Statement made by Fred Carver to the UN All-Party Parliamentary Group, 19 February.
Ever so many thanks for your presentation and thank you to our chair Lord Hannay.
UNA-UK is, as I hope you all know, an independent charity and think-tank working to make the case for an effective UN. We are a critical friend to the UN, although in these testing times we like to emphasise the friend part of that phrase, and we campaign for multilateralism in foreign policy.
We were delighted to publish this report, it is not our work – it is the work of the three authors you have just heard from – but we commented on earlier drafts and edited and published the final version. And in the interests of full disclosure I should state that I was one of the 29 interviewees.
So first of all I’d like to thank Jess, Jason and Sam, and the Universities of Leeds, Southampton and Manchester, and the British Academy. We have had a very productive partnership with Leeds over the past few years which looks to continue well into the future, but I think this is our first time, or the first time in a good while, working with Manchester, Southampton and the BA, and it has been a pleasure.
Secondly, I wanted to talk about another contribution I did make to the piece, which is the introduction. What I pointed out there was that this research supports UNA-UK’s longstanding contention that two things are needed to shore up UK influence globally and make a success of "Global Britain."
The first is consistency. If one looks at the countries that truly can be said to “punch above their weight” in Lord Hannay's phrase, in UN affairs, then my personal list would include Costa Rica, Singapore, Ghana, Liechtenstein, and Sweden. What those countries share is a principled and consistent foreign policy that espouses national values. Those values might not be our values – I don’t think we’d any of us agree with the Government of Singapore on free speech or Liechtenstein on tax havens – but their strength in international forums comes from the consistency with which they are applied.
This has been the key message of the “Keeping Britain Global” campaign that UNA-UK has run over the past couple of years. The Prime Minister, to our pleasure, has suggested that the UK’s role is to champion the rules based international system in international forums. This is fitting, given the role this country played in establishing those rules. And indeed in ten days time we will pay tribute to the person who, perhaps more than any other, contributed to the creation of those rules, as Sir Brian Urquhart – my hero and I’m sure I’m not alone – turns 100.
But although this role is positive and helpful it is also self-serving, as the UK’s position of historical privilege means that it benefits more than most from the existence of rules in general and these rules in particular. This creates an added need for the UK to avoid opening itself up to charges of hypocrisy. This need is further increased if you set yourself up as a stickler for the rules.
So, if the UK is, for example, multiateralist on gender equality but unilateralist on arms control, or multiateralist on the Human Rights Council but unilateralist on Killer Robots, or contributes to international efforts on peacekeeping but not on disarmament, then the good does not outweigh the bad because good and bad are not given equal weight.
The other element that is needed, and this is very strongly echoed in the report, is about investment. We are no longer the power we were in 1945 and yet we still occupy many of the positions, notably on the Security Council, that we were given at that time. We are not going to lose those positions formally, but if we take those positions for granted then we will find ourselves paying a high diplomatic price.
So there is a need for constant investment in the health of the system, and to the UK’s credit we have seen that in recent years: 1000 new diplomats - including much needed reinforcements to the UK mission in New York - a firm commitment to the 0.7% of ODI, and a doubling of contributions to UN Peacekeeping (which I very much hope will continue post 2020). Global Britain is clearly about more than sending a gunboat to the South China Sea.
But there is a concern, and I think this comes through loud and clear in the sections of the report about “Global Britain” that at a political level the commitment to this investment is tentative. Across the political spectrum there are a number of voices who no longer see the value of internationalism or multilateralism and would rather our resources be diverted inwards. What we would like to see is political voices of all parties and none making the point that this approach is short termist, and that as our world becomes more global and more multipolar the vitality of the UK on the international stage right now will have a direct impact on our domestic situation in the future.
In this context the report of the Henry Jackson society last week was troubling. The report didn’t call for the 0.7% commitment of ODI to be ended, but it did call on the UK to unilaterally rewrite the definition. In many ways that is worse, suggesting as it does an arrogant approach to international affairs in which UK authors know better than the combined intelligence of all the world’s governments what it is that the world needs, and raising the frankly colonialist suggestion that the UK should dictate to developing countries what constitutes effective development.
All that being said, we ourselves become part of the problem if we do not acknowledge where these ideas come from, why it is that trust in international institutions is at an all time low, and that rules of all sorts, including the rules that constitute the rules based global system, exist to maintain a status quo, and that many people – including some in the UK – feel excluded by that status quo and left behind by our international system.
This creates a pressing need to ensure our global system works for all, and that all have a stake in it. Not just those who live in a democracy, or in a commonwealth, but everyone who lives in one of our United Nations. So, just as we look to the UK to renew its commitment to multilateralism so we look to renew the multilateral system itself, and our new “Together First” campaign will attempt to do just that by allowing the public and civil society to shape an agenda for change starting at the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020.
Finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to the FCO for joining us today. As this report says, “the respect felt by a wide array of stakeholders for the UK’s staff in New York [and I would add London] is undiminished by Brexit.” And indeed one cannot read this report without coming away with a renewed admiration for the work done by our professional diplomatic services on what, to be honest, can quite often be quite a sticky wicket.
I don’t really need to therefore add but this is not a Parliamentary Select Committee and it is not our intention to grill our FCO friends. And, as I’m sure then can clarify if needs be, they are nonpartisan career civil servants and will not be able to speak to some of the politics, particularly with respect to Brexit, under which they are required to operate. Instead, what I am hoping we can do is to have an open, constructive and forward looking discussion about the role the UK can play at the UN, the opportunities that exist, and the kind of United Nations we’re looking to create.
I wonder if I could therefore kick off that discussion by pitching a few questions back to our presenters:
- I feel like as the multipolarity of the world increases the General Assembly will become more important and the Security Council less so. It feels from the report as though we have more ground to make up in the GA, not least because we are in the process of leaving a 28 member voting bloc. How do we mitigate that? Would caucusing with the EU help?
- Several of your interviewees mentioned that the UK are seen as “skilled negotiators.” Did they elaborate on what makes for a skilled or effective negotiator?
- How can we quantify UK influence at the UN? If this report sets a benchmark, then will we be able to revisit it in a few years time and see what has changed?