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FPC Briefing: In Defence of Multilateralism

Article by Helen Goodman MP

July 25, 2019

FPC Briefing: In Defence of Multilateralism

Brexit is an attempt to tackle domestic problems by altering our relationship with our European neighbours. Some feel that this is doomed to fail because our economy and security is so integrated with our neighbours and we should therefore concentrate on avoiding it or getting the least-worst option while tackling with renewed vigour the discontents – about housing, unstable jobs and incomes, and rapid cultural change which brought this populist wave. Others believe that through the projection of a ‘Global Britain’ we can rebuild our prestige and renew our international relationships. But what if the domestic discontents are part of the unfolding of international developments?

After all, Britain is not the only European country facing tough economic competition from the Far East; or large-scale immigration; or the pressure on its youth from an apparently ungovernable internet and social media. And if this is the case, what does it mean for the way we conduct our foreign policy?

This essay aims to look at three things: the nature of the modern world, what we want to achieve in it and thirdly at the levers we can pull and the resources we can bring to bear to achieve our aims.

The Modern World

Interconnectedness beyond national boundaries is not a new phenomenon. Once England was part of the Roman Empire, then we were ruled from Scandinavia; even as the Kingdom united and grew we were part of the Roman Catholic Church. Later we became a phenomenally successful trading nation with an Empire which stretched across the globe bringing cultural as well as financial exchange.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the proportion of our economy which is traded remained constant between 1900 and 2000. In 1900 exports constituted 24.9 per cent of the economy and in 2000 it was back at 24.9 per cent. But the degree of interconnectedness today seems far more immediate and intense – at the click of a button we can be in touch with people thousands of miles away; huge movements of people flow – some motivated by economic opportunities, others forced by war, desperation and climate change.

We in the UK are fortunate for the last 75 years to have lived in a largely peaceful and prosperous environment. This is frequently attributed to the very successful institution-building in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War (WWII), in which we played a significant part: the United Nations (UN), the UN Declaration of Human Rights, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the economic institutions – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (to which we had recourse ourselves in 1976), the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade(GATT) which developed into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – and, of course, the European Union (EU).

One of the high points in this period came on 9th November 1989. I can remember watching the TV coverage of the crowds breaking the Berlin Wall and writing in my diary – “this is the most important day of my life.” Those were heady days, to be young was very heaven. It felt like the completion of the liberation of May 1945. The bipolar world and the threat of nuclear war, which that had meant, was lifted. We were certain we could be safer, and some of us on the Left looked forward optimistically to the development of new economic models, negotiating a path that would take seriously the Eastern European commitment to equality and the West’s enterprise and openness. Russia was invited to the G7 meetings in London. We discussed the possibility of using co-ops and the Yugoslav model.

However Yugoslavia was the first country in the 1990s to collapse in a bloody and violent war; refugees from its horrors began arriving in London and we were shaken from our optimism.

The political right claimed victory – market liberalism was declared to be the both the cause and the destination of this new world – the alpha and the omega – even in China Deng Xiaoping was following its tenets.

Again, of course, their confidence was overblown. The rise of religious fundamentalism – of Islam as a political force in the Middle East and Christian Evangelicals in the US – pushed back against the idea or possibility of one totalising ideology.

The advent of climate change and the collapse of the markets in 2008 show both that we have not achieved a secure and sustainable way of life and that developments across the globe affect our day to day lives. Badly regulated US mortgage markets means queues outside Northern Rock; the destruction of the Amazon rainforest brings floods in Cumbria.

Following the Brexit vote, there has been a lot of soul searching about the failures of domestic policy – why were those outside the major cities feeling particularly disempowered? Why were some of those with the most to lose from rupturing economic relationships with Europe amongst some of the most inclined to vote Leave? But not so much attention has been paid to international policy.

The fact is that the world in 2019 is not as it was in 1945 – or indeed 1913 or 1989. Yes, we are not in a bipolar world, but nor are we in a world which can be dominated by the Americans.

The biggest international story is the rise of China. Forty years ago, China was a struggling middle-sized power with a poor, inefficient and stagnant economy. Since the implementation of major economic reforms in 1979, it has experienced a staggering economic transformation. According to the World Bank, China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth has averaged nearly 10 per cent a year—the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.[1] It is now the world’s second largest economy as measured by nominal GDP and has established itself as a geopolitical superpower.  

The other big story is the emergence of the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). First conceived of in 2001 by Goldman Sachs during an economic forecasting exercise, the BRICS together contain three billion people – over one third of the world’s population – and account for between 25-30 per cent of global GDP.[2]  The grouping has evolved from a popular concept to a formal grouping – holding their first summit in 2009 – and present a direct challenge to the hegemony of the G7 nations.  

