Multilateral reform: Foreign Secretary’s speech at Chatham House London Conference 2023

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The Foreign Secretary James Cleverly gave a speech at Chatham House’s London Conference 2023, where he called for a reinvigorated multilateral system.

Watch the speech here.

Their Declaration of St James’s Palace made clear ‘that the only true basis for enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples’ so that all may enjoy economic and social security’.

Four years later – by way of Moscow, Tehran, Yalta, Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods – 36 other countries joined the original 14 in signing the Charter of the United Nations in San Francisco on 26 June 1945. The rest, as they say, is history.

But the remarkable truth is that by historical standards, for more than 8 decades the multilateral system that was established by our forebears has actually worked.

It has delivered a 40-fold growth in world trade since 1950, delivering global vaccines for infectious diseases and fewer deaths in violent conflict than during any comparable period.

Multilateral institutions forged the global consensus that people everywhere have the universal human right to be treated with dignity, free from torture, free from slavery and free from arbitrary detention.

And landmark multilateral agreements and institutions like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency have reduced humanity’s risk of nuclear extinction. And the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement are performing similar feats for the natural environment by slowing climate change.

Global multilateralism brings the sheer heft that is needed to tackle humanity’s most fundamental challenges. And that’s why the United Kingdom cares deeply about multilateralism. We’re deeply invested in it. We were one of the architects of it. And we want it to succeed and thrive.

It’s a system which has helped reach agreements and compromises – even with those we oppose and compete against. And of course, that’s the whole point of multilateralism. And it has served our world well for 80 years.

But we have to be honest, that does not mean it is perfect. Nor does it mean it will automatically survive for the next 80 years. Nothing is inevitable. Particularly in an era of growing geopolitical and geo-economic rivalry.

Now – we don’t need to reinvent multilateralism. But as Lord Macaulay said: “let us reform that we may preserve”. And as a Conservative, that is my natural instinct. It’s one of the reasons I entered politics.

And when I apply this principle to transnational issues, it’s clear that what we need is a reformed and reinvigorated multilateralism system. Making it more inclusive and more responsive to global challenges like migration, security, development, debt, protectionism, climate change, future pandemics, conflicts and of course humanitarian crises.

To do this, we need to think strategically. In a way that encompasses every aspect of multilateralism. The United Nations. NATO. International financial institutions. Climate finance institutions. The World Health Organisation. International Development. International Trade. Regional organisations.

And we want a partnership between multilateral organisations and not competition between these organisations. So that multilateral institutions remain relevant and remain effective.

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a calculated assault on the UN Charter – and on the central principles of an international order that was designed, above all, to bring an end to all attempts at conquest and annexation.

But of course, war is not our only challenge. In the 2020s – just as in the 1940s – we are living through a turning point in the history of humanity. A period of dizzying and rapid economic, demographic, technological and social change.

The world’s economic centre of gravity is shifting away from the Euro-Atlantic and towards the Indo-Pacific. Africa’s share of the world’s population is forecast to double from 18% to 37% by 2100. Whilst Europe’s shrinks from 10% to just 5% – adding to already significant migratory pressures.

And as I said at my Mansion House speech in April, global political and military power are also rebalancing in quick succession. What all this means is that in the coming decades, an ever greater share of the world’s power will be in the hands of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Together they will decide whether the international order will endure.

And that’s why I’ve made it my particular focus as Foreign Secretary to engage a far broader array of countries in the Commonwealth, in the African Union, in Latin America, in ASEAN and elsewhere. And I have listened carefully to what they said. And I have learned a huge amount from my conversations with more than 200 foreign ministers and world leaders over the past 9 months.

What I heard from them was that they value the multilateral order. It gives voice to every country in the world. But they also say that they feel that the rich countries are hoarding power and neglecting their responsibilities. And the voice of the poor is not always being heard. Even on matters that directly concern them. That is why it is so important that we continue listening.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were sadly already well off track before the COVID pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And unless we change course, we are due to miss a staggering 88% of them by 2030. Debt threatens to cripple not only the world’s poorest countries, but a quarter of middle income countries too.

And we need to negotiate a global pandemic accord before the inevitable moment comes when we desperately need it. And none of these things, none of them, can be delivered without multilateral reform. And it’s a legitimate question to ask what is the UK doing about it? A lot, actually.

Over the past decade, we’ve provided 58 million people with clean energy. We supplied 1.9 billion doses of Astra-Zeneca’s COVID vaccine – the world’s first – during the pandemic, and at cost price.

