Core contradictions threaten a multilateral future

In the first of a series of interviews with the Queen Elizabeth II Academy Faculty, Lord Malloch-Brown tackles the challenge of agreeing multilateral solutions as international institutions struggle to deal with multiple crises.

6 minute READ

Lord Malloch-Brown

President, Open Society Foundations; Former Deputy Secretary-General and Chief of Staff of the UN

Mark Malloch-Brown, you are a long-standing member of the faculty of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy at Chatham House. Each year, you have illuminated for our fellows the challenges but also the great importance of multilateralism. This year, you returned to the Academy at a time of profound crisis with the war in Ukraine and COVID-19 placing grave pressures on the Global South. Russia, one of the P5 members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), has violated the most important norm in the UN system. India and China refused to back the UN resolution condemning Russia’s behaviour. And most UN members do not support the sanctions. You have spoken previously about the growing division between the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’. Is multilateralism possible in this context?

Multilateralism faces a core contradiction today, which is jeopardizing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN and the wider multilateral system. This is the clash between values and universality.

Many global threats – climate, pandemics, and many others – require universality: a place where everybody can meet, no matter their political differences. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown up a sharp dilemma. It has abused the UN’s most sacred value: the sovereignty of nations. Russia has trashed the values of the UN Charter of which it is a founding member, signatory, and P5 member. We are into unfamiliar territory, one where Ukraine can question the legitimacy of the UN because it retains a P5 member state who has betrayed its central value. Which trumps, values or universality?

Another major challenge is representation. It begs the question, ‘Is the representation, in terms of the voting wage of countries, anymore at all aligned with the states of the modern world?’ And this comes back to the point on the Security Council, whose most privileged members, the P5, the victors of World War Two, are no longer frankly representative of global power distribution today. For years, this has been primarily directed at the UK and France. Now Russia, currently a rogue state whose economic power is in rapid decline, poses the question even more sharply. Should World War Two determine today’s P5 membership?

When you spoke at the Queen Elizabeth II Academy, you suggested we may be entering a period where the multilateral system, and especially the UNSC, would struggle to agree collective solutions on matters of peace and security, what we used to call ‘high politics’. You suggested this problem, reflected in a deadlock in the Security Council, was not unlike the world of multilateralism you faced early in your career when you were working with refugees. Is this what you envisage in the years ahead?

By 1946, the UN already faced the headwinds of the Cold War. It was only post-1989 that it was really able to spread its wings beyond the political gridlock and begin to enjoy the wider legitimacy and ambitions its founders had intended.

Many global threats – climate, pandemics, and many others – require universality: a place where everybody can meet, no matter their political differences. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown up a sharp dilemma

But in those early decades, it focused on a couple of issues where despite, or because of, the Cold War, there was space to operate. First, humanitarian assistance – and occasionally some light peacekeeping – to address the victims of the era’s proxy wars from IndoChina to central America.

Second, technical assistance around decolonization, because these were also the years when we saw the massive acceleration of state formation, from 48 original members of the UN to 193 member states today.

The Bretton Woods institutions were the one set of institutions which had an ‘ok’ Cold War. They were highly technocratic and competent but seen – unlike the UN – as being under the American sphere of influence. So they were left to get on with their tasks unhindered by the politics of New York.

From that footprint of a very small role in the big peace and security issues, but a foothold in peacekeeping and second-tier conflicts, and a large humanitarian and technical development assistance role, you could see a UN which operated usefully in the world but was excluded from the big issues of global peace and security.

If today’s geopolitical polarization continues, we can anticipate a return to a Cold War-like partition of the world – with the same gridlock. These international institutions will similarly become circumscribed in role, as will the international financial institutions (IFIs), once again under an American thumb but now their influence and role challenged by new Chinese-supported IFIs based in Beijing and Shanghai.

We have seen very strong support in the US and Europe, and in much of the non-transatlantic ‘West,’ for the resolution to condemn Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and for sanctions. But most states do not support the sanctions and those states which abstained or vetoed the resolution represent significant parts of the world’s population. The charge of Western hypocrisy has persisted and is even growing in much of the rest of the world. What is your answer to this?

In truth, as a veteran of international affairs, I have rarely, if ever, seen such a naked breach of sovereignty without cause as we have just witnessed in Ukraine. In other cases, there was at least some thin attempt at international justification. For Iraq or Libya, there was a determined if flawed attempt to secure international endorsement for what happened.

But in this case, Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister – an ex-UN ambassador – lied through their teeth promising no invasion until there was one. Rarely has there been such a nakedly duplicitous act of international affairs.

There will be a heavy price if conflicts such as Ukraine are allowed to completely undermine the whole multilateral system. We must preserve universality even as we fight to reserve other issues for a values-based approach and exclude authoritarians from the room

The trouble is, once you partition the world, interests start to trump values on both sides. Presidents such as Joe Biden, who campaigned on a democracy and human rights platform, now has to reach out to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to secure oil supplies to compensate for the loss to Europe of Russian energy supplies. From a human rights perspective, cold wars are not good news on either side.

