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Supporting a rules-based international order

One of the more unusual invitations to land in my inbox, on 3 November 2016 I gave evidence on global governance and a rules-based international order to the Liberal Democrat policy working group on international affairs.   The working group has been established by the parliamentary party to examine and update party policy on Britain’s role in the world. Their remit includes identifying the issues facing the international community, setting out a positive and inspirational vision for the world we want to build, and defining a realistic, focused role for Britain in helping bring that world into being. The end result of this group will be an updated party policy that frames our foreign policy interventions over the next parliament.  Here are my opening remarks:

First, to set the scene.

In contrast to the heady optimism of the 1990s, global governance has been reimagined as a realm of disputes and multilateral gridlock.

The global governance landscape is portrayed by some as unravelling in the face of proliferating threats.  I would push back against this characterisation.  Certainly there is a profound sense of “radical uncertainty” and governance deficit, which is provoking critical reflection.  But it’s also reviving interest in global governance and spurring on innovation.

It’s important to recall that the existing global governance architecture is only 70 years young, and it has always been challenging.  That said, the problems have got harder, no longer focused solely on the maintenance of international peace and security, we now expect our global institutions, such as UNSC, to coordinate and deliver on the world’s hunger for global public goods.

A job which they were not built to do.

The task ahead is probably not the creation of new institutions. Rather it is the renovation of existing ones and the clear attribution of responsibility.  We are now more awake than ever to the imperative of coordination, but this will also require leadership.

Across global health, development, climate, human rights we do see an operational turn away from legal norm development to the frankly more challenging task of implementation.

Global governance, however partial, is not a hypothetical.  And perhaps the most pressing issue on my desk right now is: what works?  How do we move from bad to good governance?

Global governance is working, to varying degrees, and with varying success – and not just in the EU.

Paraphrasing Monty Python, what has global governance ever done for us?  Well quite a lot.

Observers, such as Dan Drezner, point to the stabilisation of the global economy in 2008 as a success of international finance governance

Examples of successful crisis response through international cooperation include the HIV-AIDS epidemic, the recent Ebola outbreak, the extraordinary breakthrough of the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Ruggie Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The International Criminal Court perhaps embodies the boldest inroad yet into the protected domain of state sovereignty, directly privileging individuals as opposed to governments as the rightful beneficiaries of global governance.

Notably, the court has recently signalled its intention to expand jurisdiction into environmental destruction.

However, formidable challenges are not hard to find.

The abysmal performance of the UNSC when it comes to Syria is emblematic of the worst symptoms of multilateral gridlock.

Similarly, the greatest tragedy of the financial crisis is that it has not yet led to a radical restructuring of the global economic architecture.

We encounter powerful geopolitical shifts to the BRICS, risking a power vacuum with the old leadership lacking conviction, and the new leaders not yet ready.

Another elephant in the room is corporate power, and the acceleration of parallel private rules-based systems resistant to public regulation.

And, of course, the retreat from European cooperation symbolised by Brexit.  The disconnect between knowledge, or evidence, and action here is very worrying.

Nevertheless, to pass judgement on global governance based on these admittedly grave challenges would be, I would suggest, misguided.

The diffusion of power towards a more multipolar world should also give s reasons for optimism over the medium term.  Afterall, to be genuinely successful, international governance must rest on a strong basis of collective political purpose and shared standards of legitimacy.

The UN system, for all its faults, remains one of few governance venues with the potential to positively channel, as well as constrain, state power.

And we should not overlook efforts by diverse public and private actors, from national regulatory agencies to Bill Gates, to respond to transboundary challenges, working with governments where possible, and bypassing them when necessary.

But Brexit does demand that we take a long, hard look at how we build public support for investing in global public policy and its governance machinery.

Fragmentation of the world into sovereign states, coupled with the natural impulse to retreat inwards in response to external threat are powerful blocks on progress.

The irony, of course, is that everything affecting our future dramatically is likely to come from beyond national borders.

The message that our future peace relies on the peace and security of others is not new.

But how do we revitalise that message for this century?

Britain should redouble its efforts in supporting a rules-based international order, with due attention to equity and representation. Concrete pathways include:

  • Implementation and ratcheting up of the Paris agreement
  • Secure an enduring and lawful peace in Syria
  • Constructive engagement with new initiatives by emerging powers, such as the China-instigated Asian Infrastructure-Investment bank
  • Supporting directly and through third parties the integrity of the UN human rights system, as well as the ICC as an ethical bedrock
  • Encouraging international organisations, including the EU, WB and others, to deepen methods of direct legitimation in their decision-making
  • Seek to address massive and growing global inequality through reform of the global economic and financial architecture, including supporting OECD anti-corruption and tax evasion initiatives
  • And investment in massive information campaigns on the contribution of global governance to peoples’ wellbeing and security.

Global governance is a long game.

Recalling Max Weber, it is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.”

However, on the flipside many would argue that we do not have the luxury of time.  Particularly on climate change, they say it is not enough to take people to the edge of the cliff, but you also have to push them over to realise the consequences of their actions.

That would be a terrible indictment of our ability as a species to evolve.

We can and must be smarter than that.

But it is going to take extraordinary creativity.

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