Britain as a multilateralist global soft power
The United Kingdom has probably been the most globalist power in human history. While its colonial domination of the world had many dark elements, ingrained within them were also the seeds of its transformation into a multilateralist soft power unleashing the renaissance of a more enlightened and democratic post-colonial new world order.
While the end of the British empire had its share of bitterness and humiliation, the UK managed to leave behind a generally benign and benevolent footprint in the world through the Commonwealth of Nations that chose to maintain ties of friendship and practical cooperation.
The UK played a leading role in creating the post-World War II architecture of multilateral institutions including the United Nations, the World Bank/IMF, and later the World Trade Organization and other regional institutions. Besides its substantial bilateral aid programme, the UK has always been a consistent and pre-eminent donor and supporter of multilateral action and assistance to tackle the pressing problems of global poverty, conflict and humanitarian crises.
In 2013 the UK became the only G-7 country to commit to allocating 0.7 percent of GNI as official development assistance. This policy was enacted into law in 2015 and enjoyed broad public support, further consolidating the UK’s credentials as a global champion of international cooperation and multilateralism. Through this commitment, the UK sought to promote a “golden thread” of stable government, lack of corruption, human rights, the rule of law and transparency in global governance.
As the UK embarked on a contentious referendum on leaving the European Union there were many fringe voices, and some in the mainstream political parties too, that saw Brexit as liberating Britain from burdensome multilateral obligations and reasserting the virtues of a go-it-alone national sovereignty. Yet, to their credit, leaders of all political parties, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have reaffirmed their commitment to honour and even enhance many of the UK’s multilateral commitments.
Nevertheless, sceptics continue to question the sincerity of the UK Government’s multilateral commitments. The latest scepticism has been triggered by the decision to “temporarily” reduce ODA from 0.7 % to 0.5% of GNI until “the fiscal situation allows a budget increase”, and the merger of the former Department for International Development (DFID) into the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
Time will tell whether the merger of DFID with FCO will truly lead to a stronger, better coordinated and unified support for the UK’s international cooperation or make the UK’s commitment to international development and humanitarian aid subservient to short-term political, diplomatic and trade-related calculus. The experience of other countries like Australia, Canada and the US that have tried such mergers is far from reassuring.
The pandemic, the climate crisis, terrorism, global poverty and inequality show that we need a multilateral approach to ‘problems without borders’
The UK’s commitment to providing 0.7 % of GNI as ODA was widely acclaimed as a bold and enlightened decision worthy of a wealthy and compassionate world power. However, as former Secretary of State for Internal Development Andrew Mitchell has said, “If the case for 0.7% is not continuously made, the tide goes out on this important aspect of Global Britain amongst the public.”
As Mitchell noted, “in 2012, after two years of austerity in which the Cameron-led government declined to balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world, support amongst the public at large for our international development policies went up from 46% to nearly 50%.” Perhaps the Government should, rather than being driven by an element of public opinion opposed to aid spending, seek to ensure that its aid is soon returned to 0.7, and is applied in ways that are most likely to be both effective and popular, and which can be complemented by the kind of multilateral diplomacy for which the UK has been renowned. This could be the basis for a new and powerful vision for Global Britain.
The latest comprehensive approach to the UK Government’s vision of a “Global Britain” is contained in its “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” launched by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 16 March 2021. The Review identifies intellectual and human capital as the major sources of the country’s “Soft Power”, rooted in the UK’s values and way of life; the vibrancy and diversity of its democracy; and its international identity as an open, trustworthy and innovative country.
Nearly 500,000 overseas students choose to study in the UK annually, making it the 2nd most popular destination after the US. The British Council reaches 100 million people in over 100 countries. The UK offers several government scholarship schemes to the next generation of global leaders. No wonder, over 1 in 4 countries around the world has a Head of State or of Government who was educated in the UK.
Global Britain’s great Soft Power status is bolstered by its extensive network of diplomatic missions in 281 posts in 178 countries and territories.