British Investment Partnerships will mobilise £8 billion per year in new private sector finance by 2025. Creating jobs, boosting productivity and increasing tax revenues in low and middle income countries.

And between 2017 and 2021, British International Investment supported businesses that have employed nearly 1 million people, paid £10 billion in taxes and generated 277 gigawatt hours of electricity. These are great achievements. And we are proud of them, and rightly proud of them.

But I intend to do more. Much more. And we can only do that if we work multilaterally and the UK is well placed to do so as we occupy a privileged place in many multilateral institutions.

And that gives us not just an opportunity, but an obligation, to improve the effectiveness of the multilateral order. And it’s overwhelmingly in our national interest to do so. But I recognise that we need to restore the British people’s faith, their trust, in the effectiveness of the international system.

And effectiveness comes down to results – and we need to see both at home and abroad. This means working across borders to ensure that we have an international framework that can deal effectively with disruptive flows of people.

It also means working upstream. Stopping illegal migration to the United Kingdom begins with ensuring that the poorest people in the world have access to clean water, sanitation, basic healthcare and education. Preventing conflict will also reduce the push factors for those people seeking to cross borders.

This is a moral challenge to humanity as much as a political challenge. Poverty reduction, conflict resolution and prevention are core aims of the multilateral system. And the United Kingdom will not be found wanting.

I’ve issued clear instructions to my officials that I want to focus on the agendas of emerging powers and developing countries – and not just our own priorities. And what I hear consistently – loud and clear – is that multilateral reform is now overdue. That’s why we welcome Mia Mottley’s advocacy for reform of development finance.

And I’m delighted that last week’s Summit on a New Global Financing Pact in Paris made real progress towards a more effective system of international financial institutions. I also value the leadership of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and the leadership he has shown in championing this agenda and wider UN reform.

It seems obvious to me that the voice of the poorest and most vulnerable countries must be heard at the heart of the multilateral system. That’s why we support permanent membership of the G20 for the African Union and welcome India’s leadership on taking this forward.

That’s also why the UK has chosen to be a leading partner in the African Development Bank, where African countries hold 60% of the votes. We have also provided guarantees to expand its financing capacity by $3 billion. And we are the largest donor to its fund for the poorest countries.

No single player can deliver multilateral reform. That would be of course be a contradiction in terms. That’s why we want to work with as broad a coalition as possible. Working through the existing mechanisms to build on what we have achieved and to do so collectively.

Like at COP26 with the Glasgow Climate Pact. Or on women and girls. That’s why our International Women and Girls Strategy is so important. Because everyone gains when women are empowered and when Sexual and reproductive health rights are being protected.

Or just last week on marine biodiversity at the United Nations. When 192 countries came together to protect the world’s oceans. This is obviously good if you’re a mackerel, a sardine or a dolphin. It’s also good for the natural environment. And it’s good for humanity. It also shows what we can achieve when we work together.

I’m now at the part of the speech when you’re asking what exactly are you proposing to reform. I have 5 transnational priorities.

First, reform of the United Nations Security Council. We want to see permanent African representation and membership extended to India, Brazil, Germany and Japan. I know this is a bold reform. But it will usher the Security Council into the 2020s. And the UNSC has grown before – albeit not since 1965.

My second priority is reform of the international financial institutions. This matters for climate finance and of course for poverty reduction – as Mia Mottley has argued so passionately and clearly.

More investment is needed. We can find that from existing capital by implementing the recommendations of the G20’s independent review. We need multilateral development banks to sweat their existing assets harder and thus increase the amount of money they can lend.

But we must also make finance easier and quicker to access. And maximise the impact of that investment.

Understandably, there are voices that say we should be concerned about the banks’ credit ratings. I understand that. But our analysis is that the modest changes proposed by the G20 review will protect the triple-A credit ratings and also unleash hundreds of billions of dollars for new investment over the next decade alone.

Ministers from the countries that need this money are frustrated. And they ask me if we are more concerned about protecting their credit ratings than helping the poorest people in the world. These concerns and criticisms will not go away unless we act.

We also need to help poor and small countries at risk of natural disasters. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot stop droughts, we cannot stop floods. But we can prevent the economic crises and debt spirals that they cause.

UK Export Finance is already doing just that with the climate resilient debt clauses that they are integrating into loans with 12 partner countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Last week the United States, Spain and the World Bank agreed to follow our lead and offer these clauses themselves.

But each and every one of these measures will fall short unless we also deliver on my third priority. And that is making sure that low and middle income countries have sustainable public finances. We want governments to be able to collect the taxes that are due to them. So that they can invest in their own development.

