An axis of openness: renewing multilateralism for the 21st century

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg delivered a speech on foreign policy and multilateralism.

The case I want to make to you today is that, after a dark decade in world affairs, 2011 marks an unexpected moment for multilateralism and democracy. A new ‘axis of openness’ is forming.

We have to seize this moment, and transform 20th century international institutions to meet 21st century demands.

I am a politician who is instinctively international in outlook. It is an article of my political faith that the profound challenges we face today can only be met together, as an international community.

Climate change, terrorism, economic growth, migration, financial regulation. For me, modern politics must be multilateral politics.

But there is no doubt that the years since 9/11 have in many ways been a dark decade for multilateralism. The Iraq war and its aftermath; the disappointment of the climate change talks in Copenhagen; and the profound crisis in the financial system have all eroded faith in the institutions and spirit of global cooperation.

Europe has faced deep economic and political challenges; most of the nations of North Africa and the Middle East have suffered under dictatorial or even despotic regimes; power has shifted east to nations who have been more sceptical about the value of multilateralism. And the dominant assumption has been that, in many regions of the world, the dynamic forces for change in the 21st century would be nationalism, extremism and religious fanaticism.

Following Iraq, the consensus among most observers of the world scene and, if I am honest, a secret fear among many politicians of my generation - was that the multilateral system was damaged, and the cause of global co-operation had been set back, perhaps for a generation.

But the events of the last year show that, after years of rational pessimism, there are now grounds for cautious optimism. Just as 1989 and 2001 marked sharp breaks with the past, so 2011 could prove to be a turning point in international affairs: the third critical moment in recent history.

Many of the received wisdoms of the last decade have tumbled like dominoes. Against the predictions of most of the experts in foreign ministries around the world, the last nine months have seen a rising tide of democracy and openness, and a resuscitation of the ideals of multilateralism:

There has been real progress on climate change here in Mexico, at the Cancun Summit last year. I’d like to congratulate the Mexican government and the Mexican people for helping make the Cancun Summit such a success.

The rising democratic tide in North Africa and the Middle East, led by middle-class secular forces, with a movement for openness in societies across the region.

A swift and decisive response by the United Nations to the dangers posed to those fighting for freedom in Libya. A response strongly supported by many emerging economies and with a significant and encouraging new role played by China, Russia and Brazil.

And finally, the reaction of the world to the tragedy in Japan. It has long been a cliche to say that the world is becoming smaller. But I believe that in terms of compassion and ethics, the case is now proven beyond doubt. When citizens in war-torn Afghanistan are sending money to Japan, it is possible see ourselves as citizens not only of our own nations, but also of that wider country, the world.

There has always been an idealist case for global co-operation. But just as strong is the pragmatic one. It is simply a statement of fact that many of our challenges can only be met together. Most nations, most of the time, simply don’t have the capacity to act on their own.

So, the two main post-Iraq assumptions have been confounded. First, that the multilateral system was broken; and second, that the forces for insularity, for closed societies, were in the ascendancy.

In Africa, swept by a movement for change, the hopes of free, open societies are rising. We can see the courage of the protestors on the streets. And with 14 presidential elections likely to take place in the continent this year, the prospects for lasting change in Africa are brighter than for decades.

And the last decade has also seen remarkable progress and transformation in Latin America: the political shift to multi-party democracy in most Latin American countries, and a deep economic transformation that has seen economies like Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia become key players in a global economy.

These are changes pioneered, in many ways, here in Mexico - at the bridge between North America and Latin America. The first major emerging economy to fully embrace the opportunities and rigours of free trade, and deservedly one of the first to reap the rewards. But also an increasingly thriving and pluralistic democracy, and an active player in the global multilateral system.

This is therefore a moment to be cautiously confident about the cause of openness and the strength of multilateralism.

In my lifetime, the world has been sliced up and labelled in a number of different ways: “East” and “West”; “developed” and “developing”; “north” and “south”; “Christian” and “Muslim”, and so on.

But for me, the most important divide has always been the one between open societies and closed societies.

Open societies are those which choose democracy and freedom at home, and engagement and responsibility abroad. Closed societies turn inwards, favouring protectionism in economic policy and detachment from foreign affairs.

The temptation to turn inwards has been understandably strong over the last decade. And of course some nations remain too closed. But the forces at work in the world are on the side of openness, especially economic flows and communications technology.

