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New alliances for the 21st Century

Article by Rt Lord McConnell

March 3, 2020

New alliances for the 21st Century

January 31st 2020. Brexit Day. A moment in our history, a change in our global position, a significant step away from the strategic direction of our foreign policy for over 50 years. ‘Global Britain’ might be the ambition, but there is as yet no defining vision that might provide some clarity, direction and hope. That void is a threat to the global standing and influence of the United Kingdom, and possibly a threat to our security and prosperity too. But it could also be an opportunity – a chance to look beyond the second half of the 20th century deep into the 21st.

In the aftermath of 1945, the UK was a leader, playing an important part in establishing the United Nations, helping to set up and grow global financial institutions and transforming a former empire into a Commonwealth of Nations. But, as the Cold War divided global relationships into East and West and we followed the founding members into the European Economic Community, our strategy seemed increasingly to be following others rather than leading.

After the people of Berlin tore down the wall that most symbolised the divided world, the UK’s place in the world became defined by deepening integration within the European Union and trying to bridge European allies and the United States. There were energetic and meaningful global initiatives – from Tony Blair’s leadership of the Gleneagles G8 Summit and Gordon Brown’s calling together of the G20, to William Hague’s drive against sexual violence in conflict and David Cameron’s contribution to the Global Goals – but essentially, we embraced existing multilateral clubs and have been one of their most loyal and collegiate members.[1]

Our multilateralism at times amplified our diplomatic impact on current events, but as we strived to make the status quo work better this restricted our wider engagement in debate around a vision for the new century. The fact that so many still use the term ‘the West’ to describe our ‘side’ indicates how little progress we have made in shaping a new world order since 1989.

Yet our values and our influence are needed more than ever, with 70 million or so displaced people in the world, the climate and biodiversity emergency, parts of the world stuck in extreme poverty and in many cases violent conflict.[2] In many developing and developed countries, attacks on freedom of speech and entrenched discrimination reinforce inequality, fear and violence. We face new threats – cyber, space, acts of terror – and the escalation of old threats like nuclear weapons and the annexation of neighbouring lands. Meanwhile the international infrastructure is from another age. The strongest ignore the global rules, and the weakest have no rules at home.

The multilateral balance is changing: the US is increasingly looking to its own interests rather than the global interest, Russia is increasingly powerful again beyond its borders, and China is not just an economic superpower, but a diplomatic and development superpower as well. Continental and regional blocs like the African Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations have increased their impact, not just economically but in security, diplomacy and development too.

So, the big choice for both the left and right in the UK, for this government and those who want to be the next, is do we step back, secure our current level of influence, preserve the past and defend our way of life and prosperity here in the UK? Or are we ready to be bold and shape the future? Are we ready to lead the debate, define success in the long term, shape a new 21st century infrastructure and promote our values around the world? In short, can we make a sustained effort beyond immediate political cycles to shape a new international diplomatic and political landscape to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

I believe now is the time to seize the opportunity to build fresh alliances: alliances with a vision for change in the multilateral framework; alliances that stand consistently and firmly behind key principles on human rights and the rule of law; alliances that secure peace and safety in the face of new threats; alliances for fair and free trade; alliances that can shape the international debate for the 21st century the way the UK helped shape the debate for the 20th.

The time has surely come when we can move on from those institutions that grew out of past crises and be the political and diplomatic powerhouse behind new alliances for the next decades of the 21st century.

The UN Security Council is stuck, passing resolutions but too often frozen by vetoes and suspicion. The World Trade Organization and others need reform. There is little recognition in any of the multilaterals of the potential in the continental and regional organisations if more power and resources were decentralised out of New York and the other centres of post-WWII diplomacy.

We need to be brave and lead the debate for global multilateral institutional reform. We still have a system based on the outcome of WWII and the Cold War years, a system designed for that period rather than for the 21st century. The UK is uniquely placed to be a bridge between old and new power: to lead a decade-long debate and deliberation on the role and structure of the UN; the role, aims and objectives of the multilateral organisations; and the way in which new powers are brought to the top table, play a role and accept responsibility as well as rights. To do so, we must stop focussing only on the next speech, headline or summit communiqué.

