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 7:32 pm on 21st May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Ricketts Lord Ricketts Crossbench 7:32 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I had the privilege of serving under the noble Lord, Lord Howell, when he was a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and have appeared before him over many years in Select Committees of different shapes and sizes. I regard him as one of the most profound thinkers about international affairs in public life, so it is no surprise to me that the report from the committee he chairs is excellent. I am not a member of the committee, although I was privileged to be quoted as a witness; indeed, I find that I largely still agree with the comments attributed to me in the report, which is not always the case. Its conclusions have been reinforced in the six months since it was produced. I will make three points and invite the Minister’s comments on them, joining with what many other noble Lords have said.

My first point is about global Britain. This country is international by inheritance, instinct and interests, and we have done very well out of the 70 years of the rules-based international order. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is clearly right that it was never a golden age, but I could make a case that that set of rules constrained great power competition and allowed medium-sized and smaller countries to prosper and flourish over the last 70 years. My noble friend Lord Hennessy referred to a number of studies of future strategy which begin to sketch the scale of the challenge we now face—in particular, the 1960 Macmillan Future Policy Study. I too have come equipped with a quotation from that admirable paper which sums up our national strategy since the post-war years very well. The study concluded:

“One basic rule of British policy is clear: we must not find ourselves in a position of having to make a final choice between the United States and Europe. It would not be compatible with our vital interests to reject either one or the other, and the very fact that the choice was needed would mean the destruction of the Atlantic alliance”.

That was true in 1960 and is still true today, although many of the trends identified in the committee’s report, and the fact that we are likely to be leaving the European Union, risk undermining both the pillars of the strategy set out in the 1960 report.

The scale of the challenge is considerable: we need to define a new foreign policy relationship with the European Union and adapt our partnership with Washington to the facts that the US strategic priority is now confrontation with China and that at least some US opinion is becoming impatient with multilateralism. On many key issues of the day—on the nuclear deal with Iran, trade policy and reducing carbon emissions—we find ourselves on the European side of the debate. We will have to reconcile that in the future. We will also have to reconcile our trade interests outside the EU with, for example, our human rights values in respect of Saudi Arabia and our security interests in relation to China.

In preparing for the debate, I reread the Foreign Secretary’s Policy Exchange speech from last October, which sets out some admirable aspirations but is distinctly short on detail. It is not enough to produce incantations about an invisible chain to describe what we will be doing. We need an active, initiative-taking foreign policy, an excellent diplomatic service and a lot of soft power assets, but those need political leadership and initiative to make the most impact. As a recent example, the summit to tackle terrorist and extremist content online was an excellent initiative, and the inspirational Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, made the journey half way across the world to attend it and issued an excellent declaration. But why was it held in Paris and not London? I hope the Minister can put some flesh on the bones of global Britain for us.

On the future of multilateralism, the report makes it clear that all the institutions which have been so important over the last 70 years—NATO, the UN, Bretton Woods—are now all under pressure. They will all be more important to Britain if we leave the European Union. The report recommends that we champion UN reform, and I agree, but I have not seen much detail on how the Government will go about that. For example, could we set an example by contributing more UN peacekeepers to peacekeeping operations as a mark of our commitment to the organisation? We are having the NATO summit in London later this year, which is good, but, again, we will need to lead with ideas on how to reform NATO to keep it relevant to changing US interests—in particular, paying more attention to Asian security issues.

My third point is about the new national strategy that we will need. The place to make the difficult choices and reconcile the conflicting interests is the National Security Council. That is why the recent leak was so damaging—not because the information was necessarily very highly classified, but because it undermined the trust that this council is a safe space where Ministers and their advisers can take decisions on the basis of robust argument which can be kept in confidence. We can already see the impact of that leak. What should have been a reasonably contained discussion about where Britain was going to source its equipment for 5G has now become entangled in a much wider dispute between the US and China about the future of the internet and global dominance in new technology. I fear that we are on the brink of a high-tech trade war. The fact that the action that Google felt obliged to take as a result of the listing of Huawei has caught up hundreds of millions of people in the use of their iPhones and laptops shows the scale of the issue we are confronting. That could become a serious national security issue. But for now, the leak has made it impossible to make calm and proportionate decisions about where Vodafone and BT should source their antennae for the next generation of the internet, and it is an example of why the National Security Council will operate only if everyone can trust that it will remain a secure environment.

We will face many more contentious issues than that as we tackle the problem of defining a national strategy, and we desperately need an effective National Security Council. That is a very necessary, if not a sufficient, condition of success.