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The world we seek in 2020

Written by Sir Peter Marshall

Sir Peter Marshall former Commonwealth Secretary General makes a plea that the UK should remain as globally oriented once it leaves the EU as it was 75 yeas ago at the foundation of the United Nations.

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Paragraph 2 of the “Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom” reads as follows:

“The Union and the United Kingdom are determined to work together
to safeguard the rules-based international order, the rule of law and
promotion of democracy, and high standards of free and fair trade and
worker’s rights, consumer and environmental protection, and co-operation
against internal and external threats to their values and interests”.

One’s first instinct is surely to applaud such an admirable wide-ranging agenda. The follow-up question is “how do you deliver it?” The operative verb is “safeguard” which implies that the desirables are already in place, at least in essence. But is that so? The verdict of the December 12 election – which I think of as “the wisdom of the miners”- suggests otherwise.

The first item on the list for safeguarding is “the rules-based international order”, a phrase much in use but entirely lacking in precise definition. What in fact is it? An established, over-arching framework within which one may aspire to safeguard the other items? Or something separate from those items? If so, of what does it consist, and how does to relate to them?

Good friends on both sides of the Channel, in a year in which we mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the launch of the United Nations, and the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, it behoves us to go a little deeper into the matter.

The truth is that we live not in a rules-based international order (or “system”, as some would have it) but in a values-based interdependent community. The founding of this community is no accident. It came about because of the determination of the United Nations “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our life-time has brought untold sorrow to mankind”. The past seventy-five years have mightily vindicated that determination and the action taken to pursue it. We have witnessed an immense improvement in the general human lot.

The acceptance by all concerned of their appropriate share of responsibility is the sine qua non, not only of a community’s sustained harmonious management but also of its very existence. Edmund Burke said – or did not say: opinions differ on the matter –‘all that was necessary for evil to triumph was that good [people] should do nothing’. In complex modern times, we have to put the thought the other way around: eternal vigilance and involvement are the inescapable price of safety. The buck stops everywhere.

Concepts such as “rules-based international system/world order” are seriously inadequate descriptions of the reality. They can – and do – so easily lead to a detached, self-regarding evasion of responsibility. If in 1945 the San Francisco Conference had accepted the draft United Nations Charter as prepared at Dumbarton Oaks by the “Great Powers”, the UN system might have declined over the years to little more than a “rules based international system”. But it was saved from that possible fate by the Commonwealth delegations – Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and UK – devising, under the inspiration of Jan Christiaan Smuts, the now-famous Preamble to the Charter.

Smuts, the South African Prime Minister, and a stalwart of the League of Nations, expressed his conviction that something was missing. The draft was a legalistic document which did not fill the bill. We had been engaged in one of the greatest struggles of all history. What the world expected was a statement of our human faith, of the things which we had fought for and which we should try to stabilise and preserve in the world.

Of translucent clarity, and a mere two hundred words long, it is the only part of the Charter with which most people have any familiarity.

The Declaration prophetically concludes “in a world torn by strife, we have met here in unity. That unity finds its strength not in any formal bond, but in the hidden springs from which human action flows… We believe that when victory is won and peace returns, this same free association, this same unity of purpose, will make us able to do further service to mankind”.

And how do we sustain in adverse, or confused and confusing times, this all-important sense of active and joint responsibility? For those of great antiquity, memory is an invaluable aid.

On January 10, 1946 – seventy-four years ago today – Clement Attlee, one of the greatest British political figures of the twentieth century, delivered the keynote speech at the inaugural session of the United Nations General Assembly, held in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster.

The speech itself, the occasion and the setting – a world-famous and revered place of worship in the heart of war-torn, bomb-scarred London, happily adaptable for so special a purpose – together symbolised both the central participation of the United Kingdom, with the Commonwealth, from the beginning to the end of the Second World War, and the role they jointly played in fashioning the enduring peace which

Britain had never been more “global” than it was at that poignant moment. As we approach the day of our withdrawal from the European Union, we need collectively to affirm that we shall be no less global in years to come.

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About the author

Sir Peter Marshall

Sir Peter Marshall, formerly of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, served as Assistant Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, and also worked with Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of European integration.