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Multilateralism and Interdependence: Prospects and Challenges

Diplomatic Relations, European Union, International Relations, Ireland, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Speech, Global, 2018

Multilateralism and Interdependence: Prospects and Challenges


Speech by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney T.D.

Royal Irish Academy, 2 May 2018

Check Against Delivery

President, members of the Royal Irish Academy, delegates, I am delighted to be invited to open this important conference on the prospects and challenges for multilateralism and inter-dependence. It is a particular pleasure to have the opportunity to speak on a topic wider than just Brexit! I have to resist the temptation sometimes to think of how all our lives would be different if the UK had voted 52-48 in the opposite manner.


So I would like to congratulate the Royal Irish Academy for its decision to choose another engaging and very topical theme for this year’s conference.


My Department is delighted to work with and support the work of the RIA, including this annual conference, and our Secretary General is looking forward to hosting the launch of Irish Studies in International Affairs at Iveagh House later this evening. I know that a former Department of mine, the Department of Defence, is also a very proud supporter of the RIA.


As the invitation for this conference notes, 2018 is a year of anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the 70th anniversary of the first United Nations peacekeeping operation; the 60th anniversary of Ireland’s first participation in a UN peacekeeping operation – an Irish involvement which has continued unbroken ever since; the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 45th year of Ireland’s membership of the European Union.  There is much to celebrate as we mark these anniversaries and remember the significant role Ireland played in those achievements.


As the theme of this conference makes clear, today is a time of serious challenge for multilateralism.  In a recent speech the distinguished UN diplomat, the Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, did not pull his punches. He said we now “find ourselves in a political earthquake zone” where the basic global consensus, embodied in key regional and international institutions, is being eroded.  He warned that members of the international community, rather than coming together to face shared challenges, seem to be turning away from each other and looking inward.


Some have started to argue that the multilateral architecture itself has failed, and that the rules-based international system established after the Second World War is no longer capable of delivering international peace and security. The former President of Finland, Martii Ahtisaari, is one of many who has highlighted how the UN Security Council has failed to act in Syria. Speaking as a strong believer in the UN, he has called on the Security Council to “examine its conscience” over the conflict.


Others, especially in the developing world, see the United Nations as dominated by its Permanent Members which, they argue, either ignore international law when it doesn’t suit them, or at best use the UN as a diplomatic tool to advance their own interests when it proves useful.


Despite his criticism of the Security Council over Syria however, President Ahtisaari remains a firm believer in the UN, which he sees as a crucial and irreplaceable forum for dialogue and peace. Like him, I am also a strong believer in multilateralism and the UN and the EU in particular, which remain the two key pillars of Irish foreign policy.


For that reason, I wanted to take the opportunity today to reaffirm Ireland’s deep and enduring commitment to the multilateral system. This commitment is embodied in our membership of a range of important multilateral organizations such as the WTO, the OECD, the Council of Europe and the OSCE; but most particularly our commitment is reflected in our longstanding and unshakable support for the United Nations and in our enthusiastic and deep commitment to the European Union. Together these organizations define and shape Ireland’s role in the world.


At the same time, while there is much for Ireland to celebrate when we survey the achievements of the multilateral system, I believe we cannot be complacent about the real dangers it faces, or about the institutional reforms needed to maximize its legitimacy and relevance. There is a darker backdrop. 2018 is the centenary of the end of the First World War, a conflict which came about because of the failure of classical “balance of power” diplomacy which had largely kept European peace since the Congress of Vienna. 


It was because of the failure of that form of diplomacy, and the collapse of the system of alliances that underpinned it, that new ways of organising international relations had to be found. However, the possibility of a new start in the international system based on national self-determination, embodied in Wilson’s Fourteen Points, was lost in the post-war peace treaties, most notably at Versailles. The League of Nations, which was supposed to embody a new way of settling disputes between nations, was weakened from the beginning by the failure of the US to participate in its work, even though it was President Wilson’s vision which had originally given the League its shape. There is an important lesson in that failure: a warning about what can happen if Great Powers become detached from international mechanisms. The result is not necessarily greater freedom of action for those powers, but the risk of a journey down the darker paths of isolation, nationalism and rising global tensions.


Like many other young countries across Europe, Ireland was also born out of the events of the First World War. Next year, we will remember the centenary of the first Dáil as part of our Decade of Commemoration. One of the first acts of the new parliament when it met in January 1919 was to appoint a foreign minister, and to send envoys abroad to argue Ireland’s cause in foreign capitals.


