Multilateralism a year on

Sir Peter Marshall reviews the year now passed since the ‘Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth anniversary of the United Nations’

As world leaders gather in New York, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reminds us that Cop26 is now less than 1000 hours away, we recall that year ago today, September 21, Heads of State and Government of all 193 members of the United Nations, “representing the peoples of the world”, adopted without reservation or amendment the “Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth anniversary of the United Nations“. The full text follows beneath.

True to form, the event passed all but unnoticed by those in the UK, as elsewhere, whose responsibility it is to keep abreast of developments, by virtue either of the posts they hold, or of their desire to shape the opinions of their compatriots.

Yet the significance, and the potential, of the Declaration can scarcely be over-estimated. First, whereas the United Nations Charter launched the greatest experiment in the management of international relations ever undertaken, the Declaration unequivocally endorses the outcome of that experiment, and sees it as the template for the future.

Never before have the world’s statesmen and stateswomen collectively and unanimously paid such a tribute to the inspiration and the aspiration of their predecessors or reached such a fundamental and wide-ranging judgment about how interdependence should be managed.

Secondly, neither “multilateral”, nor “interdependent” occurs in the UN Charter. But the Declaration confidently asserts, without defining the term, that “multilateralism is not an option, but a necessity”. It can do so on the basis of the demonstrated validity of the propositions set forth in the Preamble to the UN Charter.  

In that sublime 200-word text, “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”, firstly reaffirm their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; and secondly declare their intention to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples”.         

Thirdly, while they were remarkably prescient in emphasising the close inter-relationship between what are now called the “three pillars” of co-operation and endeavour – peace and security, human rights and development – the Founders of the United Nations cannot be expected to have foreseen either the near-exponential ramifications of that relationship, as it has developed over the last seventy-five years, or the extent of the benefits which it has conferred on humankind.

Even more noteworthy, perhaps, has been the depth of humanitarian concern, manifested worldwide, not only by governments, but also by non-governmental organisations and agencies of every kind, at every level and in every sphere – the product of civil society at its best. That concern is the greatest feature of governance, as the complement of government, rather than its rival or opponent.   

We are all conscious of the needs of those who are most at a disadvantage of one sort or another. One of the great slogans of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is “we will leave no-one behind”. That says a great deal. A key test of civilisation is the treatment accorded to the least fortunate members of the community.

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What multilateralism is about in practice – repeat practice – can be summed up in a single prescription: our ready acceptance of responsibility, not only for doling well what may be required of us specifically, but also for having an eye out, and mind open, as to what more needs to be done.

Edmund Burke famously said – or did not say: the experts are divided on the matter – that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people should do nothing. In the age of interdependence, we have to go further than that: unless we all do our bit, we all suffer.

Multilateralism is thus concerned both with every element of the substance of international relations, and with every aspect of the processes by which they are conducted, at both macro and micro level, and in every time frame. It is objective in that its foundation is accurate analysis of the relevant factors, and efficient and effective implementation of the policies adopted. 

It is simultaneously subjective because it is qualitative as well as quantitative. It is directed by moral principles and priorities held in common. It is a matter of the heart as well as of the head. Itis driven byaninstinctforwhatis fair. It underlines the truth that a profound understanding, collective and individual, of the past is a prerequisite for wise management of the present and provision for the future.

Pie in the sky? Pabulum for the naive? Open house for freeloaders, shirkers, cheats and bullies? Undesirables there will be under any arrangement: but they can be shown up for what they are by having a prominent code of conduct which everyone professes to respect, and publicising situations in which it is obviously being ignored.  Bullies, of whatever size, are not totally insensitive to attention, especially when they may be endeavouring to appear as paragons of virtue. Peer pressure can work wonders.

And what is the alternative? Hard-bitten, no-nonsense persons speak glibly of a “rules-based international order” an obfuscation which cannot survive a moment’s rigorous analysis. But it is meat and drink to those who behave with total irresponsibility, and to those who are too scared to speak up or out.    

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What, then, have we to show as the harvest of this great Commemorative Declaration? The answer is “far more than almost everyone realises”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s General Assembly speech of September 26, 2020 heralded the intention to take a lead, and looked forward to January 10, 2021, the 75th anniversary of the symbolic opening of the inaugural session of the General Assembly in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, an internationally renowned place of worship at the heart of London, facing Westminster Abbey across historic Broad Sanctuary Green.

