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 6:45 pm on 21st May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 6:45 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I join in the commendation of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for setting the IRC on the map so that it will now be a permanent feature of your Lordships’ House. I also commend him on his speech today and his general commitment during his time as a Minister. He set as the aim of the report to give a basis for general debate. The committee has certainly succeeded in that and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and others might consider this report and his speech as a set piece for students of international relations, as there were so many wonderful insights.

Not surprisingly, the report follows the path of most parliamentary Select Committee reports by recommending more resources for the subject studied. We are told that the FCO accounts for only 3% of government funding for international work, but in concluding that we need a more agile, active and flexible diplomacy the committee does not examine the case for greater co-ordination and the sharing of resources between the FCO, DfID, the MoD and the Department for International Trade. The emphasis on cyber was possibly a little excessive and may have unbalanced the report. However, the starting point is surely the advice of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know yourself”. What strengths do we as a country bring to a rapidly evolving context? Is the national consensus on foreign policy likely to change, particularly with a more ethnically diverse UK? How do we reconcile our status as a medium-sized European power with our global interests and ambitions? Some, like the children of Israel in the desert, will certainly yearn for the certainties of the Cold War period.

A key question, not properly touched on in the report, is: will Brexit, if it happens, lead to an enhancement or a diminution of UK interests and clout overseas? This question was raised somewhat polemically by Sir Simon Fraser in the Evening Standard on 7 May. The report says that seeking a continued close relationship with the EU is vital. The Foreign Secretary told the committee that he did not want the diplomatic alliance with EU countries to change as a result of Brexit, but this is surely wishful thinking in the extreme. As we saw in last week’s debate on the CSDP, we will become a rule-taker and not be in the driving seat. There have been a number of straws in the wind. Cyprus has turned from the UK to France to update its naval base. We no longer have a British judge on the ICJ. The UN General Assembly has voted against us on the Chagos Islands. Inevitably, over time, as we become a country outside the EU, we will lose a degree of our clout and be disadvantaged. Contrary to the committee, I see no substantial evidence that India wishes to build an enhanced security relationship with us and, pace the noble Lord, Lord Howell, it is showing a very detached commitment to the Commonwealth as a whole.

The text on which the committee might have sermonised is the comment by Dr Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, that,

“among the foreign policy elites … the British role is seen as having been downsized and likely to continue that way, and that Brexit reinforces that”.

I recall meeting Dr Haass after he wrote his book on US policy, The Reluctant Sheriff. The world has indeed changed, particularly with China and Russia. We certainly have concerns about authoritarian tendencies in a number of European countries but, unlike Russia, none of them has a destabilising role outside their frontiers; none has invaded and occupied neighbouring countries; none has interfered in western elections; none has tried to assassinate dissidents on the streets of our cities. We should not, of course, seek to provoke Russia; we should co-operate where it is in our mutual interest but we should be vigilant and realistic and have that awkward posture of holding out our hands but keeping up our guard.

The major change has been in US policy. Is this a continuation, as the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, sought to argue, or is it essentially a fresh start? The President has cast aside more moderate advisers, blows hot and cold on North Korea, Iran, Russia, the UN and NATO. He has imposed steel tariffs on her allies and is, in general, unpredictable and often capricious in his policies. Traditionally, we share many interests with the US, not least in intelligence and nuclear. However, the blunt truth is that we align more and more with the countries of Europe and the US no longer sees us as an interpreter of or bridge to our European allies; nor do Japan or other investing countries. Nevertheless, I stress that we should recognise the US as our most powerful ally and ensure that, during his forthcoming visit to the United Kingdom, President Trump is afforded all the normal courtesies, certainly far more than those afforded to President Putin, who faced far fewer demonstrations than President Trump is likely to.

We should be concerned about the comments by Sir Simon Fraser that he could not think of any time in his distinguished diplomatic career,

“when there has been less clarity, frankly, about the purposes and objectives of British foreign policy”.

Yes, there has been a welcome increase in diplomatic posts and personnel. Yes, we are in the premier division of soft power, but there is general puzzlement at the aspiration for a “global Britain”. Is this no more than a verbal fig leaf to cover a vacuum of policy; a part of the liberated, nostalgic future promised by the Brexiteers? Is there not a danger of falling between many stools, facing the choice of greater dependency on the United States or becoming an outrider to the European Union? This is hardly a happy posture for our country, which has so many advantages and such a remarkable history.