Foreign Policy — Debate (Continued)

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

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:26 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, in a star-studded debate, the undoubted star has been my noble friend Lord Marlesford; everyone has agreed about that. He gave a superb opening offering for this debate. That does not surprise me—I worked closely with him a long time ago and have done since. Forty years ago, we worked together on the restructuring of the government system that was going to be required as we moved from the socialist age into the market age. From his fertile mind came such innovations as the Central Policy Review Staff, central capability and the systematic questioning of public sector and Whitehall objectives and outputs, in a way which would lead to more efficient delivery. I am afraid that particular lesson seems to have been lost. These were, in many cases, the initiatives of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, then under his commoner name of Mark Schreiber.

This been a good debate and I hope, as many of us have said, that it will be listened to. I am told that in a depression, a slump, super-recession, or whatever we are in, people tend to crowd into music halls and places of public entertainment, to drown their sorrows. We cannot compete with that but I hope that people will pick up some of the wisdom that we have heard this afternoon. It is setting a new tone. Although we have heard some clichés and demands for new narratives, which turn out to be the old narrative, we have also heard a number of new insights into what is, frankly, a totally new situation.

The foreign policy issues are completely interwoven with the enormous global financial crisis engulfing the entire planet. We are in a new situation. I know the word "paradigm" gets overworked, but the contours in relation to which we now have to think about what is happening in the world are different from those of a few months ago and totally different from those of a year or two back.

Even the assumptions of 2008 are being invalidated in 2009, while we debate these issues. At a time of almost universal concern and uncertainty about the course of economic events, financial turmoil could, at any moment, spill out into civil and political order, and it has begun to do so in many countries. Irresistible pressures for protection may lead to the downfall of the whole liberal trading order—a matter about which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, reminded us in his opening speech—and the need for clarity of definition in our national role and purposes becomes more necessary than ever. We cannot deliver that in one debate, but we have begun to hear the beginnings of the new outlines in this frightening situation.

I want to headline some of the major shifts in world conditions, which make our old stances and diplomacy so utterly inappropriate for the new situation that now confronts us. First, the USA is still a mighty and rich country, despite being sodden in debt, sub-prime mortgages and so on. It is a rich nation and a fine ally, and it is under a new leader who gives us all great hope. But the fact is that America is no longer the automatic leader of the world as some US officials still seem to think. Why is that so? Because we live in an age of networks, in which there is no single top-dog leader; the theme becomes not "go it alone and America will lead" but team co-operation, with America supporting. That is why my favourite phrase from Mr Obama's excellent oratory so far is his call in his inaugural speech for humility and restraint in America's approach to foreign affairs. That is the best stance for America and a major shift from the past.

Secondly, power has shifted away not only from Washington but from the whole Atlantic axis and we are only just adjusting to the fact that western hegemony no longer "rules okay". The rising power centres and rising markets, when we have got through the present crisis, will be in Asia—in China, India and Japan and the whole Chinese diaspora of south-east Asia—and in Latin America. That includes Brazil, as several noble Lords reminded us, including the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper. There are also countries such as Canada, which is emerging as a giant new energy power. This demands a new respect, as my noble friend also pointed out, and even deference in place of the somewhat hectoring and superior tone of the western powers and, particularly, the Washington powers, in recent years.

Thirdly, there is the European Union, which is our important regional zone and club in which we live, so to speak. It has achieved great things; I never denied that. I hope that I shall not disappoint the noble Lord, Lord McNally, at this point, because I know that he has especially come back to catch my every word—they will not be worth holding. We want to see the EU evolve in a constructive way. We make no secret of the fact that we did not think that all aspects of the Lisbon treaty delivered that, and that debate on that matter continues. But I think the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and his colleagues would agree that the EU today is already very different from the EU of the summer only a short while ago, with the difficulties in eastern Europe and the real dangers of default and civil unrest in parts of the new member areas of eastern and central Europe. That EU is in turn totally different, of course, from the EU that we first signed up to at the beginning of the 1980s. Twentieth-century visions of how we want to work with the rest of the European Union and be good Europeans are out of date, particularly the idea of the EU as a sort of old-style bloc or superpower in the kind of world that is no longer with us.

Fourthly, power has not only drained away from the Atlantic capitals but slipped away from all nation states and all Governments, because there are now more than 1.5 billion people tapped into the world wide web and making their mark on opinions and events. We live in an age of networks, soft power and sub-governmental and non-governmental linkages between states and societies, which require new diplomatic machinery—a point that I shall speak on more in a moment—at state level. They require a much greater diplomatic resource, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, rightly reminded us.

Fifthly, the world's and our own energy mix is changing fast. Energy is the lifeblood of our society and can of course switch us off at a moment, killing everybody and everything if it is not there. The energy mix is changing, which to some extent downgrades the importance of the old fossil fuels, oil and gas; it certainly changes the shape of our concerns about the Middle East and Russia, exposing the UK to very clear medium-term risks. So there we have the new realities. I am not talking about extrapolations, distant visions or hopes for fighting climate change—those are important—but about here-and-now facts which are already establishing themselves on the international stage and which pose immediate and important questions for British foreign policy.

