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Douglas Alexander, Foreign Policy Centre speech

Thanks very much to the City of London for making this Foreign Policy Centre event possible.

The contention of my remarks this evening is that a new multipolar politics needs multilateral policies.

But this week has been full of reminders of the half century where the world was divided neatly into two superpowers and their allies.

President Reagan’s statue in Grosvenor Square and the last flight of the space shuttle evoke memories of the final days of that standoff.

When that conflict ended, it was hard to know what shape would be the character of the post-Cold War world.

Looking back now, the “End of History” thesis doesn’t read very plausibly – with new ideologies and new powers gaining prominence since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But, from this side of an unfolding “Arab Spring”, neither does the “Clash of Civilisations”.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye talks of a world shaped by the shifting distribution of power from West to East and the growing dispersal of power from state to citizens.

The “Arab Spring” is the most spectacular example of the dispersal of power which I wrote about on the new Huffington Post website today.

But today I want to talk about how the rise of new powers creates a new multi-polar geopolitics.

And I also want to set out some of my thinking on how Britain should develop its response to these changes.

Emerging markets and emerging powers

The economic rise of countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China has been well documented.

The Goldman Sachs prediction – that by the time a child born today can vote, China will have a bigger economy than America – is one people here will know well.

And their finding that between 2000 and 2008, the BRIC share of global growth was 30%, compared to 16% in the previous decade, has to be put against the G7’s falling contribution from over 70% in the 1990s to just 40% on average during the current decade.

But the political, as opposed to economic, rise of the BRICs should not be lost amongst the extraordinary economic statistics.

China finally went public on the open secret of its first aircraft carrier last month.

The United Nations Security Council Resolution on Libya only went ahead because the Russians and Chinese did not veto, while it appears that meaningful condemnation of the Assad regime’s actions in Syria is being prevented by the threat of vetoes.

I recently wrote an article for the Telegraph about the transition timetable and the draw down plan for NATO forces in Afghanistan.  

But, as I argued in the piece, in truth the neighbours matter as much as the numbers to the future of Afghanistan.

Of course, the country’s future depends on more than internal agreement - it also depends on external support.  None of Afghanistan’s neighbours would gain from the kind of chaos that hit the country after the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops.

And all may lose if the “Great Game” simply continues.  Pakistan, China, Russia, India, the central Asian republics and Iran all have an interest in, and a responsibility for, Afghanistan’s future stability.

No neighbour matters more than Pakistan.  While conversations about Afghanistan used to end with a discussion on Pakistan, they now rightly tend to start with one – reflecting the essential inter-relationship between the fate and future of these two countries.

The international community should now be working to convince Pakistan’s political and military leadership that the existential threat to Pakistan is not India – it is violent extremism and insurgency.  Using our bilateral ties and our role in the Commonwealth, the United Nations Security Council and the European union, the UK must pursue that difficult diplomatic goal.

If Pakistan can learn to look toward the east, to India, with greater confidence it will have a clearer incentive to address the real threats of extremist violence, international terrorism and nuclear proliferation that threaten to destabilise all three countries.

And making that happen will, yes, require smart diplomacy from the West, but will require it just as much from other neighbouring countries like China and Russia.

The case for multilateralism

Pakistan will be central to Britain’s foreign policy challenge the UK faces in the next five years but it also exemplifies the trends that we will face in coming decades.

The UK will have huge strategic and economic interests dependent on engaging and influencing countries that vastly outstrip us in terms of population, natural resources or the scale of their militaries.

Of course, our bilateral relationships to those countries will be important.

But bilateral relationships can only take you so far.

Take British businesses that want to do work in China, Brazil or India..

For SMEs, the support that UK trade and industry can provide can be very useful.  Introductions from diplomats on the ground can be a big help.

But for big UK companies, it isn’t about making micro-connections: they need macro-guarantees on things like political stability or intellectual property.  

And that means having a substantive impact on the economic policies of a country like China, Brazil or India.

The only way to have a hope of doing that is in representing a market of similar size – that is, through the European Union.

In the origins of the European Union, from the days of the European Coal and Steel Community, was the desire to bind economies together to limit their political disagreements.

Countries that had been at war – and countries who had had those wars fought across their countryside – were principally concerned with minimising internal tension.

Now, the task has moved, instead, to one of maximising external influence.

And, I think some of the best arguments for British membership of the European Union are found, not in Brussels but in Beijing.

And the argument equally applies in the other major multilateral bodies that the UK is a part of.

For example, on Libya, the Security Council system worked.  As the US President said at the time, “in this effort, the United States is prepared to act as part of an international coalition.  American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting alone - it means shaping the conditions for the international community to act together.”

And in my example earlier of Afghanistan, and on Islamabad and New Delhi’s role in its stability, our Commonwealth links to those vital countries should not be left unused in the promoting stability in the region.

For all that, these are challenging times to make the case for multilateralism.

After Copenhagen, Doha and the constant to-and-fro of EU institutional reform, the recent history of major multilateral bodies has not been uniformly encouraging.

The ongoing crisis in Greece has added to the sense of the difficulties of multilateral responses.

