In the room: the UK’s role in multilateral diplomacy Contents


Multilateral organisations represent the collective resolve of nations to establish a system based on shared values of peace, prosperity and freedom, where ideological difference can be navigated for mutual benefit. Replacing an international system of colonial enterprise and shifting blocs of military alliances, the UK helped to build a new order and forums for international dialogue. This system, and the organisations that serve it, has brought huge benefits to the people of the UK and to humanity at large. It is now in jeopardy.

Disengagement over contentious issues reduces the effectiveness of multilateral organisations, but far more serious are attempts to bend the purpose of, or even break the organisations themselves. We have seen attempts by countries such as China to seize control of strategically important organisations and fundamentally redefine the once universally agreed principles on which they are based. This allows multilateral organisations to be weaponised against the founding principles upon which they were built. Even more serious are attempts by states to disrupt the work of multilateral organisations in order to maintain their power bases at home and abroad.

Although the UK Government has at times successfully countered malign interference in multilateral organisations we believe that it has failed to adequately respond to the creeping capture of organisations by China. With the United States re-engaging in the multilateral sphere, this is an important time for the UK and its allies to reassert their commitment to multilateral organisations through actions as well as words.

The UK is well placed to mobilise like-minded states to respond to these challenges. It has a world class diplomatic network, significant soft power, and is a major financial contributor to multilateral organisations.

In order to break the cycle of decline in multilateral organisations, we have identified three areas in which the UK Government should act:

    (1) The Government should, wherever possible, seek to use multilateral organisations to pursue its foreign policy objectives. Engagement with these bodies moderates the influence of those who would manipulate and undermine them. We recommend that this engagement should include publicly calling out states who are abusing or undermining the system, publicly voting against attempts by such states to secure key leadership positions for their nationals.

    (2) Better coordination is needed to proactively identify and respond to countries that undermine these organisations. We recommend that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) leads within government on a tactical element of multilateral strategy, tracking the activities of authoritarian states within both higher and lower profile multilateral organisations, reporting on any moves to exert influence, and adjusting interventions accordingly. On an international level, we believe there is more the FCDO can do to enhance coordination across its diplomatic network, particularly between Geneva and New York, to address this undermining behaviour.

    (3) The influence of state actors with alternative understandings of individual rights is increasing and coordination amongst them is more effective and pronounced. To counter such influence, we recommend that the FCDO mobilises its soft power and convening resources to work with broad groups of like-minded states within multilateral organisations. The UK’s departure from the European Union provides increased incentives and opportunity for investment in such relationships.

Published: 17 June 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement