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 8:32 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Helic Baroness Helic Conservative 8:32 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, our era is characterised by disruption, change and unpredictability, at home as well as abroad. There is an acute need for reason, tolerance and knowledge of history to overcome the challenges that we face, yet the politics of the moment seem dominated by those who display quite the opposite.

As a student examining the period between the two world wars, I struggled to understand how a whole generation of political leaders could sleepwalk into conflict. I am not suggesting that we will finish like that generation, but at times we too seem to be sleepwalking into the unknown, amid a ferment of populism, nationalism and identity politics.

Foreign policy should always be rooted in an understanding of the world as it is, but it should also be inspired by a vision of the world as we wish it to be—what my noble friend Lord Hague of Richmond eloquently described as idealism tempered by realism. It seems to me that one of the harmful effects of the Brexit debate is that it has clouded both our idealism and our realism. I fear that we lack a clear vision of where our interests lie and are inconsistent in our defence of human rights and democratic values. We are at something of a turning point as a country. In a more competitive and dangerous international landscape, we face the question: how do we best protect our citizens and open up opportunity for future generations?

In my view, the nations that will do best in the shifting world order will be those that can capitalise on deep values-based alliances, the widest possible network of diplomatic and economic partnerships, robust national security defences, and the attractive power and moral authority of an open, democratic society. Few countries have more of these in-built advantages than the United Kingdom. If and when other Governments depart from democratic values, the answer is not to become more like them but to double down on the best of our country. Pessimists will point to the darkening international environment and the actions of our closest ally, the United States. It is true that the United States Government are currently attempting to impose their own preferences on the world alone or, as in the case of their Iran policy, supported mostly by undemocratic countries that make fragile long-term allies. If the US enters a conflict with Iran, it will quickly feel the need for transatlantic allies. In my view, the Administration are being reckless by failing to carry European and NATO partners with them on critical matters of international peace and security.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling’s wise words on President Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom. If I were to meet the President, which of course is highly unlikely, I would tell him that I grew up looking up the United States; to those of us living without democracy, it was the country we wanted to know and emulate. Yet today it is a country that many fear. You never achieve your aims in foreign policy when you are feared, but only when others aspire to join you, to bridge differences and to share your objectives as their own—where they want to stand shoulder to shoulder with you.

It was a huge pleasure for me to work with my noble friend Lord Howell—who I have learned so much from and admire enormously—as well as my colleagues on the committee. I thank the dedicated committee staff for their contribution to this report. In my view, it has four conclusions. The first is the urgent need for major national investment in the foreign policy of the United Kingdom, and thus an increase in the budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We need to be present and influential in more places and we need the maximum diplomatic firepower to do that. As a country, we settled long ago that we needed to spend 2% of our national wealth on defence and 0.7% on international development. The budgets of both increase automatically as the economy grows. Diplomacy alone is on a declining trend, yet it is diplomacy that will stop us having to spend billions in costly wars and humanitarian aid when conflict prevention fails.

Secondly, since the end of the Cold War, the western alliance has lost the habit of thinking and acting as one on long-term strategic issues, as the Huawei question shows. I hope the Minister also agrees that recovering a sense of joint purpose and mutual strength through the transatlantic alliance should be a major focus of British foreign policy over the coming decade. The way our allies backed us after the Russian attack in Salisbury demonstrated the value of the NATO alliance. Our unity is what our adversaries fear most and we must preserve and build on it.

My third conclusion is the need for human rights to run through the DNA of all our actions overseas. I am not naive. We always have to strike a balance between interests and values, but the pressures of Brexit and need for trade have tipped this in the wrong direction. I believe our relationships with some countries are overdue a recalibration to put greater emphasis on human rights while maintaining important security interests. It is vital that we do not give an impression of weakness.

This week, the Foreign Secretary appointed a diplomat as a special envoy for human rights. While I hope this bolsters the UK’s overall efforts, I remember this question coming up during my time at the Foreign Office. When it was put to the then Foreign Secretary, my noble friend Lord Hague, he had a clear answer: the Minister for Human Rights should be the Foreign Secretary. Human rights are not a portfolio. They are indivisible from all foreign policy decisions and bilateral relationships, whether that is the Foreign Secretary raising the incarceration of Muslims in China, the Minister for the Middle East lobbying for the release of women prisoners in Saudi Arabia, or the Minister for Europe pressing for an independent inquiry into the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta.

Fourthly, as our report recognises, “global Britain” remains largely a slogan. I agree with the underlying intention, which is our commitment to projecting influence on a global basis, but actions speak louder than words. It is time to assemble a coherent set of policies to make that a reality, drawing together all our national advantages, investing in diplomacy and intelligence as well as defence and development, placing greater emphasis on NATO and other key bilateral relationships—for instance with Japan—and maintaining the closest possible security and foreign policy co-operation with our European allies.