The contagion that can spread across the world’s financial system was demonstrated in dramatic fashion two years ago. Toxic debt unwound around the world, confidence fell in markets everywhere, and the failure of institutions on one side of the globe caused recession on the other.

But there are more positive forms of contagion too. Investment flows across borders continue to increase, tying the fates of nations more closely together. And in the age of Twitter and Google, dictatorial regimes cannot shield the eyes of their people from the wider world.
Ideas are contagious, too.

It is increasingly unlikely that any nation can open itself to the world economically, while remaining closed politically.

And open societies are forming alliances around the world - economic, diplomatic and military alliances. Mexico is leading the way on free trade and environmentalism.

Following 9/11 there were those who looked at the world and saw an “axis of evil”. George Bush himself said that faced with this axis, “indifference would be catastrophic”. Ten years on, I look at the world and see an axis of openness. And I think indifference to this axis would truly be catastrophic.

The values of open societies are sometimes called Western values, but only by those who do not know their history. Think of the reign of Haroun al-Rashid in North Africa in the 8th century, or Akbar in India in the 16th, or indeed to the ideals of Mexico’s own fight for independence and then its revolution.

It is clear that the values of open societies are not just European or Western values. They are human values. And they are shared around the world.

People want to choose their own governments; to have access to knowledge and information; they want freedom of speech and expression; an economy free of corruption. They want the rule of law, not the rule of tyrants.

So I believe that in 2011, almost ten years on from the atrocity of 9/11, and eight years on from the invasion of Iraq, we are at a critical moment for multilateralism and openness.

Our aim should be to seize this moment, and ‘lock in’ the progress made in recent months.

Right now, the world’s eyes are on North Africa and especially Libya. But the challenges we face as an international community are not concerned with one country, in one month. They encompass dozens of nations, and will require decades of hard work.

Patiently building institutions, sharing knowhow and expertise. It is often the little things, the local things, that make all the difference to the dignity and the opportunity in people’s lives.

Do public services deliver? Does your local school offer your children the start they need? Is justice done swiftly, fairly and transparently? Can I hold the people in charge to account? Is there security on the streets?

These are not questions for which there are quick answers. The movement towards freedom and openness is a long-term endeavour; a generational change that will live well beyond any single parliament.

But our idealism must be tempered by realism. Our hopes have to be combined with humility. We must of course always work within the confines of international law. But we must also be aware of the resources available to us. We need to know our limits.

We need to be humble about the extent to which we can interfere in the business of any nation state. The danger of overreaching should be on our minds at all times.

So: idealism, yes. But pragmatism and humility, too.

It is in this context that the international action in Libya needs to be seen.
The UK strongly advocated action to protect Libyan civilians from the brutal repression of Colonel Qadhafi. It was the right thing to do. But it was vital that the decision to act was taken in the right way.

There is a good deal of concern in the UK, and I know here in Mexico too, about the military action. The sight of coalition warplanes in action in North Africa is a stark reminder of earlier conflicts.

Like most of you, I was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq. It was wrong. But the action being taken in Libya today is right. It would be a terrible tragedy if the mistakes of Iraq led to a retreat from the principle of liberal interventionism, from the principle that we have a collective responsibility to support freedom and protect human rights around the world.

The lesson of Iraq is not that intervention in support of liberal aims is always wrong. The lesson of Iraq is that any such action must only - and must always - be multilaterally sanctioned and driven by humanitarian concerns.

Liberal vigilantism is dead. Law-abiding liberal interventionism is not.

There are five vital differences between the action in Libya and Iraq:
First, the Libyan action is unambiguously legal. Iraq was not.

Second, there is a clear humanitarian case for intervention in Libya. In Iraq the case rested solely on the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction, a case which turned out to be illusory.

Third, the Libyan action has strong support in the region, not least from the Arab League. For Iraq there was strong opposition from many neighbouring countries.

Fourth, there is today a strong emphasis on post-conflict stabilisation and aid, led by the UN - compared to the chaotic aftermath of Iraq.
Fifth, the military action in Libya is taking place within strict constraints and with clear aims, compared to the all-encompassing military action in Iraq in 2003.

So the action in Libya does not signal a return to the trigger-happy policies of the past. It represents a responsible, collective decision to intervene on clear legal and moral grounds.

