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‘Multilateralism – Today’s Imperative’

Oslo, Norway

 “Co-operation is no longer a choice but a clear imperative” – Kofi Annan warns that the world’s most pressing challenges can only be overcome through multilateral solutions.

I am honoured to be with you today to mark the 50th anniversary of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

Today’s conference clearly shows that the Institute, as its approaches venerable middle age, has lost none of its youthful purpose or energy.

In your first half-century, you have made a major contribution to our understanding of the challenges the world faces.

We are also all aware – for example, through your efforts to help build up Africa’s capacity to meet its own peacekeeping needs – of your determination to make a real and practical difference.

The range of topics to be discussed today gives some idea of the breadth and reach of the Institute and its influence.

And, of course the very timing of today’s conference – a day after President Obama’s historic inauguration – and on your own anniversary – could not have been  better  for us to look afresh at how we collectively confront international problems and come up with solution.

It is certainly a very appropriate day to share with you some thoughts on the importance of a multi-lateral approach to these challenges.

America will by all accounts re-engage with the international community in a much more positive way and we all hope that President Obama will provide the impetus for re-invigorated multilateralism.

For there is a growing recognition that a genuine multi-lateral approach is the only way for us to find the lasting and fair solutions to the challenges our planet faces.

It is an emerging conviction, which I passionately share, that co-operation is no longer a choice but a clear imperative.

For the destructive competition of the past, competition which too often fuelled divisions and tensions, simply can not meet the needs of a world more interconnected and complex than ever before.

5 years ago, the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change clearly identified 6 areas that needed our collective attention now and in the decades to come:

War between states;

Violence within states including civil wars, large-scale human rights abuses and genocide;

Poverty, infectious disease and environmental degradation;

Nuclear, radiological and biological weapons;


Transnational crime.

A review of these challenges makes it clear that no country, however powerful, can tackle them alone.

And its conclusions are even more valid and urgent today.

There is no more compelling example of the scale of the challenges and the urgency of shaping a new approach than the present global financial crisis.

It has revealed connections between economies which were not fully understood, let alone properly regulated.

In doing so, it has highlighted – perhaps more dramatically than any single event in recent times – that no country, no matter how wealthy or powerful, can any longer stand on its own.

The fact that action to mitigate the problem is being coordinated through the G20, and not the G8, as in the past, demonstrates how our view of the world is being transformed.

Yet, welcome and important as this recognition of the new realities is, I do not believe it yet goes far enough.

This has to be the start of a process of engaging a far wider range of countries and voices in meaningful decision-making – and not just in the economic and financial spheres -if we are to chart our way to a world where all enjoy security, prosperity and justice.

The world can no longer be controlled by a small group of big, powerful and wealthy countries pursuing their own national interests.

Solutions can’t be imposed against the will of the international community and in defiance of international law as we have seen tragically in Iraq in this decade.

Nor are any country’s borders strong enough either to contain problems or keep them out.
We are all affected by what happens elsewhere. No one’s stability and security can be guaranteed unless we tackle instability wherever it is found.

It means all our prosperity will come under threat unless we act decisively together to tackle global poverty.

The world we live in has changed but we have been slow to adapt.

We have had plenty of warnings.

We have seen how conflict and abject poverty provides fertile ground for hatred and intolerance yet we have done too little to tackle it.

The disintegration of Somalia as a functioning state may once have seemed only a tragedy for its citizens.

But desperation and a complete break down in law and order has fuelled piracy which is threatening world trade.

The collapse of Zimbabwe, due to the conduct of its leaders, has led to starvation and disease for its long-suffering people.

It has forced thousands to flee across its borders, putting pressure on its neighbors which are now also under threat of a health epidemic that knows no borders.

And in recent days, the 27 members of the EU have seen how a conflict between countries at its periphery can leave people without energy in countries with no part in the dispute.

Our futures, our prosperity and our security, are wrapped up together more than ever before.

We are all threatened by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and by international terrorism.  

We all struggle with human trafficking and international crime.

We will all benefit if we can agree an international trade round which prevents protectionism taking hold and allows developing economies to benefit fairly from overseas markets.

We will all gain enormously, too, if, for example, we support Africa’s leaders and people in fulfilling their rich potential through support for good governance and conflict resolution.

And while it understandably is the economic crisis which right now is gaining the headlines and the attention of the world’s leaders, it is the challenge of climate change which poses the greatest long-term risk to the future of our planet.

