Foreign Policy — Debate (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:35 pm on 26th February 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Weidenfeld Lord Weidenfeld Crossbench 3:35 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, the predominant aim for a British foreign policy that can cope with political challenges, acute or simmering, and steer us through the floods of a global economic crisis in which there will probably be few Noah's Arks, must be a reinvigoration of our European policy and its harmonisation with renewed transatlantic ties. If your Lordships were to join me in looking further into the 21st century, you might share my view that such a broad alliance would be greatly strengthened by an additional dimension—that is, the inclusion of Russia. What should drive the nations living between Vancouver and Vladivostok together? It is, first, the ticking demographic time-bomb; the decline of population in Russia, but also in many European countries. By the middle of the century, Russia's 170 million of today may shrink to 120 million. In Europe's most populated state, Germany, the maternity wards are half empty; today's 85 million is likely to dwindle to 60 million. International terrorism and Islamic extremism also menace most of those countries. On the other hand, harmonious collaboration across the Atlantic, and including Russia, would make it easier to obtain equilibrium and a peaceful working relationship with China and the other giants of the East, rather than playing them off, one against the other.

I am well aware that our relations with Russia are now at a low ebb, and it is not likely that one or the other party will beat its breast in remorse. But realistic reasoning does not mean appeasing. Reasoning does not mean appeasing. Those who go so far as to think that the present Russian regime has acted shamefully can be answered that the whole of the West gravely injured Russia's self-esteem after she rid herself of communism. Our media predicted early economic collapse, disintegration and the secession of major provinces led by powerful warlords. Western statesmen shook their fists in Kiev, denying Russia's special rights in the Crimea. Our backing of Georgia, doubtlessly inspired by humanist impulses, ignored the fact that the Government in Tblisi did not always handle their great neighbour judiciously and that the small Caucasian enclaves were yearning for freedom.

Expanding the European Union further east, especially in the light of the fierce struggles to agree on the inner workings of the present 27-member Union, raises mighty problems. We should not allow ourselves to come to quick conclusions on, say, the Ukraine, when many of us have come to regret that we were perhaps prematurely sponsoring Turkey's entry some 20 years ago. I have recently been in the western Ukraine and, as a born Austrian, I felt the western, indeed Hapsburg, legacy in those places. At the same time, east Ukrainian friends still dream of the great moments in Russian history connected with Kiev, Odessa or Sebastopol. Of course, there is a modern, solid, vibrant Ukrainian nationalism, but if relations between the wider West and Russia were to develop along dynamically progressive lines, the phrase "partnership for peace", so popular in the early days of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin regimes in reference to NATO and the Russian armed forces, would become a reality and Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and others in the "near-abroad" sphere might find that their security was no longer at risk.

All nations of the wider Middle East, rich or needy, armed or practically defenceless, are now nervously trying to guess whether the superpower America under President Obama will be on the retreat into semi-isolation. Will America pursue the war on terror with the necessary vigour? Will America succeed in negotiating with allies, friends, fence-sitters and foes, or only waste precious time? Will contact with Iran, now that Teheran seems far nearer than expected to within sight of its first atomic bomb, lead to a successful compromise? If it does not, what will Obama do?

There now seems to be a flurry among Middle Eastern regimes to seek shelter in a world in which the United States no longer plays the dominating role. They look for assurances elsewhere—to China, some to Russia—yet others seek to come to terms with terrorist organisations, upgrading them to valid interlocutors. Hostility to Israel is a safe posture in the quest for sympathy.

Was the outburst by President Erdogan of Turkey at Davos, when storming from his shared platform with Shimon Peres, spontaneous or rehearsed? Will Turkey, hitherto a bastion of NATO loyalty and strategic partner with Israel, swap horses? One may well ask: would a Turkey of, say, 100 million people within 15 or 20 years carry the torch of western standards to Europe's new borders with Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, or would it turn into a Trojan horse, unloading a baggage of bigotry and intolerance?

The more one considers the endless variations of the peace endeavours in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, the more one feels that only a holistic approach can have positive results. What use would be an Israeli/Palestinian treaty which, before the ink was dry, was rendered ineffective by Iranian arms reaching, via Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel's northern borders and Hamas in Gaza? In my view, only powerful international intervention would impress all parties and could deal effectively with the interlinking issues of that troubled area.

America's new high-level talks in the region will have to convince the seasoned observer that a real breakthrough can be achieved by peaceful means. If it can, soft diplomacy will have brought us much solace as we grapple with our economic doldrums. If it cannot, will the wider West risk nuclear proliferation, anarchy, moral nihilism, state and non-state terrorism or will it, however reluctantly and only as a very last resort, follow a call to arms?