The outcome in Libya is uncertain. We can be sure that there will be surprises - good and bad - setbacks, and unintended consequences. It will not be easy. And it will not be tidy.

We should therefore conduct ourselves with humility and realism. We have to be clear about what is right for us to do, and clear about the limits of what we are able to do.

It is not for us to choose the government of Libya, or indeed the system of government for Libya. That is for the people of Libya. What we can do is prevent lethal military force being deployed by a dictator against civilians.

So, if we believe in multilateralism as both a virtue and a necessity, we have to confront the fact that the institutions that support it are in need of urgent reform.

The recent signs of life in our international institutions should nowhere be seen as a cause for complacency. Quite the opposite. The stakes have been raised. And the 20th century institutions of multilateralism will have to reform if we are to make the most of 21st century demands and hopes.

This means reforming and renewing the institutions of global multilateralism.

We need international institutions for openness. Institutions that are seen in the eyes of the world as both legitimate and effective: for global security, finance, trade, law and the environment. In all these cases, our goal must be to shift from a ‘western’ model of multilateralism to a truly global model.

In Libya, for example, it is vital that international organisations such as the UN take the lead not only in the initial action, but in planning for the later phases of stabilisation and rebuilding. Multilateralism in the stabilisation stage is as important as multilateralism in the military stage.

That is why the UK will be working with our international partners to ensure we pool our efforts under the leadership and direction of the UN.

My colleague Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s Development Secretary, will be talking to the UN and other international agencies this week arguing this case, and is encouraging our Arab, European and US partners to contribute their expertise and resources.

And while the UN’s recent action is a hopeful sign for multilateralism, reform of the UN is still urgently required. The UN Security Council must be reformed to reflect the new geography of power. Put simply, the UN cannot speak for the many if it only hears the voices of the few.

International economic institutions also need reform. The G20 is here to stay as a lynchpin of global governance, and Mexico’s Presidency in 2012 is likely to come at a critical moment. Building a more sustainable world economy will remain an urgent and overriding task for the international community.

World trade is vital both for economic growth around the globe, but also for openness in world affairs more generally. Of course this is of particular interest to economies like Mexico. The UK government stands shoulder to shoulder with you in our joint desire to complete the Doha trade round and open up the nations of the world to each others’ goods and services.

So while the eyes of the world are, understandably, on North Africa, the painstaking work of fixing the global economy, tackling climate change, and boosting trade, has to continue unabated.

Here in Mexico, I know the huge challenges you face in terms of combating the drugs trade, coping with the aftershocks of the world recession, and reducing poverty and inequality. And you are doing so as an open society, one that after two centuries of colonialism, civil unrest and one-party rule has now peacefully chosen democracy.

These challenges do not often make the news back in Europe in the same way as the uprisings in the city squares of North Africa and the Middle East. But we know how determined you are to meet them. And I want you to know that we are on your side.

On climate change, Cancun helped us move on from the disappointing memory of the Copenhagen Summit. But there is of course very much more to be done. The UK is pushing hard for Europe to lead by example and adopt a 30 per cent carbon reduction target for 2020.

And all of us must work to ensure that the climate change summit in Durban at the end of the year builds on the achievements in Cancun and takes further steps towards legally binding agreements on reducing our carbon emissions.

The regions of the world have an important part to play, too. So Europe must stand with the open societies of the world. We are at an important moment in shaping the EU’s long-term purpose and role in the world.

The EU was born out of war and crisis in Europe more than half a century ago. It now represents perhaps the most successful example of multilateralism in the world. In 1989, after the fall of the BerlinWall, Western Europe was a magnet for change in Central and Eastern Europe.

Now the EU must use its considerable collective economic clout to become a magnet for change in North Africa and the Middle East, too.
So, to conclude, there is a new movement towards openness in the world. Openness to trade; to combined efforts to tackle climate change; to shared responsibility for security. Mexico and Britain, although nine thousand kilometers apart, are part of a new axis of openness.

After a long, dark decade in world affairs, the prospects for the growth of open societies, and a renewal of multilateralism, are rising. Like 1989, and 2001, this year has the potential to be a turning point in world affairs. The moment when we turn the page on the failure and hubris of the last decade, and look forward to a better future.

The opportunity to build a more open world has unexpectedly presented itself. It is now up to us - to all of us - to seize it.