Multilateralism 'not an option but a necessity': PM Lee tells UN General Assembly

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept 27, 2019. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

NEW YORK - The strategic balance of the world is shifting and countries are now less keen on globalisation and multilateralism, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (Sept 27) at a gathering of world leaders in New York.

Yet this rules-based order and cooperative approach is not an option but a necessity, he told the United Nations General Assembly.

PM Lee called on his fellow leaders to push harder against the tide of isolationism and adapt multilateralism for today's world, given the necessity of working together to deal with complex global problems like climate change.

For small countries especially, multilateral institutions, systems and laws are critical because they impose responsibilities on all countries and create a stable environment for all, he said.

But the tide is turning against multilateralism.

Nationalist, isolationist and protectionist sentiments have intensified in many countries, giving rise to inward-looking policies, he said.

"More countries are keen to enhance their international roles, and are competing fiercely for influence. At the same time, the global consensus on the benefits of globalisation has eroded and support for multilateralism has declined."

The Prime Minister traced how developed countries progressed in the last 70 years because they opened up their markets and benefited from access to other new markets for their industrial products, such as aircraft and machine tools.

Many developing countries in Africa and Latin America are making the same journey now, but at a time when there is a strong pushback against an open, integrated global economy, he noted.

"If global markets become less open, and conditions for trade and investment become more uncertain and disorderly, their progress will become much harder," he said, adding that it was very difficult for any country to develop and progress on its own.

PM Lee acknowledged there were serious weaknesses in post-war multilateral institutions, citing the World Trade Organisation.

The WTO has found it increasingly difficult to reach meaningful trade agreements because any deal requires full consensus among its 164 member countries, which have hugely diverse interests and philosophies, he noted.

"But the solution should be to reform these institutions, rather than to bypass or dispense with them," said the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, in the absence of reform, countries have started drawing up new regional mechanisms and frameworks for cooperation.

He gave examples such as the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a reworked version of the mega trade deal that the US quit in 2017.

"These regional or plurilateral arrangements may be second best to multilateral ones, but in an imperfect world they address real needs, and help us progress step by step."

The key is to keep these arrangements open and inclusive, for other countries to join when they are ready, he said.

PM Lee also referred to concerns that the US and Chinese economies, locked in a protracted trade war, were heading down a path of decoupling into separate supply chains and economic blocs, forcing the global economy into two camps.

"We need to avoid creating rival economic blocs," he said, and forcing countries to choose sides.

PM Lee's message echoed that of several others, including German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who said that only by working together would countries have a future.

French President Emmanuel Macron also called for a stronger, more pragmatic multilateralism, saying there were no solutions without cooperation.

"The crises we are experiencing are not resolved by nationalist withdrawal," said Mr Macron.

But their sentiments stood at stark odds with that of US President Donald Trump, who said on Tuesday leaders should look inwards and put their own countries first.

"The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots," he said.

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