The world needs to enter a new era of international cooperation and renewed multilateralism, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told a large audience on 12 September, delivering the Presidential Lecture at the WTO Public Forum. WTO ambassadors, Swiss authorities, heads of intergovernmental organizations, representatives of non-governmental organizations, businesspeople and academia participated in the event, which was opened by Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
The former British PM and United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education underlined that the family of multilateral institutions built in the 1940s “was conceived against the odds, born against the odds, grew and matured against the odds and succeeded for decades against the odds”. He said that in the same vein international cooperation needs to be reimagined today.
“I want to suggest now is the time for reconstruction, for a new era, even if it may seem at first sight we are striving against the odds,” said Mr Brown, highlighting the need to forge a “new multilateralism”, particularly at a time when international cooperation is facing considerable resistance from various quarters.
The UN Special Envoy noted that the last G20 summit illustrated the deadlock in coordinating global economic policy despite the threat of low economic growth. “No new G20 finance for climate mitigation and adaptation, no advances in the regulation of artificial intelligence and to prevent a so-called splinternet, and little but warm words for the relief of debt and famine in Africa,” he said.
Emphasising that extreme poverty was due to be eliminated by 2030 and is now estimated to be afflicting 570 million people, Mr Brown regretted that none of the international institutions intended to tackle this problem are as effective as they could be — from the UN Security Council to the World Food Programme and humanitarian aid programmes, which are having to do almost twice as much with less than half of what they need.
In addition, the World Bank is forecasting a cut in its funds, even as two-thirds of low-income countries are facing debt distress, and both the WTO and the International Monetary Fund are warning of fragmentation, as outlined in the WTO World Trade Report issued a few hours before the Presidential Lecture.
“This is a world where at best cooperation is à la carte and at worst has fallen into disuse, replaced by confrontation. Most worrying of all is the gap — indeed the chasm — between our need for globally coordinated action and the ability to deliver it — or shall I say more correctly our willingness to deliver on it — is now wider than at any point in our post-war history,” Mr Brown noted.
Mr Brown underscored that climate change, pandemics and financial contagion can only be addressed “by globally coordinated action involving us bearing in mind that despite today’s wars, the biggest threats are no longer principally between or among nation states, but threats to humankind as a whole that know no national boundaries.”
“The sheer scale of the global problems — climate, pandemics, financial stability, poverty, debt and famine — all linked to another global public good, trade, should mean we have no choice but to create a launch pad and landing ground for a new multilateralism,” he added.
Looking forward, he emphasized that beyond the underlying China-United States split, the war in Ukraine and the halting response to energy and food inflation, debt and famine, there is something far bigger and more systemic that goes beyond any one politician’s ability to control. “Three seismic shifts in our geopolitics explain why the old multilateralism will not work and why we need a new multilateralism: the shift from a unipolar world, the shift from neoliberal economics, and the shift from a hyper globalization that was open but not sufficiently inclusive.”
The UN Special Envoy explained the common thread underpinning all three seismic shifts: a resurgent nationalism, characterized “not just by more border controls, more customs duties, and more immigration restrictions but at a geopolitical level by more civil wars (around 60 in number), secessionist movements (around 50 in number) and by more walls and fences physically separating countries (now 75, double the number in 1990).”
In Mr Brown’s view, this new focus on a narrow and not necessarily enlightened self-interest has come at the expense of international cooperation at precisely the moment it is most needed. “We need to take seriously the WTO estimate in this week’s report that if the world splits into two separate economic blocs, the resulting reduction in international trade and loss of productivity from specialization and scale economies would reduce real incomes over the long term by at least 5 %, with low-income countries suffering most, dropping by as much as 12 %.”
Mr Brown praised the work done by DG Okonjo-Iweala since she became head of the WTO in March 2021. “Brilliant, determined, relentless, endlessly persuasive, and effortlessly expert at all she does. Last June, she persuaded 164 WTO members to agree for the first time to slash fisheries subsidies to protect overfished waters against the odds. She secured the cross-border release of emergency food aid against the odds. She got export bans lifted on food and fertilizer against the odds. A 90-country trade in services agreement against the odds. She has begun to reform the stalled appellate system against the odds. But of course we should have known.”
DG Okonjo-Iweala thanked the former UK Prime Minister for his lecture, noting he is one of the most respected voices regarding pressing issues of our time, such as global health, growth and development, climate change and tax avoidance. “These are all the problems we are grappling with as we work here at the WTO to reimagine and revitalize globalization. I cannot think of any person other than Gordon to share his thoughts on how we in the world can work together to make trade work better for people everywhere and for the planet,” she said.
Following the lecture, Mr Brown took part in a conversation with DG Okonjo-Iweala and the audience on the future of international trade at a time of economic, political and environmental uncertainty, moderated by Nadia Theodore, Canada’s Ambassador to the WTO.
WTO’s Presidential Lecture Series
Launched in 2022, the lecture series provides a platform for distinguished speakers from all walks of life, ranging from presidents, prime ministers and high-level politicians to business leaders, scientists, authors and philanthropists, to discuss multilateral cooperation and global governance issues, including trade-related matters and sustainable development goals.
The first Presidential Lecture was delivered by Mia Amor Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, in March 2022. H.E. Dr Mokgweetsi E.K. Masisi, President of Botswana, delivered the second Presidential Lecture in May 2023.
More information on the lecture series is available here.
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