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 7:40 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Conservative 7:40 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, one of the hallmarks of the International Relations Committee of your Lordships’ House is the rigorous analysis and clarity of its conclusions, especially under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Howell. Chapter 1, paragraph 1 of the report clearly illustrates this point:

“The evidence we have taken since January confirms that the international scene is in a state of turmoil and upheaval”.

It should be noted that the January the committee refers to is of course January 2018. Recent events and developments have served only to underscore that judgment: the rising tensions in Iran, Pakistan-India, Venezuela, Libya and the US-China trade wars, to mention just a few. The report describes a worrying outlook, and the trajectory is downward.

Much attention is focused on great power tensions brought about by rising and declining powers and the shifting tectonic plates of the post-Cold War international order. Harvard Professor Graham Allison has referred to these shifts in power as the “Thucydides Trap”, taken from the History of the Peloponnesian War, in which Thucydides observed that it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable. Picking up his theme of the inevitability of war, Professor Allison identifies 16 times in the past five centuries when an established power has made way for an emerging power—from France to the Habsburgs, the Habsburgs to the Ottomans, and so on, up to the present day. The trap is that in 12 out of those 16 examples it resulted in war: interestingly, not intentional conflicts but almost accidental wars, in which commitments, interests, allegiances and treaties with small states on relatively small issues spiralled out of control into a global conflagration.

We can all agree that a great power conflict in the nuclear age would be catastrophic for our civilisation, let alone our planet. I argue that the primary objective of the international community should be to manage that transition in a way that avoids the abyss of the trap of war—but how? The upholding of the international rules-based order happens primarily through the United Nations and specifically the UN Security Council. However, the report points out in chapter 4 that there is a major problem here. In table 1 it lists the 42 times a permanent member has vetoed a resolution since 1990. Russia has deployed the veto on 22 occasions, the United States on 18 occasions, and China on 10. The other two permanent members, Britain and France, have not used their veto for 40 years.

This inability of the international community to act decisively to uphold the rules-based order led the UN Secretary-General to lament to the Security Council last April that there was,

“escalation, fragmentation and division as far as the eye can see with profound regional and global ramifications”,

and to declare:

The Cold War is back—with a vengeance but with a difference”,

as the old safeguards and mechanisms that managed the risk of escalation between the US and the Soviet Union in the past,

“no longer seem to be present”.

The report identifies the need for the Security Council to reform. The Government in their response agree. Yet this gives rise to the classic diplomatic Catch-22, whereby action is required to reform the great powers’ veto but the reform cannot be secured because of that veto.

We know that sparks from small fires in the current tinder-dry conditions of global affairs could give rise to a major conflagration. We know that should a fire start, it will be virtually impossible to put out, because the deployment of the fire brigade may be vetoed, as we have seen in Yemen, Syria and Myanmar. We must therefore become much more focused on conflict prevention.

Yet during my time as a Minister at DfID, I was struck by the fact that when a military or emergency humanitarian response was required, the international community could mobilise with awesome efficiency and release billions of pounds, but when conflict prevention initiatives were suggested, there was a kind of gentle smile and a tilt of the head, and we would begin fumbling down the back of the ministerial sofa for loose change.

My argument is that the international order is changing and that the risk of a great power conflict is probably at its highest for 50 years. At the same time, it is becoming more and more difficult to respond effectively through multilateral institutions, so our attention must turn to working with others on conflict prevention. Peacebuilding, peacekeeping, arbitration and conflict prevention need to become a core competence of UK foreign policy going forward, not an optional add-on. This commitment is enshrined in global goal 16. We must learn to mobilise for peace where we used to mobilise for war. Perhaps the committee might bring its considerable expertise and wisdom to bear on the subject of the effectiveness of current UK conflict prevention and peacebuilding capabilities. I would like to think so.

Two weeks ago I stood on the steps of the magnificent Peace Palace in The Hague before I set off on the final leg of my walk from Belfast to Brussels, seeking common ground. The Peace Palace is home to the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It was the vision of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and stemmed from The Hague peace conference. It was a time of heady international enlightenment and optimism in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. The ideal was that wars could be ended and disputes between nations settled through recourse to law and arbitration. The splendid Peace Palace, funded by Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, opened its doors on 28 August 1913—only to have them slammed firmly shut less than a year later as the world was plunged into the most catastrophic war in human history.

Our great blessing is that there is no heady optimism around at the moment to cloud our judgment. We will not be sleepwalking into war as we did a century ago. The international community is alert to the dangers, and this may prove to be our salvation. I do not believe that war is inevitable, but we must adapt our approach to the new realities. Above all, we must never cease to engage and exert all our influence to preserve peace, upon which all else depends.