It is an all-encompassing threat – to our health and our food supply, to our security and prosperity.

The damage to our economies and societies will dwarf the problems caused by the present financial crisis.

Every country will be affected. And no country can solve it on its own.

Only by working together can we hope to halt the decline and be in a position to hand over a healthy and sustainable planet to future generations.

We need a genuine and universal agreement, starting in Copenhagen later this year, to provide the foundation for the indispensable binding and wide-ranging change in behaviour.

And we need new norms that will govern our collective behaviour and strengthen or create the institutions that will ensure that they are upheld.

The solution to climate change, like the solution to all the global problems we face, must be driven, above all, by fairness.

49 Least Developed Countries produce less than 1 % of CO2 emissions but bear the brunt of its effects.

This is why the Global Humanitarian Forum, which I preside, has launched a Global Alliance for Climate Justice which will rally mass public support and advocate for a strong and equitable outcome at Copenhagen next year.

 All this speaks to the need for a restructuring of, and a change in thinking in, our global institutions.

The international architecture is outdated and woefully inadequate to meet the challenges of today – and much less those of tomorrow.

There is a need for urgent reform. We need structures with more legitimacy and greater capacity to deal with our global problems.

A system where the developing world has a greater voice and therefore more acceptable to a much greater number of the worlds citizens.

A system that is more effective as the center piece for political solutions and the platform on which all nations can negotiate and resolve their competing agendas and needs.

A system that will become the universal tool for the collective application of soft power, rather than the individual – and often indiscriminate – wielding of hard power, to settle disputes.

And a system through which much greater accountability can be applied to international relations so that we may see commitments being honored and greater respect for International Law.

We can’t, for example, continue to have a United Nations Security Council dominated by the victors of a war which ended over 60 years ago.

Without a greater diversity of voices, it cannot prove an effective and legitimate forum to resolve the world’s problems and will be unable to reach the fair and lasting solutions we need.

Reform of the Security Council is vital. But we need structural transformation of all our multilateral institutions.

It is through these institutions that states can hold each other to account, giving the poor and weak some influence over the actions of the rich and strong.

And that makes it very important to organize those institutions in a fair and democratic way. Governments must find the political will to undertake the needed restructuring of the international architecture – and they must do so urgently.

But a truly meaningful multilateral approach does not just mean restructuring.

It means a fundamental rethinking of the way we go about the business of improving our world – both at the macro and the micro levels.

Look at how the international community has dealt with the problem in the Middle East: indecisive, fragmented and unfair!

It is unconscionable to have allowed of the killing and the nightmare to continue for over 3 weeks.

This tragedy compels us to work with the parties in an urgent and sustained manner to implement the two state solution. And here again we look to President Obama for leadership.

Lest you end up thinking of me as a prophet of doom, let us not forget the positive examples of what is possible when a multilateral approach is applied.

Kenya a year ago was standing at the brink of the precipice. Today it is back as a thriving democracy, rebuilding its economy and applying the lessons from its tragic recent past.

It did so, and is doing so, with the help of its African neighbours and the wider international community. A wonderful example of what is possible when there is political will, unity of purpose and the determination to stay the course in spite of obvious difficulties.

One could argue that Kenya is the first successful application of the still evolving principle of Responsibility to Protect.

But for every positive example like Kenya, we – unfortunately – still have too many negative ones.

Darfur and Zimbabwe are but two of them, but very powerful reminders of our collective failing and of the urgent need for the Security Council to find new and creative ways of dealing with such entirely preventable calamities.

All my working life I have pushed for countries to come together to find solutions, for a genuine multi-lateral approach to the world’s problems.

I have seen where this approach has succeeded.

I have also seen the damage to lives and to the chances for peace and prosperity when this approach has failed.

And I know the urgency of the challenge has never been greater. There will be a huge price to pay if we fail. And by “we” I mean all of us: International Organizations, Governments, civil society, the private sector, academics, media, etc

The choice is stark: multilateral co-operation or destructive competition.

In fact, there is no choice! We prosper united or perish divided.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that we make the right choice.

It is thus really important that this institute, with its global prestige, and in collaboration with the wide network of other similar institutions around the world, reinforces its campaign for a multi-lateral approach to the world’s problems.

Let me conclude by congratulating you on your 50th anniversary, and by wishing you many more productive years; and remind you that there is plenty of work ahead and that we are all in this together.

Thank you.