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Recommitting the UK to multilateralism through the United Nations

Article by Enyseh Teimory

December 16, 2020

Recommitting the UK to multilateralism through the United Nations

The global order is changing: traditional champions of international cooperation work to undermine the system of rules they helped build and multilateral organisations face a crisis of legitimacy at the time we need them the most.[1] Britain’s place within this order and its systems is changing too; as the House of Lords International Affairs Committee warned in 2019 – the UK’s influence in the world cannot be taken for granted.[2]


In light of this, the UK’s role within international organisations – particularly the UN – must be a foreign policy priority. The UK should in turn recommit fully to multilateralism and, with due consideration to its capacities, play its part in strengthening and upgrading our global institutions. By ensuring it is a model member state and upholding the principles it espouses, the UK will strengthen its position at the UN. It will also create opportunities for the new alliances that will enable the UK to bolster its position at the UN General Assembly. By forging new cross-regional alliances, the UK will also help progress efforts to reform the UN and positively lend its support to the multilateral action needed to tackle global challenges.[3]


UK’s position in the world today

‘Global Britain’ has been the banner under which the UK has branded its foreign policy in recent years. From the inception of the UN, the UK has held a leading role which it has maintained, perhaps disproportionately, through its privilege in being a permanent member of the Security Council, and has been a longstanding proponent of an international rules-based system.


The UK continues to invest in this system. It is a strong supporter of UN Peacekeeping, both politically and financially. Its support as a troop contributor has waxed and waned over the years, but UNA-UK has welcomed the Government’s confirmation that the recent increases in contribution will continue beyond 2020 and will be upgraded in the years to come.[4] Moreover, we applauded Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement at the General Assembly in September that the UK would become the largest single state funder of the World Health Organisation, committing £541 million in funding to COVAX, a new initiative to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed to all countries of the world, and ending all tariffs and export controls on medical supplies for COVID-19.[5] The UK also stepped up to host COP26, the UN’s climate summit, which has been rescheduled for November 2021. Global leadership of this form maintains the UK’s position as one of the key stakeholders of the international system.


However, a number of recent developments have raised the concern that the UK is pivoting towards a more unilateralist and exceptionalist foreign policy strategy.[6] One example is the decision to reduce overseas development assistance and reverse the 0.7 per cent pledge enshrined in UK law.


Last year, UNA-UK commissioned research on the potential impacts of exiting the EU on the UK’s position at the UN.[7] A key recommendation from the report was “Maintaining resolutely the UK’s 0.7% commitment to foreign aid – a major source of soft power and influence.”[8] The report, which drew on interviews with current and former British and international diplomats and civil servants, also noted growing resentment around its permanent Security Council seat and a perceived sense of entitlement, concerns about its commitment to allies and to international law, and the gaps between its rhetoric and actions.


In light of these challenges, UNA-UK has long called on the UK to set out a clear strategy for the UN within its wider foreign, development and defence policy.[9] Earlier this year, the UK Government committed to the largest review of the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development policy since the end of the Cold War. The Integrated Review offered an opportunity for the Government to define its contribution to multilateralism in this fast-changing world, as well as to engage with a range of stakeholders on approaches for the future of partnerships for UK foreign policy.[10] Crucially, it presented an opportunity for the public to provide input. Public support for foreign policy is essential for national security. An informed and engaged public can support ‘resilience’ at the community level – the ability of the public to resist misinformation and extremism, and actively participate in shaping a nation better able to achieve its objectives on the world stage.


It appears however that this review has been rendered moot, as government has prematurely taken many of the major decisions that will shape the future of UK foreign policy, such as the merger of the FCO and DFID and injection of £14 billion for defence spending over the next four years, in advance of the review’s findings.


Becoming a model member state

The UK can seek to offset these factors by ensuring that it is a model Member State and a model permanent member on the Security Council. The UK already has a longstanding principled objection to the use of the veto and has not used it in the last 31 years. It could build upon this by listening to and representing the voices of states that do not have a permanent seat. In addition, the UK could support changes to the Security Council’s working methods to strengthen the role of elected members and advocate for greater transparency and inclusion (building on its role in securing changes to the Secretary-General selection process, for instance).[11]


A model member state is a self-reflective member state. We have seen that a failure to thoroughly scrutinise the application of the UK’s own policies, despite the continuing demand of civil society to do so, has undermined commitments to international treaties and weakened its perception in the eyes of the global community.[12] Britain’s arms exports and its wider relationship with Saudi Arabia is just one, but a totemic example of the wider review that urgently needs to take place.[13] The UK has faced repeated calls to reconsider its role as ‘penholder’ on Yemen at the Security Council. Since the conflict began in 2015, the UK has licenced over £4.5 billion worth of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, despite calls from UNA-UK and other civil society organisations to halt arms exports to all parties to the conflict.[14] Britain’s claim to operate one of the most robust defence export control regimes in the world was discredited when the UK Court of Appeal ruled in 2019 that such exports were unlawful.[15]


New, principled alliances

More broadly, the UK will also need to put more effort into forging wider alliances, especially those that cut across traditional lines. This approach will open up opportunities for effective partnership to tackle global challenges, and enable the UK to ensure it is not wedded to traditional alliances that could potentially undermine its principles where the attitude of allies and the UK do not align.