Progress on human well-being paints a mixed picture. On the one hand, we have seen a discernible improvement in people’s lives over the past three decades. According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) data, between 1990 and 2017 nearly every country in the world (with a few notable exceptions, such as Syria and Yemen) has seen a net increase in their Human Development Index (HDI) scores and life expectancy.[3] World Bank Data also indicates a continued (albeit slowing) decrease in poverty levels, with the percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally falling to a new low of 10 per cent in 2015.[4]

On the other hand, there is plenty to overshadow this progress. According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 70 million in 2018.[5] This is the highest level that UNHCR has seen in its almost 70 years. There is also still plenty to be done on human rights and democracy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turned 70 in 2018, yet in the past two years alone, we have seen nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims forced to flee state oppression in Myanmar, over one million Uighur Muslims detained in re-education camps in Xinjiang and over 300 human rights defenders have been murdered.[6] According to Freedom House, 37 per cent of the world’s population live in countries categorised as ‘not free’, and out of a possible score of 100, two thirds of countries scored less than 50 on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI).[7]

Britain may have thefifth largest economy today, but the inexorable rise of the emerging economies with larger populations could see us drop down to 10th in 2050, behind Indonesia and Mexico.[8] This is simply not under our control. This is not to say we cannot adopt both domestic and foreign policy stances which are positive and constructive – we can. But as the psychotherapists say: the art of growing up is coming to terms with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

These big prospective changes also explain why countries beyond the victors of the Second World War are discontent with the governance arrangements of the existing institutions – why, for example, China set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to rival the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD- part of the World Bank Group) and why there are calls to expand the UN Security Council.

But it’s not just a question of whether the right people are sitting at the table. An even bigger question is whether we have the right institutions tackling the right problems.

The Bretton Woods institutions were far sighted and strong, but they were established to tackle the world’s problems in 1945 and as we have seen, these are changing. Let me give some examples: the internet; climate change; the impact transnational corporations have on human rights; drugs; migration and the rights of refugees.

We are often enjoined to defend the rules-based international order and explain its benefits and virtues. This is usually in response to a populist attack from President Donald Trump. President Trump is particularly irritating, because he is good at identifying actual weaknesses – Chinese theft of intellectual property or European countries’ failure to pay a fair share of NATO costs – which no one can deny, while at the same time proposing solutions which are totally counterproductive: a trade war or US disengagement from a shared defence alliance.

So it is true that the UN has been much stronger than the League of Nations in providing a forum for resolving disputes peacefully and that the WTO has, up until now, prevented the ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policies which dogged economies in the 1930s, but it’s also true that big issues like how to govern the internet and tackle climate change effectively have not been cracked. And that, especially post-2008, a sense of insecurity has brought to the fore strong men – Trump, Putin and Ji and right-wing populists – Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban whose proposals are to build up walls, whether physical, legal or metaphorical, against outsiders.

Brexit is our own special national brand of populism. This then is the hostile environment in which we are seeking to tackle our problems.

What do we want to achieve in our Foreign Policy?

Citizens regard the first duty of government as being to provide security and stability. This does not of course mean that foreign policy needs to be an exercise in crude nationalism such as ‘America First.’ There is a huge appetite for policies which bring security and stability but are also socially responsible.

Two points are worth making here. Firstly, security and social responsibility are not necessarily in conflict. We can afford to spend two per cent of our national income on defence and 0.7 per cent on overseas aid; we can share our intelligence resources with our NATO allies and run a BBC World Service which broadcasts truthful fact-based news into closed countries like North Korea. We can do both. Secondly – and it flows from this socially responsible policy framework – promoting development and tackling climate change effectively will increase our security, because they will increase the security of others and promote a shared worldview.

Emily Thornberry spoke at length about this to the Institute for Government recently: “[We should] champion certain values as well as commercial interests” and “by putting values back at the heart of our diplomacy [we will] help to transform what Britain is seen to stand for as a country.”

And Jeremy Corbyn has said “Labour will speak for democratic values and human rights” and “will be driven by progressive values and international solidarity”[9]

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the misadventure of Iraq – it clearly did not make the British people more secure.

So we want to pursue security, stability and social responsibility.

The prime security alliance the UK enjoys is through NATO – itself based on shared interests and values.

