Multilateralism is back in vogue but how do we convince people it’s a good thing?

article by David Wardrop

“We are all multilateralists now!” so reported the Financial Times after this week’s G7 Foreign Ministers’ Summit. The event’s conviviality was welcome following Trump’s cold years but ‘making multilateralism work’ is not the snappiest of slogans. Nevertheless, upholding global norms and values, while lacking the ring of a heroic endeavour, both mark out the essential fault line with Beijing and, for that matter, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. So how do we move forward?

For the 2021 G20 summit, the Italian Presidency has chosen to focus on three broad, interconnected pillars of action: People, Planet, Prosperity. In underpinning its programme, it holds the view that in an increasingly interconnected world, ‘multilateralism is far more than an abstract concept. It is the key to responding to these challenges, and the G20, bringing together much of the world’s population and of the global economy, must live up to its role’.

In the same spirit, in December 2018, the UN General Assembly announced a new International Day, for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, reaffirming inter alia ‘the importance and relevance of multilateralism and international law and to advance the common goal of lasting and sustained peace through diplomacy’. On 5 May 2021, the President of the UN General Assembly will hold an Interactive Dialogue on the “Achievements of Multilateralism and the Future of the United Nations”, inviting the UN’s principal organs, intergovernmental bodies and the civil society to participate.

In pointing towards how the global community can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with confidence, the strategies of both initiatives commit to multilateralism. But as ‘relevant’ and ‘non-abstract’ as they may see it as a platform, how will they utilise it in generating the support of a civil society which has been so badly bruised and become fearful of what might come next? If the COVID-19 pandemic and the potentially devastating climate change crisis have taught us anything  ̶  witness their disproportionate impact on those living in poverty  ̶   this time we must ensure ‘we leave no-one behind’.

national flags of countries all over the world

In its programme marking its 75th year, the UN has learned much here despite logistical limitations posed by the pandemic. Its ‘global conversation on building a better future for all’ reached millions of people. Towards the same goal, the Italian G20 Presidency has identified ‘key engagement groups’ it titles Business, Think, Women, Youth, Labour, Urban, Civil, Science, each assured opportunity to contribute input to the G20 Summit. These initiatives, both advancing multilateralism and seeking to engage civil society, are also key to success at COP26 where planners are well-advanced in scheduling a matrix of events, each one recognising that not only governments but also ‘we the peoples’ need to sign off what is agreed in Glasgow in November.     

These three initiatives depend upon a healthy commitment to multilateralism so what can be learned from these, and what can profitably be shared?

To take this forward, Westminster UNA hopes to organise a hybrid meeting in June in London before an invited, live audience, also live-streamed. The speakers would identify with these key fields of expertise: the Italian G20 Presidency; the United Nations; UK COP26; and Africa and Least Developed Countries (LDC).

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