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 7:09 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 7:09 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I must admit that, when we started our report, I had doubts about the huge scope of UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order. The fact that we kept within bounds, to a degree, was down to the skill of our chairman—to whom I pay tribute, as others have—and also our secretariat, especially Eva George and Joe Dobbs, who had the monumental task of putting all the material together.

I would like to discuss a couple of the assumptions about the nature of the changing world order and the extent to which we are, or are not, in a period of fundamental change or watershed. While it is always tempting for all generations to think that we live in uniquely interesting times, and while acknowledging that many of the tools of international relations were changing dramatically—new technologies, social media, mass communications—much of our evidence suggested that many fundamental challenges remain the same. One of our witnesses, Dr Ulrike Franke of the European Council on Foreign Relations put this graphically in a section on increased automation on the battlefield. She said:

“it is important to understand that we may be adding more layers to the battle space but, in the end, to put it bluntly, it will probably come down to 18 year old soldiers dying somewhere in the mud”.

So how much is new and how much is more of the same? What about the assumption, for example, that a special challenge of our times is the threat to the so-called rules-based international order? Implicit in that assumption is that there must have been a time—a golden age, maybe—when this international order was understood and enforced to our universal benefit. That begs at least two questions. First, what precisely is the rules-based international order? Secondly, when precisely was it operating as intended?

We made an attempt in our report to address the definition question. On page 7, we say that the rules-based international order involves,

“a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time. … It also involves … the acceptance of restraints by states”.

That sounds wonderful, but I ask myself: when exactly was this golden age, when the rules-based international order was functioning?

One of our witnesses, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, former National Security Adviser, gave an answer, saying that it was a 20-year period between 1989 and 2009 when,

“we suddenly saw the UN Security Council unblocked … a whole series of new institutions and new normative developments, particularly at the United Nations”.

Surely what is most noticeable about this argument is, first, how short this period was—just 20 years—and, secondly, that it coincided with the single most dramatic development in international relations since the end of the Second World War, namely the collapse of the Soviet Union. If it was indeed the period when the rules-based international order was working well, and if we agree that the system developed 74 years ago, after the Second World War, then perhaps the period we are living in today is not quite so exceptional. One might even say that the relatively successful operation of the rules-based international order was the exception rather than the rule, and that what is happening today is that normal service has been resumed. By normal service, we surely mean that what we most need are the traditional skills of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

In this context, I very much support our report’s recommendation in paragraph 331, that we must invest more in our global diplomatic presence and that to fulfil the UK’s responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK should have a presence in every country.

This brings me to what is surely a hugely important observation about international relations today, which is all too easily overlooked, and that is the resilience of the nation state. It has become fashionable to make assumptions about globalisation, not just as a description of the modern era, but almost as a policy objective. As a consequence, the nation state is seen to be an increasingly outdated organisation. So many pressures seem to challenge it—the growth of modern technologies, citizens communicating with each other across national boundaries, the growth of non-state actors and the power of multinationals. As Sir Mark Lyall put it so clearly,

“The only question in my mind is whether these pressures will exert such asymmetrical pressure on the nation state that the system will collapse”.

Yet surely the evidence about the enduring importance of the state, both as the basis for people’s loyalties and identities and as the basic building block of international relations, is overwhelming. Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, put it well when he said in a speech last May:

“At the end of the Cold War, there were some who said that the nation state would soon be consigned to the dustbin of history … the state is back. It is the primary vehicle of global influence and power. It comes before multilateralism. And it’s time we acknowledged it”.

Since the Second World War ended, there has been an inexorable growth in the number of states, much of it the result of decolonisation. Since then, we have had many more new states and old ones re-established following the collapse of the Soviet Union. We have seen multinational states such as Yugoslavia break into their constituent parts and Czechoslovakia dividing. We have seen many nationalist movements calling for the creation of new states—and surely it is only a matter of time before Palestine is recognised as a new state. Statehood, as measured by membership of the United Nations, has increased from 51 when the UN was established in 1945 to 193 today—an increase of almost 400%. To me, the evidence is clear: while globalisation and multilateralism may be the fashionable words of our time, do not underestimate the enduring appeal of the nation state; reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

This argument about the abiding appeal of the nation state is directly relevant to the future direction of the European Union. There are those who think that national loyalties are dying and that they will gradually transfer to a wider loyalty embracing the whole of Europe. Others—I am one of them—see the EU essentially as an organisation built by treaty from the top down and not by consent from the bottom up. No wonder its leaders are so fearful of referendums.

So my conclusion is that, yes, there is indeed a shifting world order, as we say in the title of our report, but despite all this change, what is needed most is a nurturing and strengthening of the traditional requirements of our foreign policy—namely, worldwide representation, the skills of diplomacy with whatever new tools are available and the bilateral relationships between sovereign nation states.