Recent debates around Hinkley Point power plant and Huawei have led some senior parliamentarians to call for an alliance of democracies to counter Beijing’s influence and more broadly the influence of those who share different values to the UK.[16] While on certain issues, notably human rights, it is right for the UK to convene allies to counter pressures to the UK’s agenda, a blanket attitude will not serve the UK or UN well, and could play into a cold war dynamic – a dynamic that has historically been very damaging to international institutions. Dividing the world into an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ is likely to exacerbate diplomatic impasses at the United Nations, and risk creating a ‘two speed’ global governance. Furthermore, many issues cross traditional lines of alliance; the allies of the UK on an issue like human rights are not the same as the allies of the UK on an issue like climate change.


As the 2019 House of Lords report UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World outlined “a more agile, active and flexible approach to foreign policy must now be developed.”[17] A foreign policy centred around issues, rather than actors, strategic partnerships rather than de facto alliances, will counter the prevailing risks of compromising the UK’s positions on key issues such as gender equality and women’s empowerment, human rights, climate change, disarmament and atrocity prevention that the UK could then build into core elements of a principled foreign policy. And these fresh partnerships could help strengthen the UK’s networks in places where it is currently weak, notably the UN General Assembly, and counter the loss of the diplomatic network that will come from no longer being a member of the EU.


One such example could be through caucusing progressive states such as the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) coalition. In doing so, Britain could lead from behind in pursuit of policies and stimulate positive cross-regional action. The UK could even convene such coalitions itself. For example, as we recently suggested in evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the UK should work to encourage states to defend funding for human rights mechanisms within the UN system, particularly at the Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly.[18]


Recommitting to multilateralism

In recent months, we have seen a renewed interest in ‘minilateralism’ or smaller sub-UN coalitions of the like-minded on the part of a number of pundits such as Richard Haas, the Government, and other politicians such as the Shadow Foreign Secretary.[19] Such coalitions can be powerful tools for increasing UK influence at the UN, and increasing the level of ambition states show – we may not have had a Paris Climate Agreement worth the name without the ‘High Ambition Coalition’.[20]


However, minilateralism cannot take the place of multilateralism, or of the UN. It leaves too many people behind, at a time when it is vital that our global system reach out to include those who currently feel excluded by it. Despite the challenges it faces, the UN still holds unmatched legitimacy and universality, and remains the global platform through which international norms and standards are agreed.[21] It is vital, therefore, that Britain recommits to multilateralism and looks to strengthen both its position within the UN and the UN itself, by being an exemplary and principled part of the global system, willing to work with any and all in order to pursue a values driven foreign policy agenda.


Enyseh Teimory is the Communications Officer at the United Nations Association – UK.


[1] Louis Charbonneau, Biden Administration Should End US Assault on United Nations, Human Rights Watch, November 2020,; United Nations, Report of the UN75 Office, September 2020,

[2] House of Lords, UK foreign policy in a shifting world order, December 2018,

[3] Stewart Patrick, The New “New Multilateralism”: Minilateral Cooperation, but at What Cost?, Global Summitry, Volume 1, Issue 2, Winter 2015, Pages 115–134,

[4] United Nations Association – UK, UNA-UK welcomes the UK’s continued commitment to UN Peacekeeping, August 2019,; UNA-UK, UNA-UK’s statement on the UK’s budget, November 2020,

[5] Speech by the PM to the UN General Assembly 2020, September 2020,

[6] UNA-UK, UNA-UK’s statement on the future of the Integrated Review,, October 2020,

[7] Jess Gifkins, Samuel Jarvis, Jason Ralph, Global Britain in the United Nations,, February 2019,

[8] Ibid, page 4.

[9] UNA-UK, Written evidence submitted by United Nations Association – UK,, August 2020,

[10] UNA-UK, UNA-UK’s statement on the future of the Integrated Review,,uk, October 2020,

[11] While the UK hasn’t officially used the veto since 1989 the threat of use of veto can also shape negotiations on outputs.

[12] Kate Ferguson, Putting atrocity prevention at the heart of British foreign policy,, September 2020,

[13] UNA-UK, UNA-UK statement on UK-Saudi relations,, February 2019,

[14] Noel Dempsey, UK Defence Industry Exports, House of Commons Library, August 2020,

[15] Export Licences: High Court Judgement – Volume 662: debated on Thursday 20 June 2019, Hansard,

[16] Harry Dempsey and David Sheppard, Ministers challenged on future of UK nuclear energy, Financial Times, July 2020,; Lisa Nandy, A moment of reckoning, Fabians Society, September 2020,

[17] House of Lords, UK foreign policy in a shifting world order, page 4, December 2018,

[18] UNA-UK, UNA-UK gives evidence on multilateral institutions to parliament,, October 2020

[19] Richard Haass, The UN’s Unhappy Birthday, Project-Syndicate, September 2020,; Lucy Fisher, Downing Street plans new 5G club of democracies, The Times, May 2020,; Lisa Nandy, A moment of reckoning, Fabians Society, September 2020,

[20] Ed King, Paris ‘high ambition coalition’ to tackle unfinished business, Climate Home News, July 2016,,%2C%20Mexico%2C%20Canada%20and%20Brazil.

[21] United Nations, UN75 Office Press Kit,,

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