The Future of British Multilateralism Under Starmer Is Still Cloudy

The Future of British Multilateralism Under Starmer Is Still Cloudy
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer take part in a pre-election debate, in Nottingham, June 26, 2024 (pool photo by Phil Noble via AP Images).

If Rishi Sunak loses next week’s general elections in the United Kingdom, as is widely expected, he will be the first British prime minister since the end of the Cold War never to have visited the United Nations while in office. Sunak skipped the annual high-level meeting of the U.N. General Assembly last September. If the polls are to be believed, Labour leader Keir Starmer will almost certainly be at the podium in New York this coming September.

The U.N. is not exactly at the heart of the British election campaign. The U.K.’s place in Europe and the threat of Russian aggression are much higher foreign policy priorities. Most voters focus on domestic concerns anyway. But a Labour government will still have to decide how much political capital to invest in multilateralism, at a time when international tensions buffet the U.N. system.

Since 2010, successive Conservative prime ministers have treated the U.N. with varying degrees of warmth and suspicion. David Cameron had no great fascination with international cooperation, unlike his Labour predecessor, Gordon Brown. Cameron nonetheless saw value in promoting the U.K. as a progressive internationalist power, and he bolstered its standing by passing legislation committing the U.K. to spend 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income on foreign aid, as per the U.N.’s recommended target for wealthy countries. He also co-chaired a panel convened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that helped pave the way for the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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