrowly pursue wins for the national interest. Sometimes you have to pool sovereignty, to give up power, in order to get what you need. 

The UK has a credible story. The period 1997-2016 was one of mostly gentle modernisation. Brexit rattled that, not primarily because we left the European Union, but because it became what people talked about, and because we spent several years in a circular firing squad over it. 

Global Britain hasn’t yet filled that gap, but the excellent Integrated Review offered three strong new potential chorus lines: climate; science/tech; and freedom (to speak, vote, innovate, trade, think). Get those right and we can be at the top table, because we bring something the mightier can’t bring: agility; problem-solving; the fusion of defence, diplomacy and development; and a sweet spot in the Venn diagram of international relations. Our niche now has to be as a connector and convener. We have to be more agile internationalists. 

But you can only pursue those aptitudes within a functioning international system. So we have also to be an exporter of practical ideas and talent to international institutions, most importantly the UN. The national interest now depends to an under-appreciated extent upon our internationalism. Countries are strongest when outward looking, pioneering, exploring, welcoming. 

Meanwhile, the international system risks further stagnation. I asked Zeid Raa’d, the last UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whether he thought reform was possible. He told me he was exhausted by “soporific international complacency. Today oppression is again fashionable. Fundamental freedoms are in retreat. Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists are casting off any sense of embarrassment. The international system is a mirage.” 

He cited Primo Levi: “‘Monsters exist, but more dangerous are the functionaries ready to act without asking questions’… human rights violations are the sharp zigzag lines of a seismograph flashing out warnings of a coming earthquake. They are shuddering faster and higher. This resurgent malice, irresponsibility and eye-watering stupidity are like steam at high pressure being fed into the closed chamber of world events.” 

Is this how the idealism of 1948 ends? It has often felt during the first two decades of the new millennium that the worst are indeed full of Yeats’ “passionate intensity.” And that the centre – a place of reason, uncertainty, debate, curiosity, coexistence – cannot hold.  

But I think that we can be more hopeful. The average human now lives twice as long and grows six inches taller than our great-great-grandparents, and we have access to a life that they could never have imagined. 

Extreme poverty has halved in the last fifteen years. While we fretted about Covid-19 in 2020 and 2021, polio was finally wiped out in Africa. We are 200 times less likely to die in war than a century ago. We are becoming collectively richer, living longer, understanding the world better, and dying less frequently of disease, poverty or violence. 

Much of that is thanks to the imperfect systems we have developed to live and work together. “Never let the future disturb you”, the Roman Emperor and part time Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, wrote in his self help book, “you will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” 

But we cannot take this progress for granted. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a Brit who has probably done more for liberty than any other now living, argues that we need a new Magna Carta for the internet age. He is right: we need to find, rally round and hold fast to a simple set of principles, enshrining the balance between liberty and security; between freedom of expression and the rights of others. Technology can then become an extension of our humanity and not a replacement for it. 

What might such an update to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights include? Are there some basic principles of common humanity around which to gather? 

  • We are born free and equal in dignity, freedom and rights, regardless of our race, colour, gender, nationality, sexuality, language, religion, political view or economic situation.
  • We all have an equal right to liberty, protection of the law, education, freedom of conscience and of opportunity. We all have an equal right to think, speak and meet.
  • We are citizens of a shared world, and we have responsibilities to each other, to our planet and to future generations. 
  • We come from different cultures, but we share inherited values of compassion, solidarity and respect for others.
  • We cherish our individual and collective ingenuity, recognising that we are work in progress.  
  • We work together to reduce inequality and strive to become good ancestors. 
  • We are courageous enough to live together, not despite our differences but because of them.
  • The purpose of education is work, citizenship and life, not just productivity. We should pass on what we have learnt: knowledge, skills and values. Education should last a lifetime.

Arundhati Roy has written beautifully about the 2020/21 pandemic as a portal. We are faced with “a gateway between one world and the next” and the choice before us is whether we “choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us”, or whether we “walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”. It is the choice that decides whether or not we become better ancestors.

The German physicist Jacob Bronowski’s work on the nuclear bomb in the 1940s drove him from the most complex corners of the destructive power of mathematics and science towards a profound understanding of this simple but vital task of how to live together. 

He concludes The Ascent of Man, his powerful 1973 documentary series on human development, standing knee deep in a muddy pond at Auschwitz, with the slime of the Holocaust – in which many of his own family were killed – running through his fingers. He talks about the danger of certainty and the importance of recognising that we do not have all the answers. We need, he exhorts us in the final shot, “to reach out and touch people.” Our survival depends on making that connection. 

Glasgow’s climate summit will be a chance to show we have finally understood that. The moments when the international system stumbles are the hardest moments to summon the collective resolve to lift it back up. But they are also the times when that effort matters most. If the flaws in the structures of global cooperation have been exposed, that is a call to fix them, not to abandon them. As I sign off this article I am at the Imperial War Museum with my youngest. Let’s not forget where this ends when we get it wrong. 

Tom Fletcher is principal of Hertford College, Oxford, a former UK ambassador and author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age.

Photograph Getty Images