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 8:39 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 8:39 pm, 21st May 2019

I am sorry. If the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was here, I would have said that, but since he is not in his place, I did not say it.

Bolton is his President’s man: the President’s views are very close to Bolton’s. The problem with the President is not the one discussed by two or three noble Lords in this debate—his unpredictability. He is all too predictable. Read the inaugural speech. The report from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, helpfully reminds us of the General Assembly speech last year, in which the President said:

“We reject the ideology of globalism … Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance”,

but other threats as well. Global governance is a threat to the nation state. No wonder Orbán was warmly received in the White House last week. No wonder Bolsonaro is the poster boy. No wonder Mrs Merkel is so disliked. No wonder Trump’s America is out of the Paris accords, the Iran nuclear deal, the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. No wonder the President is seeking to destroy the WTO body, and is very close to succeeding. It is all too predictable; he told us what to expect from the start.

I used to think there were two pre-eminent threats to the rules-based system—the Bretton Woods system, or the UN system. The one that worried me most in my Foreign Office days was the reluctance of the transatlantic partners—our side of the Atlantic just as much as the Americans—to accept the need to take proper account of the rise of Asia and the Pacific and acknowledge that our weighting in these institutions must decline as our share of the world economy shrank. We were very reluctant to accept that and did so far too slowly. We have not yet really fully accepted it.

More recently, I worried more about whether the system might break down because the ethos of the institutions, rooted so firmly in our ideas about liberal democracy, might come to seem inimical and interfering in regions of the world such as Africa, which are possibly more attracted to a more authoritarian alternative model such as the Chinese model. That is a real risk today.

However, I missed the biggest threat. I did not spot that the greatest challenge to the rules-based system would come from its greatest beneficiary, America. President Trump does not want to reform the institutions. He does not like them; he does not like rules—not if they might bind America. With respect, the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report seems to be in denial about this. The committee said, I thought uncontroversially:

“In the context of the … Administration’s hostility to multilateralism, the UK will need to work with like-minded nations to move ahead on some global issues without US participation or support”.

However, the Government are not so sure about that. Their reply says:

“The Government will always seek close cooperation with the US on a full range of issues”.

Of course, but the Foreign Secretary told the committee that,

“the way that … large multilateral organisations work at present does not work”,

for the US, and that it is,

“seeking to change that … But I firmly believe that if we can get the … reforms”,

to the institutions,

“we want … President Trump would be a big supporter of that system”.

Yes, like working with the Luftwaffe in 1941 to restructure London’s built environment. The President of the United States wants to bring down the system, not reform it. I wonder how well the Foreign Secretary knows Mr Bolton. It sounds to me as if he might be closer to Dr Pangloss.

I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Jopling and Lord Anderson, about the need to be courteous when the President comes to London, but I hope we will not pull our punches. I served in Washington and I understand the importance of the relationship, but like the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, I think that it has to be based on honesty. I watched Margaret Thatcher handle Ronald Reagan. He respected her because of her insistence on tackling the difficult issues and on plain speaking. If we believe in multilateralism and the rules-based system we must defend them even when the attack comes from our closest ally. We must tell him why and tell him straight. Fudging it, as in the Government’s reply to the committee’s report, would mean forfeiting America’s respect—not just America’s.

But it is not only on transatlantic relations that the Government’s response comes across as a little bland and Panglossian. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, was absolutely right to send a rather sharp reply to the response in his letter of 3 April. For me the clock struck 13 times when I got to page 20 of the response and read that post-Brexit global Britain will be,

“using soft power to project our values and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward facing and confident on the world stage. The UK will lead on issues that matter”— presumably we will leave the unimportant ones to the Chinese and the Americans—

“be an innovative and inviting economy; and a normative power setting global standards that uphold our values”.

A trace of hubris? The tone rang a bell with me. It was in Pravda in 1968 when I was in Moscow. The Soviet Union was the world leader—the “normative power”—with the world communist movement applauding and the grateful Czechs cheering the Red Army’s tanks taking away Dubček. No one who read Pravda believed it; no one who wrote Pravda believed it.

Yes soft power is a huge UK strength, but for its optimal exercise it is best not to be an international laughing stock. Do we honestly think that the Brexit process and paralysis makes us look,

“open, outward facing and confident”?

Do we honestly think that the world sees us as the next global leader on the issues that matter—the “normative power” setting global standards? Perhaps the world has not noticed the humiliations of the backstop, condemning us to follow standards set outside our frontiers while no longer having any say. Perhaps no one has spotted how our influence on global rules will shrink when we leave the Union, which is currently setting the pace in global regulatory standard setting. Is it not a little incongruous to preach the virtues of rules-based free trading systems while planning to leave the world’s largest? I feel sorry for my FCO successors who have to write such stuff. I was luckier.

Twenty years ago, the Commonwealth countries took us seriously because through the Lomé Convention process we were fighting their corner in Brussels and winning. The Americans took us seriously because more enlightened Administrations then supported the EU enlargement process, on which we were leading in Brussels and succeeding. Brussels took us seriously because it was believed that we could bring the Americans along, and sometimes we did. My successors must know that if one pillar of the mutually reinforcing tripod collapses, the others crack too. John Bolton cheers and the Kremlin smirks, but global Britain shrinks. It is not too late to stop the march of self-marginalisation and I hope that we will.