The Presidential Election of November 2020 brought us the most welcome prospect of relief from President Trump, whose behaviour in the ensuing two months has marked him out as the most ungracious loser in American political history.         

The planned visit to the UK by the UN Secretary-General to mark the General Assembly anniversary occasion had to be cancelled for Covid 19 reasons. A number of virtual visits and events replaced it. 

Of these, none was as significant as the virtual service organised on the morning of January 10 by Tony Miles, the Superintendent of Methodist Central Hall and broadcast worldwide. At its outset, David Wardrop, the Chairman of the Westminster United Nations Association, was authorised to announce that Broad Sanctuary Green had been renamed “United Nations Green”. 

The photograph below shows the modest welcoming party for United Nations Green held on August 21. “We the peoples”, of every age and nationality, gathered round a display of the flags of the United Nations. They realised that, in the wording of the discreet reminder in the text of the Commemorative Declaration that “there is no other global organisation with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact as (sic) the United Nations”. Its spirit will outlive the mindless and heartless activities of any terrorist movement.

UNA members and diplomats and their families join refugees and asylum seekers temporarily staying in local hotels in welcoming United Nations Green. Photo: Javier Mandirola

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Although the Commemorative Declaration may have left the vast majority of UK cerebrals unmoved, it did not fail to resonate with the UK Government. The latter in its turn did not fail to pass on the message. It was in a unique position to do so. As 2021 dawned, the Prime Minister was host to the UN Secretary-General’s virtual visit; was “Chair-in-Office” of the Commonwealth, by virtue of the last meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government having taken place in London in 2018; assumed the presidency of the G7; and was the leader of the government which would host COP26 in Glasgow in November. 

It soon showed. At the close of their virtual meeting on February 19, chaired by the Prime Minister, the G7 leaders “resolved to work together to beat Covid 19 and to build back better….  Drawing on our strengths and values as democratic, open economies and societies, we will work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism”. 

The UK Government’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” (CP 406, March 16)) testifies to awesome powers of joined-up thinking. In Section 2 of “The Strategic Framework”, entitled “Shaping the open international order of the future”, it says “the UK remains deeply committed to multilateralism”. 

Most recently, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons has published the detailed and absorbing response of the UK Government (HC 618) to the Committee’s own wide-ranging report on the UK’s role in multilateral diplomacy (HC 199). 

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Multilateralism could be said to have achieved lift-off during the course of President Biden’s visit to Europe in June. We are entitled to draw from the five texts agreed during the course of it – in chronological order, the New Atlantic Charter; the US/UK statement; the G7 Summit communique; the NATO Summit communique, and the US/EU Declaration – the encouraging conclusion that there is near- unanimous agreement throughout the international community as to our multifarious common agenda, and a near-miraculous consensus on the best way of tackling it: namely multilateralism.  

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“And how”, the cynics and the “realists” and the woebegone might ask, “do you reconcile all those fine words and sentiments with the debacle in Afghanistan?”  There is much to be said for starting to answer a difficult question by asking another of the same.  

“Given”, my question would run, “that the US rightly invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in the light of the Nine/Eleven attacks; given further that the watchword was that if those responsible were not brought to justice, justice would be brought to them; given yet further that the latter procedure was accompanied by a inevitably controversial foreign-financed-and-led policy of “nation building”, was it not apparent that a viable exit strategy would be a matter of extreme delicacy?” 

The “agreement” reached between the United States and the Taliban (the Afghan Government not being involved) on February 29, 2020 would seem to raise as many questions as it was intended to answer as its title is supremely uninviting:   Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and the United States”. Alarm bells should surely have been ringing all around. 

Nowhere does the writ of the Law of Unintended Consequences run more freely than in the field of international relations. The unexpected provides opportunities, as well as challenges, to those sufficiently up to speed, and nimble enough, to grasp them. Afghanistan, seemingly doomed to be the cockpit of Asia, is a spectacular case in point.   

Security Council Resolution 2593 of August 30 is an excellent start to the process of furnishing Afghanistan with a secure place within the international community, together with the provision of the assistance it so desperately needs, on condition that its government respects the obligations of UN membership.  

Peter Marshall, 

September 21, 2021