Unfortunately, those early diplomats got a very cool reception for their pleas to recognize Ireland’s place among the nations of the world; but the decision to send them showed that, even in its earliest days, the Irish state saw its priority and its destiny as participating in the wider international community. The new state pursued this objective consistently through its foreign policy and membership of organizations including the League of Nations. Those efforts ultimately led to our membership of the UN in 1955, and the decision to join the EEC in 1973. These were not easy processes, and my Ministerial predecessors and Irish diplomats had to work hard for membership of those organizations, which was resisted by some other states in Europe and beyond.


Ireland tenaciously pursued this aim of engagement with the international community through multilateralism because, as a small state, we have always believed that our sovereignty is enhanced - not diminished - by our participation in multilateral organizations. 


Indeed I have argued elsewhere that the international rule of law, which multilateralism promotes, is of particular importance to small states and the protection of their interests. We have also been prepared to shoulder our share of the responsibilities and costs of membership of multilateral organizations, whether through our 60-year tradition of participation in peacekeeping operations, our strong support for the UN and its agenda, our commitment to humanitarian response and development assistance, our consistently successful Presidencies of the European Union and more recently our acceptance of the new reality of being a net financial contributor to the European Union.


Again in 2020, Ireland will be putting itself forward for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council. We are doing so, not only because we believe it is important that the voices of smaller UN member states are heard in Security Council debates, but because we acknowledge our obligation as a member of the community of nations to contribute to international peace and security.


The diagnosis of the problem - the global challenges we face together as members of the international community - is reasonably clear, even if many states don’t agree on the cure. The main, and increasingly interlinked, problems at global level are obvious: climate change, inequality, poverty and deprivation, migration, trans-national crime and terrorism, and the need for a fair global trading system that delivers prosperity for all people. These problems are what former UN Secretary- General, Kofi Annan, called “problems without passports” because they show no regard for the limitations of geographical borders.  It is the strong view of the Government that all of these issues require concerted and coordinated international action if they are to be addressed effectively.  No country – even the most powerful and prosperous – can solve any of these problems on its own. This is more the case today than at any time in modern history.


It is equally true of the current challenges we face as Europeans. Self-evidently we are stronger when we work together in Europe to address the problems we share, problems which do not stop at our national frontiers. That is why Brexit is a cause of deep regret and a development from which there will be no winners. The prospect of Brexit is all the more reason for the 27 remaining Member States to work together to meet our responsibility to our own citizens and our responsibility to history at this challenging time. We do this by standing by the principles and values which are more urgently needed than ever - not only within the European Union, but across the world. 


I believe multilateralism – a shared enterprise of working together to achieve joint aims through compromise and accommodation – must remain central to Ireland’s identity and diplomatic approach.


Multilateralism is often criticized for its supposed complexity. Sometimes it is presented as though it consists of a series of mysterious institutions which no ordinary person can understand, managed by a remote priesthood of bureaucrats and diplomats. I acknowledge that multilateral bodies are necessarily complex and can sometimes seem distant from the everyday concerns of citizens. They must do a better job of explaining why compromise is better than confrontation and how they make a real difference to people’s lives, whether at the UN or the EU or elsewhere.


It’s also true that we need to be on our guard against making a virtue of process over outcome, a trap that some multilateralists don’t always succeed in avoiding.

But at the same time we must explain why careful and complex processes are necessary and certainly better than the promotion of simple but ultimately empty promises.  The truth, that we must also face honestly, is that human relations and international politics are complex. A certain amount of complexity, managed through a strong institutional framework, is unavoidable in finding shared solutions to difficult issues.


The negotiation in 2015 at the UN of the landmark Agenda 2030, including the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, which have the potential to transform the lives of millions of people across the globe, show what can be achieved with determination and patience. Ireland, through the co-facilitation of Ambassador David Donoghue, played a central role in those negotiations and I am delighted that David will address the conference later today. Now it is time for Ireland to lead in terms of the implementation of this agenda. Last week, Ireland’s first National Implementation Plan for the SDGs was launched. The plan will run until 2020 and, at the UN in New York in July, we will present Ireland’s first Voluntary National Review of our progress to date.


Later this year my department will also produce a new White Paper on international development. Our ambition is to continue to lead and participate in global efforts to build a better world. The new White Paper will stress the urgent need to protect multilateralism and civil society space, to prevent the erosion of norms and principles and to use Ireland’s multilateral engagement to advance priority issues. Our new policy will be a tangible demonstration of Ireland’s strong commitment to global development.


