Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:01 pm on 15th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:01 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, I thank the Minister for what she has said and hope to respond against the background of the four guiding principles that she mentioned in her introduction. The debate has 56 listed speakers with extensive knowledge and experience, which, in my view, speaks volumes for the case for a standing committee on foreign relations in your Lordships’ House.

This is a deeply unsettled, uncertain and unstable time. All leading powers are still hauling their way through a profound economic crisis, and United Kingdom policy has left us becalmed, or worse. The crisis makes the formulation of foreign policy all the more difficult—an international challenge in its own right. The state of the wider Middle East is unpredictable and the outcomes of the Arab spring are still far from clear. Progress between Israel and the Palestinians is imperceptible, and the nation with the greatest leverage, the United States, has for a while deployed far too little influence. However, I welcome the new urgency that we have seen in recent weeks, which is an improvement on the mistakes that were made by the Bush Administration in that region. The United Kingdom is largely absent as a force for progress, however much we may advocate it.

Nuclear proliferation continues. Iran is increasingly problematic, North Korea has become a fully fledged problem and south-east Asia a cauldron of tensions. Miscalculation is the present risk. It is a time, as my right honourable friend Douglas Alexander, put it,

“for careful words and wise heads”.

Global terror, now partially contained in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Pakistani tribal areas, has, as we know, sickening ways of growing new viperous heads on western streets and elsewhere in the world. Terror directed at religious communities, if anything, grows. Cyberwar and crime require constant attention.

Europe has moved along the spectrum from being seen as a source of enduring Nobel Prize winning peace and prosperity to being the plaything of populist politics. Those afraid of dealing with populism seem to buckle at every perceived blow, and the United Kingdom’s long-term interests are placed at great risk. The extent of cuts in defence expenditure reduces our flexibility so that we have to choose very carefully, within reason and international law, where we respond to threats. Alex Salmond seems intent on unravelling our deterrent capability, undermining Scotland and the United Kingdom in equal measure.

Behind it all, the international institutions appear to be weaker, lacking leadership and often dysfunctional. The institutions where we so often place our hopes, such as the United Nations, the G20, the G8, the EU and the multinational forums of Africa and Asia—the machinery designed to learn the lessons of World War II—increasingly lack authority for any concerted strategy. They often let down the people in the world who are suffering the most. The case for liberal democracy and economics, and for the peaceful norms that we have sought to achieve in the past decade, appears to be weaker than it was a decade ago.

Let us face it: the United Kingdom’s voice in international affairs is less audible and sometimes not regarded as very relevant. I welcome the emphasis on international trade relationships in the FCO, but I cannot welcome the subordination of the other key skills of international diplomacy and statecraft that I think we are witnessing.

The two pieces of legislation in the gracious Speech—defence and some minor housekeeping on Europe—are unlikely to be the focus of today’s debate. The defence Bill will be studied. Its backdrop is a sequence of culls in the 2013 Budget and probable cuts in the 2015 spending review. Long-term commitments to real growth in equipment budgets, particularly the F-35B, mean that apportioning future austerity will determine where we project force in our national interest and through our alliances.

The Bill that ought to have been announced—if the coalition had had the courage of its 2010 convictions—would have enshrined the aid pledge made so volubly at that time. Driven by a “Farage” of populist rhetoric, the Prime Minister has dropped the legislation—how sad. Progress in Africa was central to the previous Government; I believed it was central to this Government. The damage to the millennium development goals creates greater uncertainty, insecurity and violence in Africa. It will impact on us and it is an historic error. Popular it may be in some short-term view; mistaken it certainly is. Better for Mr Cameron to use the G8 presidency to act on aid tax and transparency—perhaps he can move an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in order to do that and be remarkably “relaxed” in doing so.

In identifying and assessing risk in policy, we must be complete realists. The decision on Britain’s membership of the EU can be based—as the noble Baroness did a few minutes ago—only on a judgment of national interest. Committing now to an in/out referendum fails that test. I fear that we are not so much sleepwalking to the exit but that our Government have, in some cases, actively embraced exit or are indifferent to the consequences of the process we are now in.

We are three years into the eurozone crisis. The underlying causes remain. Politics and economics are marching in opposite directions. New structures are slow in the making. Failure will be devastating to frail major world economies, and some are now estimating a risk of a 10% decline in global GDP, and EU unemployment, already unsustainable, reaching 20%.

Many issues demand reform in the EU and an astute United Kingdom can contribute massively to that. But there are no credible substitutes for our current trade relations. The prospect of a free trade agreement between the two largest global blocs, the EU and the United States, offers opportunities that are otherwise unavailable. The key is to be at the international table—not outside the door, subject to the decisions within but without a voice or a vote.

