Skip to content

Multilateral Institutions for the 21st Century

Article by Thomas E. Garrett and Fred Carver

September 26, 2023

Multilateral Institutions for the 21st Century

In this article, Thomas E. Garrett (Secretary General of the Community of Democracies) and Fred Carver (Managing Director of Strategy for Humanity) look at what role multilateral institutions have in the 21st century, and how the UK should interact with international organisations, especially now it is no longer part of the European Union. Full series around the G20 can be read here.


How do you see the current role of multilateralism within the international system? And what changes are needed to strengthen it?


Thomas E. Garrett: Multilateralism will encounter change, but at its core the United Nations (UN) system is not fading away. With increasing frequency, we are confronted by global issues that ignore national borders and natural barriers. Issues such as climate disruption, the most recent pandemic, irregular migration or nuclear proliferation tie all nations to a multilateral system.


Yet, as the many challenging voices raised during the current 77th General Assembly of the UN shows, the multilateral framework needs reform. No country should be kept out of universal membership bodies such as the UN, even authoritarian nations which are often the source of many of the world’s challenges, as in Russia’s unjustified war on Ukraine with its impact on world food supplies and its gross violation of human rights.


The appropriate counter to the challenges of weakness or ineffectiveness within today’s multilateral system is for democracies to unite at every global decision-making forum, to work as a bloc across traditional regional groupings, offering the solutions that self-correcting representative political systems provide.


Fred Carver: Doubtless the multilateral system is outdated, but I fear many of the attempts to change that structure amount to hoping that a different shaped cup will change the taste of the liquid. So while many people including myself have made policy suggestions which would help to renew the multilateral system;[1] I think political capital is better invested directly in attempting to achieve political outcomes than in pushing for structural changes, few of which thread the needle between cosmetic and impractical.


In terms of those political outcomes: if you look at the UN Secretary-General’s New Agenda for Peace you see an acceptance of the idea that right now the primary value of multilateralism is to mediate between states.[2] As a means of doing this it has some unique advantages over bi- or ‘minilateral’ diplomacy: by providing a mechanism which is a) open to all and b) allows states to converse on terms closer to equality, global divergence can be limited, smaller states are better able to pool their impact and shape the agenda, and the outcomes have an unmatched legitimacy and credibility.[3]


A few years back I would have answered more ambitiously: then the early 21st century dream of a broader multilateralism which shifted global governance, and ultimately power, around, and among, sub-state, non-state and super-state actors still appeared possible. That idea is out of fashion now, but it must not be forgotten entirely.

“If multilateralism, and sovereignty, do not keep pace they risk long term irrelevance.”


The long-term trend of increasing global interconnectivity – at least with respect to information and finance – is still working to make mid-21st century sovereignty a much fuzzier and less absolute concept than its previous versions. If multilateralism, and sovereignty, do not keep pace they risk long term irrelevance.


Volatility in the international system — exemplified by food insecurity, resource shortages and climate change — has implications for multilateral international cooperation. What type (or model) of multilateralism is needed in the face of this?


Thomas E. Garrett: A new model of multilateralism must prioritise the genuine, substantial inclusion of non-state actors from civil society and informal civil society.

“There should be an immediate inclusion of young people in the international system – their time isn’t coming, it is now”


Within this, there should be an immediate inclusion of young people in the international system – their time isn’t coming, it is now, and they are presenting non-ideological and fresh concepts to long-standing problems.


A multilateralism model which is successful in countering the volatility in the international system must frankly acknowledge issues such as food insecurity or declining adherence to a norms-based human rights framework are not occurring organically or due to time – these and similar issues are direct consequences of an assault on the international system by authoritarian states: China, Russia, and their allies. These countries do not seek reform of the system but to replace it with principles such as might makes right, or a hyper-sovereignty which cloaks human rights abuses.


Fred Carver: I’m concerned about the shift to a multilateralism based around adversarial clubs of countries. This is very damaging to the efficacy of the global system particularly with respect to issues like food insecurity and climate change. And while states do approach certain conversations – notably around rights and sovereignty – from different perspectives, history – including recent history – teaches us that even when adversarial groupings purport to be based around shared values those values are likely to be the first thing sacrificed on the altar of competition.


