Global Britain and the International Rules-based Order

Part of Brexit, Science and Innovation – in the House of Commons at 4:46 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Joint with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 4:46 pm, 6th September 2018

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate. First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on securing it and on all he does to support and challenge United Kingdom foreign policy through that chairmanship and his team? I am grateful for the contributions made by other hon. Members. We always face a limitation in this debate; we get 10 minutes or so to respond to thoughtful and considered contributions that have added up to nearly a couple of hours, and it cannot really be done. It can be done better by speeches and by conversations with the Select Committee, and I commend the Foreign Secretary’s recent speech in Washington as a start. I will do my best to make some points in relation to what has been said.

I will cover some of what my hon. Friend said in these remarks. As to what is going to be different, that might be difficult, because we have always been global Britain; it is not that there has suddenly been a gear change because of Brexit. The issue of EU and EU engagement is a really important one. He spoke of John McCain and his recognition that the US was enhanced through alliances, and I have always believed the UK was enhanced through alliances. One problem of Brexit will be that we lose the automatic political structures that the EU provided, and colleagues have rightly said that we need to find a way of re-engaging. For the Foreign Secretary, for other Ministers in the Department and for me, the speed-dial remains, “Paris, Berlin, Rome”. These are the places we contact, and we will build these things up. My hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) and for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) spoke about that. May I also commend what she said about the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung? I made my first visit with it 35 years ago, and I am still in touch with it, and with friends in the Christian Democratic Union and in the Christian Social Union—we built up through there. Those foundations were vital and we miss those party links at our peril. They are so important.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling spoke about the cost of war. He and others, such as my hon. Friend Mr Seely, have experienced that in a manner which others have been spared, and he is right to recognise that at the heart of policy is a determination to do all we can to prevent that. He spoke of governance and the importance of government; that is absolutely right. In so many of the places where we see conflict or the likelihood of it arising, the failure of governance has been catastrophic.

My good friend Mike Gapes made a typically brave speech. I commend him for reminding us of successive Labour Governments’ commitment to defence and security through NATO. I notice that Emily Thornberry responded to some of his challenges, but not all.

My hon. Friend John Lamont reminded us of the good things in the world—the things that have changed—and that is positive, but also why we have to have great expectations. There is a lovely line in “The Way We Were”, when Robert Redford turns to Barbra Streisand and says in frustration, “You expect so much”, and she looks at him and says, “Look at what I’ve got!” We are the same with the world: we expect, because look at what we’ve got. Look at what we risk if we do not keep it.

Darren Jones offered particular challenges on climate change, as well as on other matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight made a series of challenges in relation to his ConservativeHome article, and spoke of some structural changes that he wanted to see.

Kirsty Blackman spoke of the importance of the sustainable development goals—I am wearing the badge; they are important. It is most important to find ways to prevent conflict by making sure that a conflict has ended effectively.

I commend the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury for speaking of Kofi Annan, who was probably the first UN Secretary-General whom I got to know. His stature and what he stood for are immense.

The right hon. Lady also touched on something that is important to bring into a debate such as this: the messy area of compromise. It is great to bang the table and be very clear about our values, but what do we do when the restatement of values does not produce the results that we want, in a world where people do not do what we want, where our friends sometimes do not do want we want, and where things are more nuanced? That is where diplomacy comes in, and that is what is sometimes the difference between standing at this Dispatch Box and standing at the Opposition one. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling will experience what it is like in relation to foreign affairs, I have no doubt. Sometimes, an ethical foreign policy lasts only the distance between the Dispatch Boxes, in every effort. Unless we have that at the back of our mind and unless we reject what the right hon. Lady said about the core of British policy, which is not all about trade—it is about the whole variety of other things for which we stand—we will risk losing something. Alas, life is sometimes messier than we would wish.

Global Britain describes the Government’s vision for this country as an outward-facing, globally engaged nation; influencing and leading on the world stage; reinforcing what it has always been; projecting our influence; championing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; protecting our people; and promoting our prosperity. It was coined in the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU, partly in response to the narrative that the UK would turn in on itself after Brexit. Global Britain is a clear rejection of that narrative, which was never at the core of those of my colleagues who took that particular line. It is not an empty slogan. Although our departure from the EU is an important factor, it is not the only one, because global Britain is also about how the delivery of UK foreign policy must adapt and evolve in a rapidly changing world. It is about strengthening our bilateral relationships around the world, as well as our partnerships with important regional bodies. That is why we are expanding our diplomatic network with 10 new posts and more than 250 new diplomats.

New investment is also necessary to protect and defend the system of international rules on which our prosperity and security have depended for more than 70 years—a system that is under strain. Some challenges are natural. There is nothing in a post-1945, heavily western-orientated order that should not be open to evolution. Some challenges come from the shift in economic gravity from west to east. As the second largest global economy, China’s desire to take on a greater leadership role and to change some aspects of the system to better reflect its position is entirely understandable. However, China’s mixed record on respecting the existing system and its rejection of liberal democratic values remain a concern. Other challenges come in the form of anti-globalisation and populist movements that question the wisdom of international co-operation and free trade. Others criticise the multilateral system for failing to deal with conflict, inequality, and human rights violations.

The debate was right at various times to highlight the threat from Russia in particular. I welcome a statement made in the past hour from international partners expressing full confidence in the Prime Minister and the United Kingdom’s response as articulated in the House yesterday. Russia has the privilege and responsibility of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but continues to flout its responsibilities, annexing territory in Europe, shielding the regime in Syria, which violates the international ban on chemical weapons, and instituting cyber-attacks that are reaching deeper into our politics and our critical infrastructure. I note that a number of colleagues have intervened on this issue and I commend some thoughtful speeches.

The rules-based system is, however, resilient. It continues to ensure that the great powers have not been involved in a global war, but flexibility must not become fragility and confidence must not become complacency. Any erosion, as opposed to evolution, of international rules and institutions threatens the very basis of our advanced democracies, our open societies and those free economies. That is why objectives for a global Britain are predicated on the conviction that strengthening the rules-based international system and the institutions and the values that underpin it remain the best way to ensure our collective and individual security and prosperity.

My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, spoke of the importance of shaping events, rather than being shaped by them. We continue to work at the UN as shapers and as penholders in a number of areas including in Libya and Burma. In Yemen, we are actively supporting the efforts of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to build trust between the parties and to bring them to the negotiating table. We know how important it is just to bring that conflict to a solution. We also remain concerned about Iran’s destabilising role there and other places.

In Syria, we are supporting the urgent diplomatic efforts being made by Turkey and the UN to avert a human catastrophe. Those of us still scarred by the events of August 2013 know now that the international order has to consider inaction as well as action as it looks at how to establish itself.

It has been understandable to characterise recent crises in foreign affairs as a challenge to the world order and fear that what has been so painstakingly built following the tragedy of the wars of the 20th century might be lost. It is not surprising. I was born in 1955 within striking distance of the war’s end. While I was growing up, unknown to me, the architecture was being put together. The EU, born out of the disaster on our continent, was a deliberate attempt to forestall the accumulation of the then requirements for a war economy—iron, coal and steel.

That generation has gone. It is essential that what drove it is not forgotten, but, as the debate has indicated, while we worry about what we might lose, let us recognise and cherish the world that we have and defend it and its values robustly even though it sometimes calls upon comprise. We must not mistake evolution for fragility or allow the undermining of rules under a guise of seemingly benign objection. Let me echo a great phrase of Robert Kennedy: global Britain will continue to see the world as it is and question why, but never lose sight of a world as it might be and ask why not.