Paddy Ashdown: The age when the powerful can act unilaterally is over

In the modern age, the most important part of what you can do, is what you can do with others. It is institutions' ability, not to do, but to network, which matters most. The key part of modern structures is not their internal order, but their external docking points. It is not the effectiveness of the hierarchies which matters most, but the efficiency of the interconnectors.

And if you want to see the price of failing to understand that, you need look no further than Afghanistan. Here the chief reason for the fact that we are losing lives is not in the ineffectiveness of the Afghan government, who we love to blame, but in our own complete failure to have any coordinated international plan; in our inability to work together between the nations of the coalition; in our determination to see Afghanistan solely through the prism of the place in which we each happen to be fighting; and in our refusal to coordinate ourselves in order to produce a single countrywide strategy which enables us to speak with a single voice and act with a single purpose. The real scandal in Afghanistan is not that our soldiers don't have the right boots, or enough helicopters. It is that they are paying with their lives because our politicians cannot or will not get their act together.

And what applies between nations in Afghanistan, applies within them too. Although there have at last been late, but welcome, improvements in the ability of the civilian peace makers and reconstructors from Dfid to interlock with the military on the ground, we are still not able to do what needs to be done – bring the re-builders in straight after the solders have finished fighting.

And as it is within governments, so it is between them. The age when even the most powerful can expect success if they choose to act unilaterally is over. The last great experiment in unilateralism was George W Bush's determination to abandon the multilateralism of his father and insist on the invasion of Iraq, even though America was – beyond the largely cosmetic support of a few – alone in the enterprise.

In the new multi-polar world which we're entering, nations will raise the chances of success in their enterprises to the extent that they can make them multilateral and raise their chances of failure if they are unable to do this.

From a speech by Lord Ashdown to the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House