That said, I think the idea that we are in a ‘new cold war’ is overstated, at least at the UN. During the 1950s you could see months on months go by when the UN Security Council would scarcely meet or pass any resolutions. In contrast nowadays, away from the geopolitical bluster you get under the limelight, you see quite a lot of collaboration between supposed adversaries at the UN; the High Seas Treaty being a clear example.[4] And while I doubt there is much direct coordination between diplomats from, say, the UK and Russia, you certainly see them in lock step when it comes to protecting their privilege in the process of appointing senior UN officials.[5]


What is needed is a nimble (and thus resource intensive) approach which looks to build ad hoc coalitions both to secure progress on specific issues and to subvert this unhelpful and artificial separation of states into permanent interest groups. At the same time states must be sophisticated enough to not be entirely transactional – one of the primary long-term powers of the multilateral system is its ability to build normative standards and expectations of behaviour, which requires consistency in the application of principles.


How can partnerships and regional cooperation be better leveraged to restore credibility in the multilateral system, particularly with non-G20 members and the Global South?


Thomas E. Garrett: A great step towards this goal occurred recently in India, as the African Union (AU) joined the G20, moving from a past status as an ‘invited international organisation’ to membership as a regional bloc, alongside the European Union. The G20 had already served as a model of the developing and developed world in partnership and the AU ascension further enhances this high level of cooperation.


Fred Carver: We need to start by recognising that the reasons non-G20 members and the Global South think the multilateral system lacks credibility are often different to the reasons the West thinks the multilateral system lacks credibility.

“Global South critics tend to be more concerned with hypocrisy and inconsistency in the application of the rules of that order.”


Many western critics are concerned that the multilateral system is no longer able to maintain the post-war liberal order. Global South critics tend to be more concerned with hypocrisy and inconsistency in the application of the rules of that order. Further, many southern political elites were never sold on this order in the first place and – at best – accepted it as a quid pro quo for a project of political and economic equalisation. They resent the neglect of this agenda and fear it has been abandoned. Restoring credibility with states in the Global South therefore requires consistency – holding oneself and one’s allies to the same standard as one’s adversaries – and requires a willingness to spend money and share power in exchange for influence.


Pursuing “subsidiarity” (devolving global governance to regional mechanisms) is certainly a means of transferring money and control.[6] But it is not a panacea. It’s also a concept which is most developed with respect to Africa and which might be harder to apply in other contexts. Smaller South Asian states, for example, might prefer to take their chances in New York than under an inevitably India dominated regional mechanism, and the very idea of pursuing subsidiarity in West Asia is exhausting. If you speak to truly small states – as opposed to mid-tier powers with regional influence – it is often non-regional projects for transferring money and control at the UN (such as Bridgetown) that excite them.[7]


What role should the UK play in this multilateral system, and what opportunities and threats do you see impacting the UK’s approach moving forward? From this, what changes would you advise to the leading parties as we look forward to a general election?


Thomas E. Garrett: As a country that recently left a regional bloc, the UK should ensure it maintains its historic leadership role in international fora. A nuclear powered country, a G7 member, and one with strong ties with increasingly influential states such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, the UK should focus its role in promoting greater inclusion of these and other countries and support substantial roles for them in the multilateral, democratic ecosystem.

“The UK should reinforce its role as a leading country in international law and multinational fora.”


In terms of opportunities and threats, the UK should more consciously link, or sync, its domestic and foreign policies, for instance, on the difficult but essential issues such as refugees or de-nuclearisation. In moving forward in its relationship with China, or in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the UK should reinforce its role as a leading country in international law and multinational fora.


Fred Carver: British politicians have not yet come to terms with how significantly the UK’s global stock has waned. While Brexit hardly helped, the main reasons for this are longer term shifts towards the South and East and away from former colonial powers. Perceptions of the UK at the UN have never entirely recovered from the Iraq war, and the absence of much contrition or reckoning following what many in the Global South saw to be a Ukraine-level outrage. In the General Assembly they were further harmed by the UK’s highly unpopular position on the Chagos Islands, although this may now change.[8]

“Forging an independent foreign policy is hard, but it becomes a lot easier if rather than starting from scratch one looks around the world for building blocks of best practice to emulate.”


