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 7:47 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 7:47 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and to see him back, tanned and fit, after his walk from Belfast to Brussels, seeking common ground. Perhaps if he found common ground, he can let us into the secret of where it is, now that he is back where he should be, sharing his interesting thoughts and remarks with us. I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly my vice-chairmanship of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

I add my words of commendation, congratulation and thanks to the Select Committee on International Relations for its report, and in particular to its chair for inquiring into these important and complex issues. Under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the committee renders a great service to your Lordships’ House and particularly to the reputation this House has abroad. I know from my own conversations with international colleagues how much they respect the reports of the committees of this House, particularly that committee under its chairmanship. The evidence for that is to be found not only in this report but in a report which, like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I hope we will be able to debate at some future point: the committee’s most recent report on nuclear risk, disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.

I have heard some fine speeches today. Many people in your Lordships’ House have the ability to paint on a broad canvas but I tend to concentrate on a couple of points, which I will do in this debate. I do not think it will surprise most people who know me to learn that I intend to restrict my remarks to UK-Russia relations and to one aspect of chapter 3 of the report: new technologies, defence and security, and in particular the threats new technologies generate.

In my mind, these issues are very much related. I have chosen them because the combination of deteriorating relations and the military use of technological advances potentially poses a major challenge to our security. They are not the only aspect of new technology that will do so in future, but they are one. I remind the House that we live in the part of the world that has the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons—well over 90%—many of which are only minutes away from use at any given time. We also live in an environment sadly dominated by the deterioration of trust and confidence, which undermines strategic stability, and by the regular military exercises happening on the border between the West and Russia, generating the potential for a crisis that could very well escalate and result in an accidental or deliberate use of these weapons.

I agree wholeheartedly with the report’s recommendations on UK-Russia relations in paragraphs 84 and 85—particularly the latter, which recommends that we,

“remain open to dialogue with Russia on issues of common concern, such as counter-terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation”.

It points out what may be obvious but is worth restating: that the maintenance of “a better understanding” of Russia is fundamental to our foreign policy. The noble Lords, Lord Lamont of Lerwick and Lord Hannay, spoke about this issue but I want to speak strongly about the need for us to maintain this important dialogue with Russia.

In its evidence to the committee, the FCO stated that the Government,

“want to reduce risk, talk about our differences”,

referring to relations with Russia. However, it appears to be the Government’s policy that dialogue with Russians is limited to what is absolutely necessary in the multinational context, and there appears to be an embargo on high-level contact. Incidentally, it happened when Alan Duncan—the Minister for Europe, whom I much admire—met Minister Titov at this year’s Munich Security Conference. Even then, the reporting suggested that his definition of “dialogue” meant cultural exchanges and people-to-people links, not the fundamental issues we should be talking about.

On the absence of strategy, paragraph 83 takes an abstract from Dr Antonenko’s evidence. She is referred to as having,

“called Western sanctions against Russia ‘a substitute for policy’”.

I tend to agree. I also tend to agree that the absence of meaningful dialogue is a substitute for policy. I argue consistently for engagement with Moscow. Of course, in doing so, I agree with the report. I am not saying that we should ignore Russian aggression, its violation of international norms and treaties—in Ukraine, for example—its interference in other countries’ democratic elections, its use of chemical weapons or even the evidence to suggest that it is in violation of the INF treaty. My argument is that dialogue is an element of a policy that includes the recognition, rejection and deterrence of that sort of behaviour. It does not mean giving Russia a free pass; nor does it require that we do not promote our own interests and defend our values or our allies. Indeed, the contrary is the case. Engagement is an opportunity to do all of the above directly to the Russian leadership, and creates an opportunity for us to discuss issues of common concern.

Maintaining a meaningful level of contact with our adversaries has always been imperative for our mutual security. We understood this during the Cold War when the West, particularly the Unites States, was engaged in a deep ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. We understood the need to support co-operative engagement. In particular, US and Russian arms control negotiators met regularly in New York, Vienna and Geneva, and military commanders spoke regularly with their counterparts. None of that happens today. We understood that we had a joint and mutual obligation to prevent the use of nuclear weapons or the development of crises. Now, we appear to be in a downward spiral of confrontation in which dialogue is treated by us as a reward to be earned rather than a diplomatic tool to be deployed.

I am running out of time so I will not get on to my second point. What is the Government’s policy on Russia? If the answer is, “Deterrence and dialogue”, who is conducting the meaningful dialogue?