As the world’s 5th largest economy, Global Britain can harness its tremendous Soft Power to “punch above its weight” and position itself as the preeminent world leader and development partner, committed to the global fight against poverty and to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, the UK certainly has a responsibility to contribute to maintaining international peace and security, and therefore, retaining its “hard power” military prowess for such purposes. However, the “hard power” elements of the Global Britain vision iterated in the Integrated Review seem to exceed an envisaged more modest yet very meaningful role as a new kind of enlightened multilateralist global “soft power”.
I believe now is the most propitious time for the old imperial UK to make history by embracing the concept of “human security” as the foundation for world peace and prosperity rather than the outdated prescription of military-based “national security”. As a P-5 member of the UN Security Council, it would be fitting for Global Britain to become the foremost champion of the UN General Assembly-approved “Responsibility to Protect”.
The UK would be ahead of the curve if it were to strengthen multilateralism as the governing ethos in its international relations, and encourage others to do the same.
These elements of effective leadership in humanitarian and development assistance, a stepping up of multilateralist diplomacy, and a focus on human security and the Responsibility to Protect could form the building blocks of an exciting and radical new vision for a post-Brexit, post-pandemic, Global Britain applying soft power to bring solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, terrorism, global poverty and growing inequality have shown clearly that no one country or group of countries, however powerful, can tackle such problems alone. We need a multilateral approach to tackle such ‘problems without borders’ that travel across frontiers without a passport or a visa.
With its historic legacy, its position as the most influential mid-sized world power, its role as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, and its track record as a large, enlightened and trusted development partner, Global Britain is ideally placed to lead a renaissance of multilateral action to address most of today’s global challenges.
In 2021, the UK has a special opportunity to provide such leadership as it chairs the G-7 Summit, hosts the COP-26 and the Global Education Summit, and plays its key part in the Food Systems and Nutrition for Growth summits later this year.
Here then is a four-point agenda for Global Britain to make its signature mark as a multilateralist global soft power:
1. Distinguish Britain as a Multilateralist Global Soft Power
For the first time in history, concerted efforts were made to introduce a whole new collaborative international order following the two World Wars of the 20th century – first, the establishment of the League of Nations, and later, the United Nations. To its credit, the UK was one of the great world powers that supported and led the movement for the creation of this new world order.
Unlike some great powers, the UK, to its credit has largely sought to fully honour and abide by the spirit articulated in the Charter of the United Nations.
Britain is uniquely well placed to propose far-reaching and meaningful reforms to help make the international architecture fit for the 21st century, making the world safer by preventing and resolving conflicts, addressing global disparities, strengthening livelihoods, meeting the SDGs, and giving young people confidence in the international commitment to sustainability
I would argue that the UK would be ahead of the curve if it were to strengthen multilateralism as the governing ethos in its international relations, and encourage others to do the same.
I believe as all nations revisit their place in the post-COVID world, it is a perfect time for the UK to make a wise and courageous choice, clearly tilting on the side of becoming an enlightened, multilateralist global soft power.
This need not preclude the UK continuing to be a major military power for its own reasonable national security purposes, as a member of NATO and to discharge its role in international peacekeeping and peacebuilding as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. However, it would be better for the UK to make history as a champion of the demilitarisation of international relations and position itself as an eloquent proponent of non-military human security.
2. Spearhead UN Reform and Multilateralism to enhance Human Security
There have been innumerable proposals for UN reform over the past seven decades but few have succeeded in reforming the original architecture of the system that is no longer congruent with the realities of the mid-21st century.
Using its position in the Security Council, Britain is uniquely well placed to propose far-reaching and meaningful reforms.
A centre point of such reform should be the pursuit of human security as the key to national and international security. Making the world, and the UK, a safer place by preventing and resolving armed conflicts, addressing rising global disparities, strengthening people’s livelihoods, meeting the SDGs, giving young people greater confidence in the international commitment to sustainability and protection of the planet, would be fitting goals for the UK to spearhead.
Following Brexit, the EC will no longer be a required or a preferred channel for UK aid. In light of the reduction of ODA from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of GNI, there might be a temptation to drastically reduce the multilateral component of ODA. That would be a mistake.