And – while Syria should stand as an example of the European Union acting more effectively than the United Nations – the impotence of the international community in preventing President Assad’s forces’ brutality is confirmed on a daily basis.

Need a coherent multilateral strategy

But accepting that multilateralism is necessary but hard is not, in and of itself, a strategy.

We need a coherent approach to conducting a multilateral foreign policy in an increasingly multipolar world.

Tonight, I want to suggest three aspects of that approach: reassurance for the BRICs, reinvention of public diplomacy, redirection and renewal of our European approach.

Firstly, on the BRICs and other big emerging regional powers like Turkey or Indonesia, we shouldn’t shirk from raising issues of concern, such as human rights.

But we also need to encourage them to act within a global system of rules.

The move from a G8 to a G20 is a positive one, but it risks reducing the scope for international action as part of a wider trend towards vetoes and regional players taking quite a narrow interpretation of their national interest.

So when, for example, Russia and China don’t veto the Security Council resolution on Libya, we need ways to show that we will take that decision in good faith, and take action within the terms of the resolution.

Fundamentally, the UN Security Council is a decision making body with individual countries or sets of countries – in the case of Libya, Nato – acting as an executive.

If NATO were to exceed UNSC 1973 in Libya, it would increase the likelihood of vetoes, whatever the merits of the case, in future.

So if we don’t wish to run up against BRIC walls in our engagement in multilateral bodies – from the UNSC, to the WTO, to trade or climate talks – we need to think about institutional architectures that reassure signatories that when an agreement is reached, there are mechanisms to ensure it is implemented as its signatories intended.

Secondly, our public diplomacy needs to reflect modernity not history.

In my article for the Huffington Post today, I set out some of the ways that public diplomacy needs to adapt for a digital age.

And rather than just being about state to state relationships, governments can now have direct relationships with the citizens of other countries: when the US State Department started tweeting in Arabic, it reached half a million people within days.

Britain’s online strength and creativity should, in the classic Foreign Office formulation, give us the chance to “punch above our weight” in the online stakes.

And that matters for a multilateral approach because the oil that makes the multilateral wheels turn is public diplomacy.

During the G8 at Gleneagles we saw how the British Labour Government worked with governments from developing countries, NGOs to build pressure on all the governments involved to get an agreement.

Finally, the third aspect of a multilateral strategy is on our most powerful multilateral relationship: a renewal of our European approach.

I have no doubt that from Athens, to Berlin, to Paris to Brussels, the Euro is for the time being going to be the overriding focus of all their about Europe.

That is understandable: further crisis in Greece – or the conflagration spreading to another European country – would be very bad news for everyone in the continent.  But for those who share a currency with Greece, the stakes are even higher.

There are three possible responses to that fact.

The first is to sit on your hands.  This seems to be the approach taken by the Coalition Government, where Conservative Europhobia and Liberal Europhilia seem to yield not creative tension, but negation.  Meanwhile, some Conservative backbenchers are left looking more interested in glibly congratulating themselves than what the Greek crisis will mean for Britain.

The second is, while Germany and France focus on economic issues, to take up the role of rethinking Europe’s future.

I always value Tony Blair’s thinking on these issues but I’m not convinced that we need an elected European President, or the case for a launching a debate from London about the merits or demerits of such a change.

Instead, Britain should take the opportunity to step up to a leadership role in Europe on policy, not institutional reform.

That would mean using this moment where the UK can provide leadership to press forward with single market reforms that would benefit British businesses and consumers.

In energy, in services and in the digital economy, the right reforms could deliver a great deal.

It would mean taking the opportunity to push harder for an outward facing Europe – from issues such as Turkish enlargement, to the Southern Neighbourhood policy, to taking strong and unified positions on human rights.

And most of all, it would mean pushing for a Europe that is unhesitating in its desire for a global trade deal.

The tests for that approach in the years to come

If that is the outline of a more strategic approach, what will the tests be that it comes up against?

In Egypt, in Tunisia and in post-conflict Libya, only a multilateral approach can ensure that Britain is promoting stability, democracy and prosperity in countries that have shown such bravery and are so close to the borders of Europe.

In Afghanistan, we have to use each multilateral tool at our disposal – from NATO, to the United Nations, to our membership of the European Union and the Commonwealth – to pursue one clear political aim: to build a leave behind a legacy of stability and security in Afghanistan when NATO draws down its troops.

The E3+3 Process with Iran had great potential when it began, but we are not seeing the progress we would hope for: re-energising it, with more buy in from the actors who do have influence in Tehran, will only come about through sustained, multilateral, diplomatic hard work.

And while peace between Palestine and Israel, as two states, will only come about when those two peoples decide to make peace, the multilateral system has to provide every incentive towards cooperation and not conflict.

If anyone thought that this would be a quiet moment on the international stage while different countries wrestled with public sector debts and anaemic growth, that view has now become untenable.

This Government’s foreign policy “Plan A” was one of bilateral mercantilism.

By default rather than by design, in foreign policy they now seem to be fumbling towards a “Plan B”.

But for Britain, we can only best express our influence if we are disciplined in adopting a clear, multilateral strategy.

Such an approach is in our interests and, I believe, represents more accurately the outward looking values that underpin so much of what it means to be British.

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