Our multilateral organisations must also talk to each other. I am strongly of the view that the European Union’s relations with the African Union - to take one example in which I have a strong interest - that this relationship must be made fit for purpose for the shared challenges we face. A more coherent international development cooperation effort to deliver on the SDGs must be accompanied by a more frequent and higher level political dialogue or partnership between continents dealing with common challenges like climate change, migration and the eradication of poverty.


Distinguished guests,


I believe it’s important that, as practitioners of foreign policy, or as academics with expertise in the foreign policy field, we don’t shy away from the task of explaining to our fellow citizens that the UN and the EU are complex because the challenges they face don’t always lend themselves to simple solutions. If we are prepared to make the case for the multilateral system, as I believe we must, then we should also not be afraid either to acknowledge its weaknesses. An honest analysis will help us to understand where it has not worked, and put forward practical and achievable solutions to make it work better.


We must work to make the United Nations and its institutions and processes more representative of the wider international community, in particular the global south. The divisions that paralysed the Security Council during the Cold War through the use, or threat of use of the veto, seem to be re-emerging. Secretary-General Gutteres has warned that the Cold War appears to be back “with a vengeance” but, worryingly, without the effective operation of some of the mechanisms which maintained stability during that time. The Security Council itself still largely reflects the world as it was in 1945, not the world as it is now. It is urgently in need of reform. I made the point at the UN General Assembly last September that we would be hard pressed to find any entity, anywhere in the world, public or private, that remains so untouched by the changes and realities of the world around it.


Despite these problems, Ireland continues strongly to support the United Nations because we believe it provides a framework of values, and the mechanisms to underpin them, that remain relevant and valid. If we do not always fulfil the aims of the UN Charter, and sadly that is certainly the case, it is not because the aims have become less relevant, but because our collective efforts have not yet matched their ambition. 


Ladies & gentlemen,


The European Union is, like much of the world, facing the rise of populism, and strident political voices – both from inside and outside - that challenge the values that have shaped it.  Moreover, for the first time, a Member State of the EU has decided to leave. In the face of these challenges, I believe it is crucial that we strongly support the European Union of today, with all its imperfections, but that at the same time we redouble our efforts to build a Europe that fulfils the aspirations of all its citizens. Our efforts must continue to go beyond economic prosperity and growth and offer also a vision of our values as Europeans, expressed in a generous engagement with the wider world.


The European Union must constantly renew and reaffirm its relevance to the daily lives of its citizens. The Government is actively participating in the debate around the Future of Europe, and leading a process of public engagement and dialogue. And we are doing this because we want to be among the architects of the Europe of the future – sharing our designs and ideas - and not just responding to the plans of others or seen as most vocal in traditionally defensive areas for Ireland like taxation or security.


And, of course, we should also continue to celebrate the European Union as the world’s most successful peace project. In his 1995 Nobel lecture, Seamus Heaney wondered if history is much of a guide to the present, and whether peace isn’t simply “the desolation left behind after the decisive operation of merciless power”. I believe our own history shows that, both in Europe and on the island of Ireland, we can build a peace which is much more than that, an enduring peace that goes beyond the absence of violence.


In one of my previous roles as Minister of Defence, I often had the privilege of witnessing a particular practical example of multilateralism when I visited Irish peacekeepers overseas. This year marks 40 years of service by the Defence Forces in UNIFIL, which is currently commanded by a distinguished Irish Officer, Major General Michael Beary. We can be justifiably proud of the courage and professionalism of the young Irish soldiers who patrol the rocky hills along the Blue Line every day, doing their best to preserve the fragile peace which has held since the last major war in 2006. Because of their dedication, a generation of young children have grown up in the villages of South Lebanon without knowing the conflict which scarred the lives of their parents.   


The Irish envoys who travelled overseas in 1919 took with them a “Message to the Free Nations of the World”. Even though the state hadn’t yet come into being, the representatives of the Irish people wanted to broadcast the principles that would shape how an emerging Ireland would engage with the wider world. Their vision remains relevant as a guide to our support for multilateralism nearly one hundred years later. They said that Ireland:-


 “believes in freedom and justice as the fundamental principles of international law, because she believes in a frank co-operation between the peoples for equal rights”


These values, of international co-operation based on the fundamental principle of democratic consent and sovereign equality, continue to animate Ireland’s foreign policy and diplomatic practice.


Today’s conference, as I said, is important and timely. I hope that today’s papers and  debate will contribute to our efforts to play our part in reinvigorating the multilateral system, so that we can make it stronger, more effective and more relevant to the lives of people around the world.


Thank you for welcoming me here today.



Press Office

3 May 2018