The most existential problem to confront today is climate change. But war in Ukraine, the pandemic, and great power rivalry seem to be getting in the way of progress. COP26 seems like a very long time ago. The Biden administration believes it can cooperate with China on climate change while competing across multiple other domains. But what about the multilateral institutions? Do you think the multilateral system has a significant role to play in climate change?

There will be a heavy price if conflicts such as Ukraine are allowed to completely undermine the whole multilateral system. We must preserve universality even as we fight to reserve other issues for a values-based approach and exclude authoritarians from the room. A country such as China is so critical to global solutions on climate that to exclude it is tying a hand behind one’s back and we will all lose.

We may be looking at a world where on some issues the multilateral system can continue to function, but on others, particularly around the harder peace security issues, it becomes completely beached and stranded and we must fall back on narrower regional and values-based coalitions to drive action.

But climate falls on the universality side of that divide, and it is an issue where there must be continued collaboration. The hope is the big UN climate meetings have created enough momentum so that a corporate, civil society, and a sovereign national tipping point has been met. There is no going back.

A weakened international system and a sudden disruption in oil and gas supply will provide plenty of short-to-medium-term challenges for those pressing for tighter climate goals. But in the longer term, higher energy prices will only reinforce that tipping point. Because what is the real solution to $150 Russian or Saudi oil? $10 solar, wind and hydro.

You now approach these problems from a very different perspective. You were a vice president at the World Bank, for many years you led UNDP, and you were Deputy Secretary General at the UN. Today, you are trying to tackle big global challenges from the vantage point of the NGO sector, as president of the Open Society Foundations (OSF). But you have taken on this role in a context of 16 years of democratic backsliding and, according to Freedom House this year, only 20 per cent of the world’s population live in free countries. The barriers to your success as a foundation are very high. I don’t know if you consider the challenges today to be greater than when OSF was formed?

OSF started at a moment where the prospects for democracy and human rights were quite bleak: the Cold War was ongoing and the apartheid regime very much looked as though it also had an almost indefinite life ahead of it in South Africa.

And yet, within years, in Eastern Europe and South Africa, the two places George Soros had chosen to put our early efforts, we saw dramatic change. Forces much bigger than us came together in a way that privileged us to be part of some dramatic early successes. So we have always been buoyed by that optimism of our first years.

There is a DNA in this foundation which thrives on revolutionary times. We have always been ambitious for a better world but have been stimulated by big challenges rather than predictability and political complacency. So although the swing of history’s pendulum is a tragic setback, it also brings out the best in us; fighting for freedom and democracy is what this foundation was formed to do. Through the grantees we have around the world, there is every day that sense of renewal, of remarkable people bravely fighting back.

And there is hope. It is a terrible time to be a populist incumbent, especially an autocratic one, with the direction of the global economy. These kinds of populist regimes simply do not have the policy tools, depth, or solutions for the kind of inequality and exclusion crises that so many people are feeling in today’s world. That pendulum will come back our way.

You also have a serious regional expertise in Africa, and you worked as minister for Africa and Asia for Gordon Brown when he was UK prime minister. In your current role you have worked on the COVID-19 response in Africa. For some people, this may seem a little off the beaten track for foundation that is well known for its role supporting human rights, especially civil and political rights. Does this reflect a broadening of how you think about human rights as a foundation?

You are right, a series of public investments around COVID-19 are not obviously the most direct way to get at the human rights challenges we have just been discussing. To the extent that people in African countries feel a sense of inequity, injustice, and exclusion from an international response, that concern needs to be addressed. Otherwise, they can become sources of deep and fundamental alienation.

Locals queue outside Samantha Murozoki's home, where she offered free meals during the government imposed coronavirus lockdown in Zimbabwe

Locals queue outside Samantha Murozoki’s home, where she offered free meals during the government imposed coronavirus lockdown in Zimbabwe

COVID-19 was an unbelievably bad political event for Africa because it felt like it was at the end of the global line in terms of getting vaccines and access to treatment, and now that has left a vaccine deficit and a growing vaccine hesitancy which is going to be extremely hard in the short-term to address even though vaccines are now much more easily available.

Core contradictions threaten a multilateral future 2nd part

So we raise our voice with other foundations and partners to protest the injustice of the public health response. But we also use our cheque book to innovate around testing kits, financial guarantees to accelerate vaccine purchases, and most recently piloting new test-and-treat models as we settle into long term management of the disease.

NGOs and foundations are doing important work, but the scale of the challenges you are attempting to confront are enormous. How do you conceive of OSF? Are you part of a larger ecosystem working for change?

Yes, and although it is primarily a civil society world, it is not exclusively so. If we cannot leverage the wider intergovernmental system to respond to the issues we are trying to provide innovative, pilot responses to, we alone are never going to be able to scale to what is needed. In a way, we are the frontline troops trying to generate a wider governmental response. And our legitimacy comes from our effectiveness in doing just that. That’s the role we have sought to play on COVID-19.

The private nature of our ownership allows us to put speed and innovation first. However, it is this same private nature of our wealth that leads to the questioning of our legitimacy. People may ask, ‘what is this big private American philanthropy money doing in our country?’ We can address that in part through transparency. But the real test is to be judged by the results. We need to be seen to be making a difference.