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 8:50 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative 8:50 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I add my own praise and thanks to the committee for its outstanding report and to its chairman, my noble friend Lord Howell. I am simply in awe of the task that they have taken on and succeeded so well in, so it might seem a little impertinent of me to point to one area where the report does not quite get it right. That is in its emphasis, which has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and so many others, on a rules-based international order. There is nothing wrong with that in principle, of course, but sadly we have not been honouring it in practice.

When the Berlin Wall was pulled down, it seemed that democracies were totally ascendant. History had come to an end, we were told. But in the generation since then, what has happened? Politics has happened, and violence. In 2003, we invaded Iraq. Almost the entire world believes that we did that not on the basis of the rules of the international order which we talk about but on the basis of a lie. It was an abuse, like the bad old days of empire; that is how it seemed to much of the world. Sadly, we did not learn the lesson. In 2011, we bombed Libya. Chaos escalated and then we turned our back. It is ironic that in the cases of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi, these two leaders had actually given up their weapons of mass destruction. I wonder what lesson Kim Jong-un takes from that as we demand he gives up his weapons—and he watches the old footage of Saddam and Gaddafi being dragged to their deaths from their hidey-holes in the ground.

Undaunted, however, we were still at it again—almost—in Syria. The cry went up: “Assad is evil. Something must be done”—so bomb yet another distant country and then we can go back to sleep, comfortable with our consciences once again. Yet in the eyes of most of the world, none of that had anything to do with a rules-based international system. In the end, we did not bomb Assad. He is still there, yet we refuse to talk to him. Noble Lords have pressed Ministers time and again because if his regime was part of the problem, then it is probably also part of the solution. Yet nothing, even though he runs a country that is supposedly of great strategic significance to us. We talked to Stalin, to Mao and to Idi Amin. We even talk to Putin, who murders his own opponents on our streets. We talk to them all because we realise that sometimes our own national interest requires us to get our hands a little dirty—but not with Assad. I simply cannot understand why, unless it is a reluctance in high places to admit to a desperate failure of policy that is apparent to almost everyone else.

We have fiddled and fumbled in the Middle East. We launched wars in the Middle East to make the streets of London safe for our own. That was one of the original justifications, but we are under attack today more than ever. Yesterday the Home Secretary revealed that the security services have foiled 19 terrorist attacks in the last two years alone, and that the tempo of terrorist activity is increasing. Our failures have contributed to a vast tide of refugees trying to flee to Europe. I do not blame the refugees; we ourselves should shoulder much of the blame.

We need to step back—to stop scouring the world for injustice and crying, “Something must be done”. We simply do not have the power at times to change things for the better. At times, and perhaps too frequently, we have ended up making things worse. If that has been the defence of a rules-based international order, I no longer understand what those rules are. Britain has immense resources, particularly in soft power. My noble friend Lord Bates put it in very fine words: “mobilise for peace”. We have our generosity; we are such a generous nation. We have our language, our universities, our vibrant culture, our historic links and our deep-seated democratic values of fair play and tolerance. But we need to give those values a better outing. There is a challenge in that, of course. Right now we are not doing so great with the democracy thing on the domestic front. We need to practise, not just preach. That leads me to one final word of advice for those who decide our foreign policy: look at yourself in the mirror before staring others in the eye, then re-read this excellent report.