And that of course would create a virtuous circle. Through better and faster implementation of international tax rules we can stop revenues leaking from poor countries’ national treasuries.

But that alone is not enough. We also must help our Commonwealth partners like Ghana, Malawi and Sri Lanka – as well others who need it – we’ve helped them restructure their public debts. And by strengthening debt management capacity, we can stop poor countries from accumulating vast stocks of unpayable debts at crippling rates of interest in the first place.

Which brings me to my fourth priority, trade. For decades, the WTO and, before that, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, stimulated steady growth in the world trade that in turn drove global prosperity.

But today, the WTO desperately needs new rules that reflect today’s digital economy and not the world of 1995. Trade policy must be free, fair, open and not manipulated or distorted.

The UK does not subscribe to the belief that international trade is a zero sum game. Rather, we believe that it is good for both developed and developing countries. That export restrictions create food insecurity.

And we have learnt from history that vast industrial subsidies have eventually and inevitable needed to be abandoned. Why should it be any different this time?

We need a functioning dispute settlement mechanism to tackle these issues. So that each and every country – no matter how large or how small – can have the confidence that their claims will be heard and adjudicated fairly.

If we don’t do this soon, there is a real risk that much of the world will turn its back on the multilateral trade rules. That’s why I say again: let us reform that we may preserve. Because free trade and greater investment is in everybody’s interest.

And my fifth priority. Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing have the potential to transform humankind’s problem-solving capabilities.

We are standing at the edge of a gigantic technological leap forward in the relationship between man and machine. One that will amplify the positives and the negatives of the tech revolution. And of course what we’re seeing is increasingly that technology is not tied to geography. It knows no national borders.

That’s why the UK is championing a multilateral approach to managing Artificial Intelligence. I will chair the UN Security Council’s first ever meeting on this issue, in New York next month. And the Prime Minister will host an AI summit this autumn. Our efforts will complement those of the G7’s Hiroshima Process, the International Telecommunication Union, the Council of Europe and other multilateral organisations.

But we must not neglect the 2.7 billion people who have no internet access at all. Our development work gives millions access to the internet. And the successful conclusion of a UN Global Digital Compact will allow humanity to do even more.

And we need to ensure that multilateral development institutions themselves use technology, use artificial intelligence to generate even better results for those in need.

The United Kingdom is rightly one of the world’s largest donors to international development assistance, giving £12.8 billion last year alone. Multilateral programmes account for a quarter of that sum because this helps us maximise the efficiency, effectiveness and value for money of our aid.

But we must not shy away from asking tough questions to ensure that remains the case. And it’s also about listening to what others want. Tolerance. And from time to time, agreeing to disagree.

We need to be thoughtful about how we engage in multilateral institutions with countries that have different social, cultural or indeed religious approaches to sensitive moral issues. Yes by advocating, but not by hectoring.

Because we have an obligation to future generations to find the areas where we agree. And we will find solutions to global challenges either together or not all.

I want to proceed with plans for incremental multilateral reform across my 5 priorities in that spirit. Whilst standing up for UK values, clearly and unambiguously. And I recognise that multilateral reform is exceptionally difficult to bring about.

But it will bring hugely significant benefits for the UK and the wider world. The most important of which – by far – is ensuring an enduring international order. One that is fit for today’s challenges rather than yesterday’s battles.

Multilateralism is not at odds with national sovereignty and democracy. Its purpose is to protect and reinforce them.

That’s why multilateralism began with war and peace. Conflict prevention is as important as ever. But multilateralism has progressed into human rights, health, trade, international disaster response, development, environmental protection, climate change and much much more.

Some of these challenges are natural. Others are man-made. What they all share is their transnational nature. Today’s transnational frontier is technology and artificial intelligence.

Whatever comes after that will be even less tied to geography and national frontiers. Bringing an even greater need for a high-functioning multilateral system and multilateral institutions. Which is why we need a long-term focus on incremental reform.

Success will not be measured in weeks or months. But more in years and decades. And we will keep at it. We will persevere. And, as we do – just like our forebears in the 1940s and 1950s – we will find that what once looked impossible no longer is.

Achieving change alongside our partners requires a mix of ambition, realism and strategic endurance. The journey ahead will be long. Will be arduous. But the United Kingdom owes it to humanity to set out along that road. In the company of as many like-minded companions as possible.

Because for all the multilateral system’s flaws, we care about it deeply. We need it more and more as our world becomes increasingly interdependent. But if we can get reform right – across my 5 priorities – the prize of a safer, fairer, healthier and more prosperous world will be within our grasp.

So let us reform, that we may preserve.

Thank you.

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