Queen's Speech — Debate (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:50 pm on 4th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat 1:50 pm, 4th December 2008

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, whom I have always admired and respected—I did so in full measure today on his comments on Europe. I hope that his party listens to those wise words, although I fear that there is not much chance that it will.

I should like not to do the traditional tour d'horizon but to look a little wider at the context in which we conduct our foreign affairs as a nation and at the relationships in our world. These should cause us to think a little differently and to look at our structures to decide whether they are appropriate for the new world into which we are moving. I should like to touch on three elements in particular. If time allows, perhaps I will get on to Europe.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, referred to the first element, although I could agree with almost nothing else in his speech, apart from the fact that the Queen's Speech did not cover foreign affairs, which is strange given that all domestic matters have a foreign affairs dimension nowadays. The noble and learned Lord mentioned the shift of power that is taking place. When that happens, a period of great instability occurs. We are now seeing a shift of power that is at least equivalent to, but probably greater than, that which we saw when power shifted from Europe across the Atlantic to the United States. There is a massive shift of power from the nations gathered around the Atlantic shoreboard to the nations on the Pacific rim.

I do not think that this economic crisis is like previous economic crises from which we bounced back safely to where were. This is the beginning of a shift of economic power from the West to the East, which should have a profound effect not only on the balance of world power but on the extremely turbulent decades that lie ahead. It will offer us new threats and new opportunities. My guess is that the emerging mercantilist nations, India and China, want a world order. They want structure. A mercantilist power wants that kind of stability. We could work with them in order to provide that, although I doubt whether we would be able to enjoy the hegemony of western values, morality and structures in international affairs that we did in the past.

We made a catastrophic strategic error at the end of the Cold War. We had an opportunity to strike a new partnership with Russia. We chose triumphalism, which was in Russia seen as humiliation. The consequences were inevitable—Vladimir Putin. It will be disastrous if we do not reach out and we miss a second strategic opportunity to establish the kind of relationships that we need with the new emerging powers, but that will require difficult compromises on some of our values. We cannot expect to dominate international affairs from the West in the way that we have in the past.

The second element is not just the lateral transfer of power, but the vertical transfer of power. Power has now moved. It has migrated out of the institutions that we created to control it and to bring governance, regulation and law to the nation state. We can look at the vast amount of power that now rests in the global space. The satellite broadcasters, the international money changers and the transnational corporations all operate in that largely unregulated and ungoverned space. That brings its problems. Not just Citibank is there, but al-Qaeda is there, as is international crime and international terrorism.

History shows that an unregulated space helps the powerful for a bit but then is occupied by the destroyers. In reality, we understand now that we have to bring governance to power. That, too, is an historical lesson. If power remains ungoverned, the consequences are usually turbulent. Our capacity to live through a turbulent age will, in large measure, depend on our ability to recognise that, if the phenomenon of our age is unregulated power in the global space, one of the challenges is to bring governance to power, just as happened in the past.

That will not happen through the institutions of the United Nations, which is an important forum for dialogue, the legitimiser of international action and the developer of international law, although those are important factors. My guess is that bringing governance to the global space will depend much more on treaty-based organisations than on the invention of international organisations and agreements such as the WTO and Kyoto. The G20 was an interesting example of how nations come together to bring governance and regulation, and of the consequences of that not happening. We will see a lot more of that. That leads me to a baleful conclusion: there is a possibility that what will emerge is a conspiracy of the powerful from which the weak and the poor will be left out, were it not for the third factor. It is on that factor that I should like to spend the rest of my time.

The world is now interconnected in a way in which it has never been before. Of course, it has always been interconnected, which is what foreign affairs and diplomacy are about, but never as now. That is the big fundamental factor that we need to address. Perhaps I may put it this way. If I had been here 25 to 30 years ago talking about defence, in the days when I was a British soldier, I would have talked about three things: the size of the Army, the size of the Air Force and the size of the Navy. I would not have talked about anything else. Now I have to talk about everything. For much of this nation's security, the Department of Health is involved because of the danger of pandemic disease. The department with responsibility for agriculture is involved, as we see in the consequences of food security. Industry is involved. The resilience of our internet systems to cyber-attack is involved, as is the Home Office. Everyone is involved. Everything is connected to everything.