Key to this for us has been the US-UK ‘special relationship’, and this has been put under considerable pressure lately. Firstly by revulsion among the public at the aftermath of the Iraq War; then by the election of Trump who seems to embody most of what the British Left dislikes about the US and little of what it does like, and finally by Brexit – which potentially means that when the US want to contact Europe the first phone they ring is no longer going to be the one in King Charles Street.

What this tells us is not that we no longer share objective interests with the US or that our strong cultural and historic ties are worthless – but that, perhaps like a marriage that’s gone through a bad patch, the relationship needs a bit of work. It’s not going to be what it was, so we need to find a new balance. An interesting study recently published by the UN Association[10] looking at international perceptions of the UK found that a relationship in which the two countries are seen as too close reduces our prestige. If we merely follow the US – there’s no point in anyone asking for our help in influencing them.

Labour is committed to NATO membership and the two per cent and this essay is not about defence policy but refashioning the relationship so it is positive without being subservient on trade (chlorinated chicken) or culture (our children shouldn’t be exposed to bad cartoons. Britain has much higher standards for children’s television than the US, with less violence and more rounded and diverse characters. The US film moguls would like to swamp our TV stations). This is not about Brexit, but it is worth noting that the current government as part of its Brexit preparations has increased the number of diplomatic positions in European countries by 50.

This of course is part of a more general re-focussing which will be required if we leave the EU. An assessment and review of the impact and significance of the change means working that bit harder to be heard elsewhere.

Individual bilateral relationships matter. But I hope just two examples will illustrate that alone they cannot deliver our aims.

China is a global power and as we have noted it is growing rapidly. But the truth is we are conflicted. We want and need the trading opportunities offered, this will help our economic stability, but this is tempered by our concerns over Chinese political culture and human rights record. We look for opportunities to co-operate – like climate change – but sometimes the conflicts become sharp – as when we look at developments in Hong Kong or investment from Huawei. These bring into relief, as it were, the dilemma. Could we hope to persuade the Chinese that if they are to move from global power to global leadership, they need to adopt more liberal global norms?

Simply to pose the questions is to invite a negative answer. Britain is no longer big enough to effect major change through a series of bilateral relationships. This may even be true with small and middle-sized countries like say Vietnam. Relatively speaking, we may have more leverage, but they too are tied in to regional organisations and power structures – Associate of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China in the case of Vietnam.

In other words, given the UK’s place in the world the way to make Britain safer and more stable is to contribute to the development of a safer and more secure international environment through the introduction of new norms, better international legal frameworks and institutions which do tackle at source underlying causes of power imbalances.

Furthermore, this is not just a question of relations between nation states: it is also about preventing a big beast jungle where private actors – banks, new technology firms, extractive industries –  ride roughshod over countries and their citizens.

It is important to have a positive and proactive stance in order to avoid foreign policy descending into endlessly reactive crisis management.

What are the levers we can pull and the resources we can bring to bear to achieve our aims?

The UK has significant resources – it is the fifth largest economy in the world. Our ranking is projected to fall to 10th in 2050, but we’ll still be a wealthy country in the top quartile.

We have considerable military strength. The UK has the largest military budget in the EU, has a navy bigger than the French, Italian and German Navies combined – and possesses the fifth largest military stockpile of nuclear warheads.[11] There is an argument to be had about whether we devote too much or too little resource to our military and what the balance should be between conventional, nuclear and cyber resources. For the purposes of this analysis I am going to assume a steady state.

Our soft power is remarkable, and our history has given us positional power in key institutions: permanent member of the UN Security Council; executive directorships in the IMF and IBRD; a key role for the Governor of the Bank of England in the Bank for International Settlements.

We also have strong alliances through NATO and the Anglosphere. The Joint Intelligence Committee (on which I served in humble capacity as a junior civil servant during the 1983 Iran-Iraq War) still relies on shared intelligence with the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK.

Perhaps the most important is the English language – spoken by approximately 20 per cent of the world’s population.[12] World class universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and the London universities attract students from across the world. The UK has renowned cultural resources and media influence through the BBC World Service.

Under Labour, some sources of soft power were enhanced significantly and consequently we are well respected for our overseas aid programme, our debt forgiveness initiative and climate change leadership. We have a large and highly regarded diplomatic service, the power of connectivity and the network of Commonwealth nations.

But our history is also a liability. Almost every former colony has resentments as well as warm memories. The tension between this chequered colonial past and how we move beyond it is played out in unusual context: the Commonwealth.