Do we have the right stances and tones in our relations with Washington, Brussels and with the new rising powers of Asia and the Middle East? That valid question has been raised in the debate. Years ago some of us commented that the Blair concept—if I can call it that—of the UK as a bridge between America and Europe did not really work and was always a flawed idea. Indeed, speakers have said that even the New Statesman has woken up to that fact.

Do we have the right military and security dispositions to meet these entirely new conditions? Is American policy, as we think it is emerging under Mr Obama, the right one for us to follow in both detail and tone? Do we want to get into that lapdog style against which my noble friend Lord Marlesford warned? Do we want to follow the emerging policy with regard to Afghanistan or to Pakistan, where some strange things are going on? Do we want to follow that policy towards Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, or towards Iraq, where hitherto Britain has followed American policy almost slavishly? It is now clear that the US policy of economic sanctions and military threats towards Iran has failed. Iran is accelerating its programme. We have seen photographs of Russian technicians starting up the Bushehr plant this very week. So that policy has failed and a radically new approach is needed. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds rightly pointed that out.

In an age of asymmetric struggle, non-state terrorism and low-intensity warfare, are we right to be spending so many billions on vast hardware projects or on military procurement, which appears to be poorly managed in some cases? Are we right to spend such sums on upgrading Trident deluxe style, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, asked in the debate and in the letter in the Times? Or are we pushing resources in precisely the wrong direction, leaving our troops inadequately equipped at times and with very low morale, as my noble and learned friend Lord Howe and my noble friend Lord Marlesford pointed out?

Are the international institutions of the 20th century the right ones for the new century? This country always takes great pride in belonging to practically everything. We belong to NATO, the European Union, the UN Security Council and the WTO, but are they the best channels through which to project our aims, to make our contribution and to guard our security today?

A very pertinent question was asked in the debate: are we investing in the Commonwealth as a power network of the future? My noble and learned friend Lord Howe and my noble friend Lady Hooper rightly asked that question. Are we right to invest—here I must tread carefully—so much time and effort in the endless EU institutional debate which we went round and round last summer, as your Lordships will remember? Are we right to put so much of our overseas development effort through the EU machinery? Is the EU defence structure—it is obviously important to have a defence structure—the one on which we should pin all our hopes? Have we grasped the need for a far wider context than just the EU in which to grapple with the financial reforms the world needs and the resolution of the complete imbalance between high-savings Asia and the debt-saturated western world, which was the cause of a lot of the overspending and wild borrowing which has led to the present global crisis? Are we braced in our foreign policy for the next Euro-crisis and the need to bail out, for example, Ireland, Greece, Austria, Hungary and other central European countries? That will come over the horizon in the next few weeks. We may, mercifully in my view, be free of the euro system, but the impact on our already shrinking export markets will be devastating.

A constant issue that came up in this debate was the question: have we adjusted our foreign policy priorities to our new pattern of energy needs? Thanks to the nuclear delay we face a period of immense danger and vulnerability to global gas markets. Will our policies protect us?

Finally, and most importantly, do we have the right ministerial and administrative systems here in London to adjust flexibly and swiftly to the new conditions? Have we got the balance between DfID and our aid policies and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our diplomatic resource right? Or is there a malaise, as my noble friend Lord Hurd, with huge wisdom and experience, suggested—as indeed did my noble and learned friend Lord Howe with equal wisdom and experience? What about the closure of embassies? What about demoralisation? What about the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, the former boss of the Foreign Office? Are these issues that we can afford to let drift in these new conditions?

I have to answer a blunt "no" to all those questions. One only has to ponder for a moment on the basic realities that I have described to see how hopelessly inapposite all the policy stances behind these questions have become, as well as the systems that we have to administer them. It is a dispiriting picture. At a time when we should be forging new alliances with the powers that will affect our destiny, when we should be vigorously promoting new and more flexible regional structures for the EU, when we should be building up the Commonwealth as the ideal soft-power network of the future, when we should be massively strengthening and modernising our security forces to meet asymmetric threats, when we should be redirecting our development and aid policies, and when we should be reconstructing our overseas ministries to get a better resource balance and upgrade our whole diplomatic resource, we are doing none of those things.

Instead, we remain locked in old ambiguities in our foreign policy. This is querulous indecision disguised as strategy and adamant for drift. It leads directly to a national loss of purpose, endangers our future, weakens our contribution to international goals and projects an image of defeatism and lost confidence. It also demoralises those very able diplomats and foreign policy practitioners who find themselves wired into the wrong administrative structure travelling along the wrong tracks.

The global context has changed. Within it we need a new foreign policy direction based on a deep and intelligent analysis of the new world conditions, and we need new government machinery to operate it successfully with confidence and vigour. I am hopeful that my right honourable friend, the very able William Hague, will set the movement in that direction. Our country, built on its amazing and dazzling past, is still full of talent and vitality, and it deserves no less.