Agreement on reform of the UN and other bodies is not easy, but it is not impossible either. The UK should partner with a group of allies who favour change and set a long-term objective of building consensus for reform over a decade, not a year. It is 75 years since the UN first met in London – this could be an opportunity to seriously consider a new Security Council structure and the decentralisation of the UN programme delivery to the regional and continental level. It could be a chance to progress faster and to more equitable decision making on trade, and more effective international justice. With political will and determination, we may even be able to resolve and implement these in this first half of the 21st century. We at least need to try.

Alongside a grouping of those committed to reform, the 21st century demands new diplomatic alliances based on values rather than the balancing of powers. We already have coalitions of the willing trying to resolve difficult conflicts or fragile situations and groups like the Friends of the Peacebuilding Fund at the UN.[3] Others base their cooperation on geography or issues. But we need to take this one step further. Global concerns need a global response.

We need a new global movement that demands more: defending the democratic values we hold dear; standing for the independent rule of law – at home and internationally, asserting that in both, all citizens are equal before the law, challenging the widespread discrimination against women, LGBT people and persecuted religious and ethnic minorities still embedded in legal systems across every continent; tackling the climate emergency; supporting conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding, including the need to engage women at all stages; reforming the UN and WTO; managing migration with humanity; developing and empowering those living in extreme poverty rather than exploiting their resources; and insisting that companies headquartered in our national legal systems must play by the rules, pay their taxes and trade fairly.

The UK should help build an alliance, or perhaps alliances, of countries committed to these ambitions. Japan would seem to be an obvious ally. New Zealand and Canada might be keen. But to be truly effective such groupings have to be inclusive – engaging stable democracies on every continent who support multilateral action and human rights. All should come together with a firm commitment to these shared values and aims, to embed them at the centre of bilateral relationships, and to promote them assertively in multilateral gatherings. This would be a real powerhouse for change to deliver a cleaner, safer and fairer world.

Of course, the old alliances still matter. Right now, we need a deep and meaningful partnership with the EU, and NATO remains essential to preserving collective security. The Commonwealth is a valuable forum; our business, cultural and professional networks extend our reach to every corner of the globe; and our top table seats at the G7, the G20, the World Bank and the UN mean the UK can continue to be a diplomatic superpower. We should use that position to lead the change, not defend the status quo.

As we move forward, UK influence and impact will depend more on what we contribute to the future than on what we have done in the past. Immediate action to demonstrate commitment to this longer-term vision will be possible this year.

We were one of the architects of the UN Global Goals.[4] This year we are five years into a 15-year programme, yet progress is limited everywhere. We need to lead the way this year in upping our game and ensuring that the decade of action that is launched this year for the period up to 2030 actually delivers.

On climate, we need to use every tool at our disposal and ensure that we convene a successful COP26 in Glasgow in November, leading the world to come together and make meaningful decisions to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergency.

And, if we put human rights and fair trade up front in our diplomatic and trade discussions – and apply our values consistently – we can demonstrate we mean what we say. For this moment in history, nothing less will do.


The Rt Hon Lord McConnell was First Minister of Scotland from 2001–2007 and UK Special Representative for Peacebuilding from 2008–2010. Jack is Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the UN Global Goals, Vice President of UNICEF UK, Deputy Chair of the UK/Japan 21st Century Group and Chancellor of the University of Stirling. He chairs the judging panel of the Tomorrow’s Peacebuilders International Awards and advises on the Bangsamoro Peace Agreement in the Philippines.

[1] University of Toronto, Official Documents: Gleneagles Summit, July 2005,; The Economic Times, Brown calls for a pact on financial regulations at G-20 summit, March 2009,; FCO and The Rt Hon William Hague, Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, November 2013,; Prime Minister’s Office, PM’s speech to the UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit 2015, September 2015,

[2] Adrian Edwards, Global forced displacement tops 70 million, UNHCR UK, June 2019,

[3] The UN Peacebuilding Fund is a UN financial instrument intended to help sustain peace in situations of fragility and violent conflict. See

[4] The Global Goals for Sustainable Development, The 17 Goals,

Photo credit: Image by Anfaenger from Pixabay

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