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 6:53 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative 6:53 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests. I work for a number of companies, but I particularly draw attention to my chairmanship of the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce and the fact that I am also the Government’s trade envoy to Iran. I join in the general congratulations to my noble friend Lord Howell, who has done a tremendous service to the House in presiding over this new committee for the first three years of its existence and producing this extraordinary, outstanding report. It is remarkable in covering a huge number of different issues but having crisp and novel recommendations on almost every area. I will concentrate on one, which has already been touched on by various noble Lords: the unilateralism that is now appearing in American policy and the difference between our own attitude and that of the US to the issues on which we disagree.

I agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Jopling and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said about the United States. However, it is right that when we have differences, even with our oldest ally, we should have the courage to express them openly. What is the value of a long-standing, deep friendship if we cannot speak frankly to each other and be open when we disagree? The report emphasises the need for a rules-based system. It is important to have one, but it is also important that foreign policy is not just institutionalised. Often today, particularly in the US, the foreign policy establishment indulges in lazy thinking, carrying forward the thinking of the Cold War, too often posing a completely false dichotomy between deterrence and dialogue. Deterrence and dialogue are means to an end; they are not ends in themselves and we need both of them.

Intelligence services can tell us what is happening; they are often good at that. But are they so good at telling us why it is happening, or is there a problem of interpretation? Why are different countries acting in different ways? Actions that we intend as defensive may be seen by others as aggressive. Many people feel that we have mishandled our relationship with Russia somewhere along the line. I had a lot to do with Russia in the period from 1991 to 1992 and vividly remember the optimism, the feeling that Russia was about to become a normal country. What happened? We have a narrative that circles around Ukraine, Georgia, Salisbury and cyberattacks on Estonia. Russia also has a narrative: it has been responding defensively to threats about Georgia and Ukraine becoming members of NATO, as President Putin warned at the Bucharest summit, and to the alleged broken promise not to enlarge NATO at all. This is, of course, disputed by people but Mr Gorbachev and President Yeltsin both warned that the expansion of NATO could have very bad consequences for the relationship with Russia. Again, we need a combination of deterrence and dialogue.

The US says that it does not recognise spheres of influence, whether in Georgia or Ukraine, but at the same time John Bolton tells us that the Monroe doctrine is alive and well. We need to be careful not to create the same situation with China. It would be a mistake to shut China out of the global system. It would be a great mistake to have a technology war with China. The most dangerous example of unilateralism by the US is the abrogation of the nuclear deal that was signed between Iran, the US and the E3. The International Atomic Energy Authority certified on 14 different occasions that Iran has complied with the agreement. The US is not just reimposing sanctions, it is also putting pressure on China, Japan, India and Turkey to reduce the oil exports of Iran to zero. For a country where 50% of the revenue comes from oil, this is tantamount to a declaration of economic warfare. Mr Pompeo says that there is a link between al-Qaeda and Iran. That, as he must know, is nonsense. We hear a lot about Iran’s meddling in the region. I understand that and appreciate that it is a problem. But there is still a problem of interpretation here. Is this defensive or aggressive? Iranian policy is driven largely by national interest. The most important event in modern Iranian history was the Iran-Iraq war. It lasted longer than the Second World War and they lost more people in it than we did in the whole of the Second World War. For us, the Second World War is a vivid memory, but it was 74 years ago. The Iran-Iraq war ended only 31 years ago, so it is not surprisingly that Iran’s fear of invasion remains. It is not surprising that it is determined that if it is attacked again, the fighting will be outside its borders and there will be a cost to anyone who is backing an aggressor.

When we hear talk of Iran interfering in other countries, it probably strikes the Iranians as extremely odd when they see the West tolerating the interference of Saudi in Bahrain, the interference of Saudi in Yemen, and the presence of the United States in Iraq even when the political party of the Prime Minister of Iraq is opposed to it. I fully recognise that there is a problem of Iranian proxies and the use of proxies throughout the region, but the problems of proxies of Iran will be solved only by a comprehensive security agreement in the region that gives some comfort and some security to Iran as well. The real problem of proxies will not be solved by sending aircraft carriers and the threat of 120,000 men.

A recent poll in Germany showed that more Germans thought that the US was a threat to world peace than thought that Russia was. I do not agree with that, but I do not find it entirely surprising that public opinion there came to that conclusion. John Bolton recently repeated the maxim of the ancient Greeks: “If you want peace, prepare for war”. Yes, we all understand that, but the danger is that if you prepare only for war and if you forgo dialogue, you may end up with the last thing you want; an accidental war. In the Gulf we are close to tipping the scales to an accidental war, and that would be a great tragedy