Is multilateralism back?

The G7 summit showed nationalists are no longer making the running

June 14, 2021
The success of the summit puts isolationists on the back foot. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The success of the summit puts isolationists on the back foot. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku dedicated his opening goal for his national team at the Euros to the Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen. He ran towards a television camera to celebrate, shouting to his fellow Inter Milan player: “Chris, Chris, I love you!” There was a similar feeling in the crowd. After the footballer collapsed during Saturday’s match between Denmark and Finland, the stadium rang out with Finnish fans chanting “Christian” and Danes answering with “Eriksen.” Even football, often the home of nationalistic feeling, has become a source of international collaboration.

In the geopolitical world, the G7 summit in Carbis Bay proved—amid the sea shanties, buttered rum, elbow bumps and beach barbecues—that multilateralism is back. While Donald Trump championed an “America First” approach and sought to undermine international institutions, Joe Biden stressed the importance of global cooperation as the gathering of the leaders of wealthy nations came to an end. “The only way we are going to meet global threats is by working together," he said, citing G7 commitments to deliver vaccines around the world, drive economic recovery, fuel infrastructure development and fight climate change. “The US is going to do our part... America is back in the business of leading the world, alongside nations who share our most deeply held values.” He also took the opportunity to praise the European Union as an “incredibly strong and vibrant entity.” The French President Emmanuel Macron doubled down on the message at the end of his bilateral meeting with Biden when he stressed that “Leadership is partnership.”

Last June’s G7 summit was postponed over health risks, while Donald Trump proposed inviting Moscow to rejoin the group. The 2018 summit in Canada ended in acrimony when the then-US president retracted his endorsement of the joint statement, meaning there was no communique in 2019. This year’s gathering in Cornwall ran smoothly, with a comprehensive communique agreed by all sides.

In recent years it has sometimes felt as if multilateralism is in retreat and nationalism is in the ascendancy. Trump and Brexit were accompanied by aggression from the strongman populists such as Orbán and Erdoan. The chill winds of economic decline following the 2008 financial crash have led voters to turn inwards and warm their hands by the national hearth.

In this country the Conservatives, previously the party of the free market, have flirted with protectionism, or as they now call it “self-sufficiency.” Ministers floated the need for a British telecommunications company to rival Chinese giant Huawei and introduced new laws to control foreign takeovers of UK businesses. Government sources suggested that the pandemic showed the importance of having “UK-owned strategic assets.” Gavin Williamson even claimed that the speedy approval of the coronavirus vaccine showed that Britain was a “much better country than every single one of them” as an unappealing vaccine nationalism took hold.

But just as the arc of the moral universe slowly bends towards justice, so the narrative of international diplomacy veers inexorably towards multilateralism in a globalised era. There are no borders that will indefinitely contain Covid-19, or climate change, or terrorism. Far from highlighting the need for self-sufficiency, the pandemic has exposed the world’s interdependence, with new variants emerging in countries that do not have enough vaccines. The west will not be able to challenge an increasingly powerful China unless its nations act together. The current obsession with foreign holidays shows that it will not be possible to turn the clock back on people’s desire to travel and shop all over the world. 

As Gordon Brown writes in his new book Seven Ways to Change the World: “global problems require global solutions.” He draws attention to what he calls “ungoverned spaces,” not rogue states and lawless regions, but the emergencies that countries cannot solve on their own: the polluted oceans and expanding deserts, the tax haven black holes and pandemic threats. He sees the G7 summit as the first of several international meetings, including the nuclear non-proliferation conference at the UN in August, the G20 summit in Italy in October and the COP27 climate change conference in Glasgow in November, which serve as an “opportunity to unwind the protectionism of the last decade and reactivate international collaboration.”

Johnson is in danger of looking increasingly out of touch with the multilateralist mood. The prime minister is trapped in a sausage war with the EU because he will not stick to the commitments he himself signed up to in the Northern Ireland Protocol. He has repeatedly threatened to break international law, undermining the very concept of multilateral rules, and welcomed Viktor Orbán to Number 10 before any of his European counterparts.

The government is slashing international aid at a time when the poorest countries in the world need all the help they can get, to the despair of many of his own backbenchers. There was a particular irony in the G7 promise to get 40m more girls into education, when the British government has cut funding for programmes that do just that.

Instead the prime minister is planning to spend a reported £200m on a new national flagship to boost British trade and industry around the globe, a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia (although Buckingham Palace has made clear that the Queen does not want it named after the late Duke of Edinburgh). It is the diplomatic equivalent of the male mid-life crisis, a metaphorical bright red Ferrari for a country that is unsure of its place in the world and a leader who prefers symbols to substance.

Dean Acheson famously said in 1962 that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. Sixty years on, the UK has left the EU and still not forged a new identity, standing apart at a time when others are creating ever closer links. When he first reached Number 10, Johnson seemed to be tapping into a nationalist mood. He was welcomed with open arms by the then-US president as “Britain Trump.” Now there has been a change of administration in the White House and Johnson seems increasingly out of touch with the zeitgeist: our new age of multilateralism.