In a recent visit to New York I was struck by how much the UK’s diplomatic effort post the Brexit referendum focuses on keeping our seat at the world’s top table, the UN Security Council. Since June I’ve been told several times the UK’s position on the UNSC is now at grave risk.
So what’s keeping us at the big UN table anyway, apart from the general inertia to reform? I can think of at least three tangible capacities; our (not least nuclear) military strength – still 6th in the world, our role in the world’s most powerful intelligence alliance (Five Eyes) and our financial commitment to 0.7% of GDP on ODA.
The latter is more than ‘soft power’. The UK gives 40% of our annual aid directly to multilateral organisations. When funding from DFID’s bilateral programmes is added this total rises to 60%. So we spend over £6 billion a year on multilaterals, much on UN or affiliated agencies. And that means we are a key player in many of the 47 institutions we fund.
A leader in the Financial Times on the 27th October referred to recent comments from DFID’s Secretary of State, Priti Patel, that she intends to cut the UK’s funding to multilateral agencies because they are wasteful. What the SOS actually said (on a recent visit to Kenya) appears more nuanced; that the (long awaited and as yet still unpublished) Multilteral Aid Review will call out international institutions (such as UNESCO or WHO) if they are ‘underperforming’.
Now that’s a very different message, and although we can argue about measures of performance, the SoS isn’t saying the UK is walking away from the international system. Rather she is saying she has a desire that it works better. That’s consistent with the UK’s pattern of engagement over the last decade (albeit we haven’t always got the tone right).
But calibrating messaging at the right level is now a very tricky thing indeed given the orchestrated opposition to the 0.7%. Messaging that works for the Daily Mail’s readers is going to be very different from what works with diplomats in New York. The FT’s leader ends by saying “The rhetoric coming out of the department for international development will damage Britain’s credibility and interests.” I’d say that depends; firstly how the action matches the rhetoric, and secondly who the rhetoric is for.