The liberal world order has never looked more threatened

Matt Gillow

January 29, 2020

The rejection of Jeremy Corbyn in last year’s general election was a significant rebuke to a political faction intent on turning the world on its head. The socialist cabal in the British Labour party is sceptical of NATO, sympathetic to the old Soviet Union, and practically disdainful of liberal democratic values.

Corbyn’s defeat does not, however, mean that his brand of politics will go away. Indeed, across the world, populist parties on the right and left are stronger than ever. World leaders are becoming sceptical of NATO, and authoritarian populism is on the rise globally. 

To mark its 75th anniversary, the United Nations, born shortly after the guns fell silent on the second world war, plans to open the largest ever conversation on global cooperation on the issues that matter for tomorrow: climate change, inequality, and new patterns of violence and conflict. But just when liberal democracy and cooperation is needed more than ever, it looks wildly under threat.

This is not an attack on Brexit. The United Kingdom, with a robust and forward-thinking foreign policy, can still be a leader in global cooperation outside of the European Union – and should adopt a role as a convener between the US, EU and China. Through this role, we can play an important part in driving a shift towards climate diplomacy, a more strategically-minded NATO, and fostering global trade.

NATO matters, and a majority of Brits agree. Recent British Foreign Policy Group research shows that 66 per cent of British people believe that the UK’s membership of NATO will remain important to protecting our national security in the future, with 38 per cent believing it is critically important.

That’s why recent comments made by world leaders, most notably Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, expressing uncertainty about the future of NATO, should set alarm bells ringing. The UK, as a result, should focus on convening conversations about the future of NATO in a constructive way – acting as a bridge between the EU and the US in order to build a strategy to strengthen the security alliance. 

The United Nations matters. It is one of the only institutions that enjoys approval across the breadth of the British public. British Foreign Policy Group research showed that the UN was the international institution with the greatest level of support among Labour voters, and second only to the Commonwealth among Conservative voters.

At a time when foreign policy consensus in the United Kingdom is completely frayed – with the election manifestos finding minimal common ground – rebuilding consensus around popular institutions seems smart. 

In the current political climate, this is as clear as ever. It is not yet apparent whether calls from the United Kingdom for de-escalation in tensions between the US and Iran will find purchase with President Trump, but our position in NATO, along with allies such as France and Germany, will certainly increase the chances of British warnings being heard.

On major, global questions that affect us all, such as inter-regional tensions in the Middle East, threats worldwide to liberal democracy, and the rise of China, institutions such as NATO and the UN are key.

Ensuring that, post-Brexit, the United Kingdom plays a leading role in both NATO and the United Nations should be the absolute focus once we leave the European Union, to ensure that Britain plays a role both as convener for major global discussions, and acts as a sensible, liberal voice on the issues of the day. 

Those issues include not only climate change, immigration, and poverty – which are key, and linked – but the question of defending liberal democracies. As China begins to pose not just as an economic powerhouse to challenge America but as an ideological template for others to emulate, this is more important than ever.

Britain, and the liberal nations of the world, must not simply assume that every country in the world wants to be a liberal democracy. It must make the case for our model and mould our international institutions for tomorrow, not yesterday.

While Brits see the UN, NATO and more generally the liberal world order, as important, that is not the case globally. 75 years after the birth of both NATO and the UN, the liberal world order has never looked more threatened. For the sake of everything from global security, efficient development and poverty reduction, to democracy and humanitarian peacekeeping operations, the UK must take a key role in defending it.


  • Matt Gillow

    Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.


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