Since a significant portion of EC/EDF funding is eventually re-channelled through UN agencies at the field level, it would be prudent for the UK to continue to provide more of its multilateral funding directly through the proven and effective UN agencies, funds and programmes. After all, these UN agencies where UK has influence through its membership in their governing bodies, have the mandate, the legitimacy and greater acceptability, particularly in sensitive areas where bilateral agencies might be less trusted.
Moreover, some UN agencies offer better value for money due to their economies of scale. A case in point is UNICEF as the world’s largest supplier of vaccines, essential medicines and sanitation supplies to developing countries.
Now is also an appropriate occasion for the UK to consider significantly increasing its core funding for UN agencies, Funds and Programmes, and encourage other OECD-DAC members to follow its lead.
When UN agencies are made too dependent on ad hoc, discretionary and unpredictable “voluntary funding”, it is difficult for them to build up robust systems of accountability and for Member States to hold them accountable. Here, Global Britain can set an example for other donors, as it is already doing through its declared pledge to increase core funding for WHO.
In general, when in doubt, I would hope and recommend that the preferred default position for Global Britain should be to choose multilateral channels over others (with the judicious exception of some non-profit NGOs with proven track record).
2021 offers a unique opportunity for the UK to position itself as the greatest champion of bold actions for the world’s children.
3. Champion the Responsibility to Protect
Many countries, especially those ruled by authoritarian regimes, hide behind their sovereignty to oppress their people, and even to deprive them of humanitarian relief in emergencies. When governments are involved in massive violations of their citizens’ human rights and are unable or unwilling to protect them from humanitarian disasters, the international community needs to act together decisively.
In 2005, the UK joined the consensus at the Summit of world leaders at the UN General Assembly when they agreed that the international community had a “Responsibility to Protect” vulnerable people if their own government is unable or unwilling to protect them.
However, the UN Security Council has rarely invoked this principle even when there have been blatant cases fully justifying humanitarian intervention in support of the R2P principle. A recent glaring case in point is Myanmar following the brutal atrocities committed by the ruling junta against peaceful protestors and their nationwide civil disobedience movement.
As a great supporter of human rights, humanitarian laws and humanitarian assistance, the world counts on Global Britain to be a foremost champion of R2P at the United Nations, including at the Security Council.
Global Britain can unleash the collective power of multilateral cooperation to build a brighter future for future generations
4. Focus on Children and Human Development
In the context of its strong commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, the UK has made a clear, unambiguous, and repeated pledge to focus its support on global health, girls’ education, humanitarian assistance and climate change.
One way to recapitulate all these priorities, while working for the prevention and resolution of conflict, protecting human rights, and promoting good governance, is for Global Britain to proclaim that the centrepiece of its international development cooperation and diplomacy will be to maximize the wellbeing of the world’s children and future generations. There is no greater cause or nobler mission than a child-focused and human development-centred approach, worthy of Global Britain’s leadership. Such an approach is likely to garner increased public support for UK Aid and diplomacy.
The major beneficiaries of the UK’s declared priorities for girls’ education, global health and humanitarian assistance are obviously children, while the priority for climate change is intended for the present generation to bequeath a sustainable future for our children and future generations.
Historically, the UK is the motherland of child rights. Global Britain can legitimately claim to be a global leader for child rights, an issue that commands great public support in the UK.
Building on this track record, the year 2021 offers a unique opportunity for the UK to position itself as the greatest champion of bold actions for the world’s children and utilize its central role in this year’s G-7, COP 26 and the other global forums with that objective at the heart of its efforts.
Young people are concerned about their future in the face of the multiple crises wrought by the COVID pandemic, climate change, and growing economic inequality driving some to alienation and extremism. But most youngsters are excited and energized by the opportunities presented by the positive aspects of globalisation and the digital economy. Global Britain can harness the potential of the British and the world’s children and youth by investing heavily in their health, education, and wellbeing, and unleashing the collective power of multilateral cooperation to build a brighter future for future generations.
Please note that the views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF UK.