What an amazing moment to blight our economic prospects with what will be a four-year campaign over a referendum, the terms of which nobody today can express with certainty. I declare an interest as leading a merchant bank and in that role I now routinely see due diligence risk questions from potential inward investors to the United Kingdom. Global businesses now contemplate the consequences of us fighting for four years and then potentially fracturing the EU by the withdrawal they fear is likely. It has become a due diligence risk. I put it plainly: a robust global economy is in the United Kingdom’s interest; the prosperity of our people should be our only goal. Of course, we will not simply defend the status quo—there are many things to be corrected—because that also hampers the interest and the goal I have expressed.

Advances in reversing proliferation as major powers reduce their arsenals are welcome. Iran and North Korea are not only dangers themselves but encourage other, often not stable nations to create a new balance of terror. Our limited role—and it may be limited—could involve assisting Washington and Beijing, the powers most likely to intervene, in that part of south-east Asia to show that new co-operation is desirable. Shared intelligence on the DRK’s WMD assets and some information on their own military resources tasked to intervene might reduce risk and build confidence. Co-operation in these ways is always risky, but non-co-operation is riskier still.

Relations with China have wider implications, and I am not clear that we really know what we are doing. We need to grasp what faces Xi Jinping and the new leadership in China’s domestic transformation and foreign policies, which are plainly problematic for them, to foster deeper relationships. All these things pose sharp and deep challenges.

I look to 2014 for an honest debate on our aims and their outcomes in Afghanistan. It is unhelpful to do so with our troops still on the ground. It is better at this moment to pay tribute to their courage and sacrifices. In due course, we will need to take stock of the security position that we leave behind. We will want to know whether Afghans regard their Government as legitimate and their economy as sustainable. We need a prospectus where security, good governance, the rule of law, universal rights, pluralism and the engagement of all forces in social reconciliation direct the efforts of the United Nations in that country.

Difficult as the Pakistani elections have obviously been, it is truly significant that an elected Government have been succeeded by another. The UK must engage early, not least in the interests of Afghani security, but we should also try to convince Pakistan, if we can, that India is not its greatest problem—far from it.

I turn briefly to the Middle East, where we surely have a role. We deplore the rocket assaults on Israel and the threats made by Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah to eradicate Israel. We tell our Israeli friends that seizure and construction on Palestinian land and the line of the wall breaches international law and is morally wrong. New life is needed in what is neither peace nor a process. The two-state solution hangs by a thread. As matters stand, it will probably not survive. The immediate consequence could be the collapse of the Palestinian Authority with Hamas filling the vacuum. It might be followed by an Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank and a violent Palestinian response. The Israeli Government and Palestinians need to understand urgently that they are each other’s best prospect for stability and finally peace.

We will work hard to bolster the durability of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty—I hope that it is a priority for the FCO—providing the assistance that President Morsi appears to want.

Syria will continue to pre-occupy this House as a humanitarian and strategic disaster, although I welcome what the Minister said about aid being provided in Syria, which is plainly very important. Each passing week has made it harder to identify and support a secular opposition, although we must surely continue. However, I believe—and I hope that the House will forgive me for saying so—that we are behind the curve. We have failed to learn from Richard Holbrooke’s approach to diplomacy and statecraft in the former Yugoslavia. There was there, of course, American leadership, but there was also aggressive and creative diplomacy and a willingness to use force in the cause of peace, anchored to a resolution where no ethnic or other group was completely denied a living space, a credible state and economic institutions. It was a sort of cantonisation, I know, but it none the less persuaded people that they were not being driven out of their homes permanently and to their continual detriment. For many, it was the least-worst outcome, but, with the exception of criminals such as Mladic, it has survived as a solution and as a diplomatic triumph. John Kerry has obviously learnt much from this approach, and that is why I welcome the discussions that he has had with Russia. We should have done so many months ago.

None of this is said to be disobliging. I simply conclude by saying that we use the skills of the FCO and DfID very well but we can do so to greater effect by responding with dramatic measures when it is right but, for much of the time, working far more consistently on the smaller and more persistent scale. Foreign relations are hard to predict but they can never be allowed to be a rollercoaster. We need a new calibration: more solid, patient work and more realism about what works with our allies and when we can work best with them. Upgrading and higher numbers, as we have just heard reported, are excellent and I welcome them but there also needs to be more traditional tasking of that workforce to provide what I fear at the moment is a missing ingredient.