This reduction in influence means that the UK needs to make clear strategic choices to maximise its impact. Regardless of the merits of doing so, the current political climate probably does not allow the UK to take the easy option here and closely align its foreign policy with either the US or EU, leaving the direction setting to them. Forging an independent foreign policy is hard, but it becomes a lot easier if, rather than starting from scratch, one looks around the world for building blocks of best practice to emulate.


British political parties should look at states that are punching above their weight in the multilateral system, particularly those that have commonalities with the UK, either as fellow members of Europe’s periphery or as fellow minor anglosphere powers. Ireland is a major and popular player in both peace and security and human rights. New Zealand’s words have significant clout in the world of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Switzerland and Liechtenstein are adept at convening and building both issue specific and values-based coalitions.


This approach will need some adaptation in view of the UK’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

“The UK has significant amounts of soft power and its diplomatic corps is still strong and capable; but its politicians sometimes exude a sense of exceptionalism and a lack of historical memory”


The UK has significant amounts of soft power and its diplomatic corps is still strong and capable; but its politicians sometimes exude a sense of exceptionalism and a lack of historical memory that does not play well on the world stage.[9] Again, it would be worth looking comparatively at how other political leaders have navigated historic and more recent foreign policy blunders for examples of best practice.


Regardless, it is difficult to get more out of the multilateral system than you put in. As is well known the UK’s retreat from spending on ODA has been noticed and has come at a cost in terms of global credibility, particularly on critical issues such as climate, finance and health.[10] What is less often mentioned is the UK’s retreat as a troop contributor to UN peacekeeping. While the UK’s mission to Mali was no longer sustainable, the fact that it was not replaced by a similar deployment elsewhere has seen the number of UK blue helmeted troops shrink back to pre-2016 levels.[11] It is perhaps here, and in voluntary funding for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, that the best value for money can be found when contributing to the multilateral system.[12]


Thomas Garrett is in his second term as the Secretary General of the Community of Democracies, a global intergovernmental coalition comprised of Member States coordinating efforts on the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. Previously, Mr. Garrett was Vice President of Global Programs at the U.S. based International Republican Institute (IRI) a pro-democracy, non-partisan NGO supporting elections, civil society, and democratic governance in 80+ countries.  From 1994 to 2015, he was chief of party for IRI democracy support programs in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Mongolia, and Indonesia. 


Fred Carver is a Managing Director at Strategy for Humanity, which works with mission-driven organizations and those who fund them on a range of policy issues. He has written a number of articles on international relations, with specific expertise on the United Nations, Peacekeeping, Atrocity Prevention, civil wars and political violence. From 2011-2016 he ran the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, a human rights NGO, and from 2016-2020 he was head of policy at UNA-UK, a UK campaigning organisation for multilateralism. Prior to that he worked as a researcher specialising in South Asia (primarily Pakistan) and in UK politics. He lives in Norway.


[1] Fred Carver, Renewing the UN system: Taking stock after 75 years, UNA-UK, March 2022,

[2] Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, A New Agenda for Peace,

[3] Moises Naim, Minilateralism, Foreign Policy, June 2009,

[4] Karen McVeigh, High seas treaty: historic deal to protect international waters finally reached at UN, The Guardian, March 2023,

[5] Blue Smoke, P5 Frenemies, July 2023,

[6] “Subsidiarity”, see definition:

[7] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade – Barbados, The 2022 Bridgetown Initiative, September 2022,

[8] Seventy-Third Session, 83rd & 84th Meetings (AM & PM), General Assembly Welcomes International Court of Justice Opinion on Chagos Archipelago, Adopts Text Calling for Mauritius’ Complete Decolonization, UN, May 2019,; Patrick Daly, Foreign office rejects Boris Johnson’s Chagos Islands handover fears, Independent, September 2023,

[9] UNHCR, UK Illegal Migration Bill: UN Refugee Agency and UN Human Rights Office warn of profound impact on human rights and international refugee protection system, July 2023,

[10] Jess Gifkins, Samuel Jarvis and Jason Ralph, Global Britain in the United Nations, UNA-UK, February 2019,

[11] Louisa Brooke-Holland, UN ends peacekeeping force in Mali, House of Commons Library, July 2023,

[12] See: Q129, Foreign Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: The UK’s role in strengthening multilateral organisations, HC 513, House of Commons, September 2020,

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre