UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order (International Relations Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative 6:30 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. He has yet again made an extremely informative and educational contribution to one of our debates. I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Howell and his committee on an absolutely excellent report. I just looked at the list of witnesses, which seems to go on for page after page. I am amazed by the scope of the witnesses called and the work that must have gone into it. I recall that when I used to represent the United Kingdom in the Council of Ministers of the European Union, in the various hats I wore at different times, I pretty quickly and clearly picked up that among the inner workings of the European Union there was the greatest respect for House of Lords reports. Ministers said that they were some of the best reports they ever saw and this report is in that tradition.

I was interested in the report’s title, UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order. “Shifting world order” is the understatement of the year. I thought back to my time in government, when we faced challenges. Obviously there was Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, which more or less coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world was able to adjust to the end of an enormous Russian empire that had started to build up at the time of Agincourt and had collapsed effectively over about three months in a tolerably peaceful way. The rules-based order seemed to exist in our relationship then. I had the pleasure of dealing with Mr Dick Cheney, who is now called “Mr Vice” but was an extremely distinguished Defence Secretary. He went on to other things. At that time our relationship with the United States was an absolute model. We co-operated with 36 other countries under full United Nations resolutions to deal with the problem of Saddam’s illegal occupation of Kuwait.

We are now in an entirely different world, since the development of al-Qaeda and the invasion, adventures and awful experiences of Afghanistan. Since I made my maiden speech on our involvement in Afghanistan in 2001, I have an absolute record of how long we have been there, which is now 18 years. I look also at the situation in Iraq following the invasion in 2003, where every day still in Baghdad, IEDs and bombs are going off, people are being killed and there is misery and confusion. We are, to a certain extent, still involved in these areas.

I listened to a Minister talking in one of our committee rooms today about the precipice of fundamental change that we are about to face. Millions are displaced by terrorism or war, with mass migration following on and population explosions in many countries. Virtually every continent faces challenges in that way. It is combined with new and dangerous weapons of war, which we never had in my time. Even in Northern Ireland we never had suicide bombers, drones, offensive cyber and the involvement of social media and fake news, which we now know are such threats. With that sinister combination you do not need to be a nation state to wage war against the organised world with some of these instruments. Just to cheer us up, this morning we heard the announcement that sea levels are rising even faster due to climate change and about what that might do to further stimulate the risk of population migration in different places.

My noble friend Lord Jopling referred to President Trump’s reluctance to be involved in multilateral organisations in this shifting world order. “America first” certainly does not make it easy to continue to promote an active global role. I see that one of President Trump’s pledges is to make US foreign policy unpredictable. He has been pretty successful in that; I think the Iranian Government would support me in that remark. I noticed that just yesterday General Jim Mattis, the former Defence Secretary, had been speaking to a distinguished audience in the United Arab Emirates, including Mohamed bin Zayed. He said that we might believe that the US is,

“coming apart at the seams”,

and that it might seem,

“like it’s chaotic in Washington”.

He said that that is the price of democracy and that on the US’s role in the world his advice would be,

“to engage more in the world and intervene militarily less”.

One or two of us would think that pretty good advice.

Of course, it is against that background that we have the complete change that my noble friend expressed so well, with the extraordinary emergence of China and the surge in its economy taking place. There is a complete change in the balance. With all these changes, the role of Russia—which in my time was so busy with internal affairs that it did not cause any difficulties more widely—is now, as the committee described it, that of a disruptor.

The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, asked whether we should play a part. We certainly should. Perhaps we are too modest sometimes. We are uniquely well placed. We are a member of the Security Council. Whatever we may say, we have a special relationship with the United States. We are a member of NATO and of the Commonwealth. We have particular relationships in the Gulf. All around the world we have relationships that in the main are based on good friendship. We are not a superpower, which in some ways makes it easier to play our role. I hope we will not back away from playing our part. The committee made the point that we need to get the fullest public support for our foreign policy and to play a role as widely as we can in the world, including getting as many students as we can to our universities, which are referred to in the report as,

“a national industry of global importance”.

We need to make our voice known and play our part to deal with the country and a world that is not just shifting, but in great danger.