For some, the Commonwealth will never be able to shake off its colonial roots and is therefore dismissed as a relic that is not fit for modern times. Others see such criticism as unfair and argue that the Commonwealth is a very different institution to what it was in the 1970s. The Commonwealth gives us an opportunity to express what Lord Rickets called “convening power”[13]. The Commonwealth consists of 53 countries and contains 2.4 billion people[14] – one third of the earth’s population – of which more than 60 per cent are under the age of 29. As of 2017, the combined GDP of the Commonwealth was US$10.4 trillion and bilateral intra-Commonwealth trading costs are on average 19 per cent less than those between non-member countries.[15] The Commonwealth boasts five G20 economies (Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the UK) and four out of five of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance are Commonwealth Members (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK). And of course, members of the Commonwealth club also populate the other major international institutions, such as the UN General Assembly.

The Commonwealth Charter lists human rights, international peace and security, democracy, sustainable development and gender equality as among its core values. While it certainly has its limitations and baggage, if approached as an equal and voluntary association of states rather than a post-colonial toy, the Commonwealth’s vast network and sheer size can act an important network within which we can build progressive alliances and networks.


In this environment, the idea of Global Britain – a Britain reaching out across the world to influence events seems to be a throwback to the 1950s – an idea constructed on the fantasy of England as a seafaring nation almost entirely for the backward-looking domestic audience whose support the Government fears losing to Nigel Farage.

Instead I think we should start a grown-up discussion about the modernisation of international institutions to tackle 21st Century problems. These are inherently shared and they are not amenable to national solutions. The current framework is biased towards protecting free trade and financial investments at the expense of people and the environment.

These are the items I would put at the top of the agenda:

  • Strengthening the legal obligations on nation states to meet the Climate Change objective of temperature rise limited to two degrees Celsius and – critically – making trade obligations in the WTO subservient to this, rather than as at present having a ‘trade override’. 
  • Introducing a clear international legal framework for internet governance. Currently the free for all resembles the 16th Century law of the sea as pirates abound – there are no shared controls on terrorism, child protection, IP or tax and as more and more economic activity moves to the web more and more human activity takes place in an anarchic value free vacuum.
  • Tackling financial crime; money laundering; tax evasion; bribery and corruption needs more than the current voluntary approach as exemplified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) codes
  • Strengthening the enforcement mechanisms of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Human Rights Council and introducing new norms for the protection of migrants.
  • Introducing a UN Binding Treaty of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations. This would go further than Prime Minister May’s – very welcome – initiative on modern slavery and protect the rights of indigenous people whose land is stolen and exploited, with recourse to an international tribunal. This could also provide for environmental protection.

Building international institutions takes time and it is a shared enterprise. But we should be inspired by the example of those who went to Bretton Woods in 1944 before WWII was over. It is never too soon to begin. Let us not leave it until it’s too late.

The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of the Foreign Policy Centre. The essay was developed from a speech given at the In Defence of Multilateralism event with Helen Goodman MP, Lord Ricketts, Dr Marina Prentoulis and Steve Bloomfield. This was part of an occasional series exploring Britain’s role in the world and follows on from the Global Britain: Myths, Reality and Post-Brexit Foreign Policy  event with Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP, Dr Judi Atkins, Dr Andrew Glencross and Henry Mance earlier this year.

Photo by Rob, published under Creative Commons with changes made.

[1] The World Bank, The World Bank in China, April 2019,

[2] Agencies, 10 facts about BRICS, South China Morning Post, September 2017,

[3] Human Development Reports, Human Development Data (1990-2017), UNDP,

[4] The World Bank, Decline of Global Extreme Poverty Continues but Has Slowed: World Bank, September 2018,

[5] UNHCR UK, Worldwide displacement tops 70 million, UN Refugee Chief urges greater solidarity in response, June 2019,

[6] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Annual Report 2017/18,

[7] Transparency International, Corruption weakens democracy, January 2019,

[8] PwC, The World in 2050 – The Long View: How will the global economic order change by 2050?,

[9] BBC Politics, Jeremy Corbyn: Labour leader’s speech, BBC, September 2018,

[10] Jess Gifkins, Samuel Jarvis and Jason Ralph, ‘Global Britain in the United Nations’ (United Nations Association-UK, 2019)

[11] Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, Status of World Nuclear Forces, Federation of American scientists, May 2019,

[12] Dylan Lyons, How Many People Speak English, And Where Is It Spoken?, Babbel Magazine, July 2017,

[13] The Foreign Policy Centre, In Defence of Multilateralism, SoundCloud, July 2019,

[14] Commonwealth Secretariat, Fast Facts on the Commonwealth, The Commonwealth, February 2019,

[15] Ibid.

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