Foreign Policy — Debate (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:14 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Spokesperson for International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 4:14 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for putting down this topic of debate and for his masterly overview. As ever, this debate has shown the enormous depth and breadth of knowledge of noble Lords in this House. Now is indeed a good time to reassess foreign policy challenges, given the election of President Obama and the possible changes in direction of what remains, as yet, the only superpower.

As my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out, if we see a change in political direction in our own country, we need to know what any future government might do. The present Government's track record is clear, and we know where we have agreed and where we have profoundly disagreed with them. The position of the Official Opposition is a lot less clear. Where do they really stand on Europe? I wish the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, very well as he so ably fights this battle within his own party.

On Iraq, the Conservatives appear to have done an about-turn but would their gut instincts have led them, perhaps even more easily, to do just as the Government did? On Afghanistan, we hear—we should pay close attention to this—comments from some Tory MPs that they regard our role there as pretty much doomed. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has expressed his own doubts.

On development, do the Conservatives really have the gut commitment here? My party's understanding of why Europe is so important to our influence in the world, our economy, prosperity and security is well known. My noble friends Lord Wallace and Lord McNally have again expressed this extremely clearly. Our internationalism and commitment to development are also well established.

We know that President Obama is committed to internationalism and dialogue. It is somewhat ironic that such an approach should be so welcomed across our own political spectrum when it was this Government, supported by the Official Opposition, who joined in setting aside what the UN might do with its weapons inspections in Iraq. As converts, however, the Government and the Official Opposition are very welcome.

There are extremely hopeful shifts in the new American Administration on the Middle East, as we have heard—on Iran, on human rights, as shown by the proposed closure of Guantanamo Bay, and on climate change. The challenges facing Obama on the economy may force him to look inwards and the challenges of his electorate may restrict what he can do.

We also know how dangerous it is to align ourselves too closely to one dominant ally where our interests can be trampled upon. The noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, made some sobering comments on Afghanistan. Although we are the major contributor there behind the US, can the Minister say whether, in the recent review, UK participants were included in the assessments but barred from helping to frame the conclusions of that review and that it was to be a US-only exercise?

As others have said, all our decisions may be overshadowed by the current extraordinary economic firestorm. If anything proved how interlinked our world is, this does. In 1918, the flu took six months to spread round the world but SARS recently took only 48 hours to reach four continents. Thus, too, the mis-selling of sub-prime mortgages in the US and in the UK, as my honourable friend Vincent Cable warned us, has had the effect of bringing global banking to its knees. It has also brought countries, including Iceland, Hungary and Latvia, to the verge of bankruptcy, creating massive economic destruction in its wake. We have barely felt the effects yet and we know only too well the political consequences of other severe recessions in the past. We need to beware of protectionism.

We have to remember the UN High-level Panel's dictum of 2004 that development is necessary for security. I echo the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, and take issue with one or two other speakers. There need not be a conflict between the undoubted need to strengthen the SEO—I have seen how remarkable its teams are in the Middle East and Africa—and what DfID does. Indeed, DfID addresses poverty, but we know that poverty leads to instability, and instability affects us all. We surely need to see the FCO, DfID and the MoD working together. Following the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I suggest that Trident should perhaps be therefore placed in the Olympics budget.

Just as the Recess started, some announcements on the DfID budget were made. It seems that £1.65 million was transferred from DfID to DCMS for the Olympics budget. Almost £19 million was transferred to the MoD and £1 million to the FCO for the returns and reintegration fund. What is that all about? If it was always scheduled, are the amounts exactly as was originally planned? What is the effect on the percentage of income now devoted to overseas development? Are we beginning to see the effect of the black holes created by Iraq and now the financial crisis? These may be very worthy operations, but why has funding shifted from DfID to elsewhere?

As we address poverty and instability, we have to recognise the significance of climate change, as others have said. The shift in attitude of the Obama presidency is extremely welcome. If we did not realise how climate change might contribute to instability, we should look at Darfur, where the spread of the Sahara desert has played its part in displacing people so that they prey on others. The international community is then drawn in, and we take in asylum seekers displaced by the fighting. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Chidgey quite how fragile are the states in that region.

Ensuring that the international community is better able to deal with global problems is a major challenge. The UN has achieved a great deal in its historically very short life. What plans are there to try to improve its ability to protect? That ability is dependent on member states and their actions. What is being done to maintain and improve such international focus? Perhaps the Minister could comment on the situation in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in this context.

Problem areas of the world have been mentioned by many noble Lords. My noble friend Lady Falkner effectively highlighted the significance of instability in Pakistan and its effect on the region. A number of noble Lords have mentioned Israel/Palestine. Surely the time has come to talk to Hamas, as a letter in today's Times, to which the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond referred, from Michael Ancram, Paddy Ashdown and others makes clear. It states:

"We must recognise that engaging Hamas does not amount to condoning terrorism or attacks on civilians. In fact, it is a precondition for security and for brokering a workable agreement".

As we know, it was not military power which in the end prevailed in Northern Ireland, but the use of economic measures, legal measures to protect against discrimination, establishment of the fact that the rule of law meant something and the slow progress of dialogue.

Other challenges have been flagged up in this debate, including dangers from nuclear weapons. The House may like to know that the Lib Dem debate day on 26 March will be led by noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby, who is very sorry that she could contribute today. She will lead the debate on nuclear disarmament.

We have also heard about the situation in Latin America, Russia, Africa and elsewhere. There are then the challenges of tackling corruption, the arms trade and improving governance, which are all enough to keep you awake at night. However, although we may feel very pessimistic about the world today, anyone who heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak the other day at the British Council, as did I and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, should perhaps take heart from his philosophy of hope. Perhaps this links back to what the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said about the difficulty of reading the future. For Tutu, the dismantling of apartheid, the election of a black president in the United States, the comeuppance of Bush—for whom he felt slightly sorry and whom it had seemed impossible to defeat on the invasion of Iraq—all showed that change was possible, even it came very slowly.

We need only look at Northern Ireland to see what might be done in the Middle East with the kind of engagement we may, at last, be beginning to see. People used to despair of economic development in Asia. It was deemed hopeless and impossible, not least for cultural reasons—now look at it. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, about the problems, but also the progress, in Africa now. We see major challenges in foreign policy and need to know where all the parties stand on the route forward. I look forward to the Minister's speech.

No one can deny that change is upon us. In the middle of economic turmoil and with conflict around the world, we surely have to work with our international partners, whether in Europe, the United States or across the UN, to bring greater stability, prosperity and order into the world for our mutual benefit.