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 7:25 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hilton of Eggardon Baroness Hilton of Eggardon Labour 7:25 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, it has been a great privilege to be a member of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and to serve with other distinguished Members of the House. We owe a great debt to our clerk, Eva George, who made sense of our often rather disordered discussions. It is a great regret that I shall be recycled at the end of June.

As has been said, our report had two main themes. The first was an examination of the shifting power balances in the world and the breakdown of a rules-based order for trade and diplomatic relations. Like my noble friend Lord Grocott, I am doubtful that such an order ever existed. It was rather that the dominance of the United States and perhaps of Europe made it seem that there was a worldwide consensus on how to conduct international relations. China, Russia and many developing nations were outside the club and always played by different rules.

Our second theme was the rise of new technology, with its means of instant communication and provision of intelligence. Traditional forms of diplomacy and statecraft often depended on personal and confidential relationships that allowed negotiations to take place behind closed doors and could ignore uncomfortable realities. It is no longer possible to ignore, for example, China’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province when aerial photographs show the vast internment camps and the destruction of ancient mosques. In the 19th century it took three months to assemble a response to the Indian mutiny. Nowadays, instant responses are expected to unfolding events, so it becomes all the more important to have well thought out and long-term strategies so that short-term tactical responses can fall within an established framework.

China has unfair trade practices, but it does take a long view and pursues collaboration with other countries. Its belt and road policy, which may still be more of an illusion than a reality, has provided much-needed infrastructure for developing countries, although it has often placed them under an insupportable burden of debt. It is also providing the groundwork for extensive trading opportunities in future.

China is changing fast. When I first visited Shanghai nearly 40 years ago, it was a dingy and down-at-heel city and our hotel had the largest cockroaches I had ever seen. Now it is a shining city of high-rise blocks and has perhaps the largest port for container ships in the world. We have to remember that 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia; the USA has less than 5% and Europe has about 14%. So it is all the more important that we develop trading links with Asia.

Most worrying at present is the destabilising role of the United States, which, even without the antics of its President, is becoming ever more isolationist and protectionist. Contrary to the assumption that we have a “special relationship” with the United States, we see an ever-widening gulf in attitudes and behaviour. Its denigration of the United Nations and reluctance to join any international agreements is deeply disturbing. There is a long list of its undermining of any international consensus or treaty—withdrawal from the Convention on Climate Change, the Iran deal and, most recently, a global deal to cut plastic waste sponsored by the United Nations. It is also limiting the scope of the World Trade Organization by failing to appoint members to the dispute resolution board, so woe betide us if we end up subject to WTO rules. It is obsessive about forcing Iran into submission while happily trading with Saudi Arabia, which has an even worse human rights record. At least in Iran women can drive cars and there are elections.

The UK’s response to worsening international relations will depend in part on working with other like-minded countries, and we are about to cut ourselves off from one of the largest blocs of such nations. We still have some influence in the world by ourselves through our membership of the Commonwealth, NATO and the United Nations, despite our current chaotic politics. Our trade deals can be seen to be made free of bribery and kickbacks and we can ensure that they do not discriminate against women or ethnic minorities.

However, in respect of climate change we have not been an ideal role model. We have reduced subsidies on solar power generation, incidentally putting several small firms out of business. We are allowing fracking and prohibiting onshore wind farms. Now that the crisis of climate change is more generally recognised, I hope, as recently promised by a government Minister, that we will aim to lead the world in this and be carbon neutral by 2050. Also, as our reliance on hydrocarbons diminishes and we increase our use of renewable sources of energy, we may be able to rethink our relationship with some of the oil-producing countries.

There are other ways of showing leadership and demonstrating our values to the world—partly through our membership of international organisations, but symbolism is also important. The fact that two of our embassies flew LGBT flags on 17 May—the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia —was a valuable demonstration and gave comfort and encouragement to local activists. This display of tolerance and non-discrimination is in stark contrast to the activities of American evangelical Christians who have been active in countries such as Uganda promoting hatred and bigotry.

Overall, I am making a plea for a long-term strategic approach to current affairs, working in concert with other countries so that our reaction to events is not erratic and arbitrary and the world becomes a safer and more stable place where we can work together to deal with the greatest threat of all—climate change.