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 7:01 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 7:01 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. I do not always agree with him on every subject under the sun, but I strongly echo what he said about relations with Iran. No one could reasonably deny that the report we are debating today paints a picture on a wide canvas. That canvas was most admirably depicted by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the chair of our committee; I serve on that committee, and I pay tribute to the outstanding role he has played in what is not very usual in your Lordships’ House—the establishment of a new committee, the setting up of the new structure and the provision of quite a few pretty interesting reports, I think. Certainly, that has been the view of this House.

I suggest also that no one could reasonably say that the subject matter our report covers is not urgent and topical. At no point since the end of the Cold War, which was three decades ago, and perhaps going back farther than that, have power relationships been shifting so rapidly and so fundamentally. A rising China, no longer content to hide its light under a bushel; the US in its post-primacy era, navigating erratically and unpredictably; Russia, still relatively a declining power, but assertive and often disruptive; and for ourselves, the twin pillars of our foreign policy for many years, our influence on the EU policy in Brussels and on US policy in Washington, at risk of being seriously reduced. All that at a time when the risks to the rules of the road—on strategic nuclear policy, trade, climate change, human rights—are being challenged by some of the main players.

It cannot be said too often—and several have said this before me—that this report is not about Brexit. However obsessed we may be with that subject, we would need to be discussing the problems we have identified and finding new approaches to them, on every one of the topics covered in this report, even if we were not poised at the moment on the brink of momentous decisions. Those problems will not go away or become less whatever decision we take about Brexit.

Any review has to have at its heart this country’s relationship with the United States, both bilaterally and as a partner in NATO and many other international organisations. I have to say that in my view this is not in good shape. I cannot identify a single one of the Trump Administration’s policy decisions which took account of or benefited our interests, and many have gone in the opposite direction. However, we must not succumb to anti-Americanism—here, I echo the views of many others. Nor must we delude ourselves that if only President Trump were defeated in 2020, everything would be fine. We Europeans will have to put more effort into bearing alliance burdens. Waiting for the US to give a lead on every subject and then following it, as we have done so often in the past, will no longer be sufficient.

China is clearly here to stay as a global power. Is it a systematic adversary, as Vice-President Pence would have us believe, or is it rather a systematic competitor? I would support the second of those possibilities. It could be, and I hope will be, a valuable partner in policy areas such as climate change and even trade. Of course, Russia will remain a problem for us for as long as President Putin pursues disruptive policies and seeks, sometimes by force, to create a sphere of influence. Does that mean we should not be discussing with the Russians areas of common interest, such as strategic stability, nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament? That, I suggest, would be unwise. Discussing those issues is not, as your Lordships’ committee said, in a report which we published last month and which I hope will be debated before too long, business as usual. We discussed such matters with Russia even during the Cold War and I hope that we will begin to discuss them again now.

We must certainly not neglect emerging regional powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America: those emerging powers will play crucial roles in regional security and prosperity, which will be of importance to us too. We will need to work closely with them to our common benefit. How can we stem the disintegration of a rules-based international order which it is in our national interest to sustain and to develop? By working together, I suggest, with like-minded countries right across the world to implement and strengthen commitments on climate change, to circumvent policies designed to paralyse the World Trade Organization and to make UN peacekeeping and peacemaking operate more effectively. This may, in some cases, involve doing things without the United States, but the door to its participation must remain open. In the long run, we will need it and I think it will find that it needs us too.

On the process of British foreign policy-making, we tried not to be too prescriptive and not to indulge in micromanagement. The establishment of the National Security Council seems to us to have provided much-needed co-ordination across government, although we questioned the desirability of asking one person to do two full-time jobs, as Secretary of the Cabinet and National Security Adviser. We urged that the artificial distinction between foreign policy and external economic policy, which is not covered by the NSC’s remit, should be dropped and we underlined the importance of the National Security Council leading a national foreign policy narrative, not leaving that to the effect of selective leaking. It would be good to hear the Minister’s views on those recommendations.

In conclusion, I do not conceal that we were a little disappointed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s initial response to our report, which fell short, we felt, of what was needed. It was really a thing of shreds and patches, lacking any overall view and strategy. We are still in correspondence with the Foreign Secretary about that and I hope the Minister will be able to begin to remedy that failing when he replies to this debate. The waters we are navigating are choppy, the political choices are not easy, but the country surely needs more of a sense of direction than can be provided by frequent repetition of slogans such as “Global Britain”.