Let us imagine that I am our great predecessor, Lord Roberts of Kandahar VC, in 1880 and I am talking about the second Afghan war. What would I be talking about? He would have talked about screw-guns, the number of soldiers and whether the sepoys would be able to last in the cold conditions. He would have talked about the tribal conditions in southern Afghanistan. Between the 1842 war and the 1880 war, there were 35 years in which to prepare and a great deal of time was spent getting the tribes together in southern Afghanistan. Why do we not learn these lessons? Lord Roberts would not have talked about the poppy fields. They were there, but they were irrelevant. They are not irrelevant today: they are connected directly to our inner cities. He would not have talked about a mad mullah in a cave preaching jihad. They were there, but he could ignore them. Today they are related directly to what happens in Bolton and Bradford. He would not have had to talk about whether he could knock down a tribal village, because it was irrelevant. The news did not get back until months later and it was not as important in those days as it is today in winning the essential battle, which is the battle for public opinion. Until we realise that we have to create the structures and the mindset to understand the interconnectedness of our present world, we cannot adequately deal with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

That means three key things. First, it means understanding that the revelation of 9/11 is that what happens in a faraway country of which you know little matters even to the most powerful nation on earth. Ignoring it means that you may get death and destruction delivered to your cities on one bright September morning when you are least expecting it. We are connected. We have to move away at least in part from a concept of collective defence, where we are secure when we gather together with others to make ourselves secure, to common defence, where we recognise that we share a destiny with our enemy.

We heard John Donne's great precept in the speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells:

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee".

That is no longer a moral precept; it is a fact of diplomacy and a fact of life. When Gladstone, in his second Midlothian campaign, saw that second Afghan war and said,

"remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own", he was expressing something moral to us. It is something real: if you forget the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snow, you pay a price in public opinion today and in the opinion of the Afghan nation. Ignoring that means that you fail. You have now to think of common security and the destiny that you share with your enemy. If you do not, you will not succeed.

Secondly, unilateralism is over. At least, if you follow the unilateral pattern, you are much more likely to fail than to succeed. The last great exercise in unilateralism was Iraq and, even in the hands of the most powerful nation on earth, it could not work. You have to work with your fellow nations. You have to work multilaterally. The more you do it, the more you will succeed. The less you do it, the less you will succeed. Creating those multilateral institutions and understanding the way in which you work with others is the most important thing that you can do. Winning in Afghanistan is not a military operation today. You have to work with the NGOs and the other organisations to bring governance. It is people, not the greatest military force, who bring all the disciplines together in a co-ordinated fashion and thus win such struggles. Our failure to understand that and to put in place a decent co-ordination of effort in Afghanistan is now threatening an imminent defeat unless we put it right.

My last point is this: we need to alter our structures. Haldane's principle was drawn up in 1904 or 1905 after the British Army's massive defeat at the hands of natives using primitive weapons in South Africa. Haldane constructed the structures of government to imitate the vertical stovepipes of the Industrial Revolution. You had vertical hierarchies, specialisation of tasks and command structures. People did not work together. Industry has moved on and now has flat networks, but our Government are stuck in the vertical hierarchies of the Haldane committee and the Industrial Revolution.

The most important thing about what the Government do is what they can do with others. This is important for the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office is no longer an individual organisation dealing with foreign affairs. It is no longer about elegant people living abroad writing elegant telegrams back to London. I remember being criticised by that formidable lady, Anne Warburton, when I was a first secretary in the UK mission in Geneva, for having too many split infinitives in my telegram to London. I got rid of all the split infinitives, but she returned the telegram to me with a huge circle in red saying, "Another beastly hanging gerund", at which point I gave up. The Foreign Office is today not a monopoly organiser of events; it is a manager of projects. It has to be the organisation that brings together the disciplines and enables us to utilise the NGOs, the MoD, DfID and all the other organisations capable of dealing with an international crisis and bringing peace after war.

The figures show that the number of conflicts around the world is going down but that the number of failed states is going up. That tells us something. We are good at war—maybe too good at war—but we are awful at building peace afterwards. It is a classic project management operation. If the Foreign Office and other government institutions are to be serious about building peace, they have to get themselves into the mindset of working with others and managing projects across the disciplines.

I finish with my central thought, which I shall call Ashdown's first law: the most important part of what you do is what you can do with others. Until we realise that, we will not begin to cope with the world in which we find ourselves.


Alan Ray-Jones
Posted on 5 Dec 2008 4:42 pm (Report this annotation)

Three cheers for Paddy. What a lot of good sense.