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 9:18 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 9:18 pm, 21st May 2019

I first compliment the noble Lord, Lord Howell, not only for this report but for pioneering the IRC. He, my noble friend Lord Alton and I, as the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, mentioned, campaigned since the millennium to have our own foreign affairs committee. For years the Commons opposed us, fearing duplication, but in the end we reached an entente and the committee has now proved its value to both Houses.

This report, although very wide-ranging, raises important issues of foreign policy, and certainly deserves the attention it is getting today. The key phrase being discussed is the “rules-based international system” and whether it is properly understood. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was rightly sceptical about it. The phrase raises the great question of quis custodiet? It reminds me of recent reports of the use of rape as a weapon of war in South Sudan: no rules are being read out to the soldiers who use this weapon. At another level, I think again of the impunity of various maverick Presidents, not excluding the President of the United States; no one seems to be reading the rules to him. So we have to reflect on the almost impossible challenge we have set ourselves in countries where might is still right and neither democracy nor the rule of law can always respond to it—although we can try.

Indeed, any intervention overseas, whether military, diplomatic, economic or otherwise, begs the questions: “Do we know what we are doing?”, “Do we have the right or power to intervene?” and, “Can we ever get it right?” To my mind, there has been a loss of confidence here in the UK—due not to the uncertainty of our ever-shifting attitude to Europe but to the sheer weight and number of issues around the world that crop up on our screens, most of which we pretend to cope with from afar. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, touched on that. We do a good job in the circumstances, but are we really effective?

The committee makes valiant attempts to press the Government on the rules-based system, which it says is “under serious threat”. In response, the Government gently reaffirm that they will not lose sight of core values and will reach out, not just to Governments, bilaterally and multilaterally, but to “global civil society”. I was glad to read that last assertion, because NGOs and civil society are taken much more seriously these days, and for good reasons. I am also glad to say that our international development programme is now very closely monitored.

The report only touches on international development, which is an important aspect of soft power. But how much of it is deliberate policy, which would be another report? Not a lot of it is, because from Clare Short onwards there has been a lot more emphasis on the community itself becoming responsible for its own sustainable development. I think our latest Minister will take a similar approach. Inevitably, too much aid ends up with government, which in some places may be the only channel of funding, but quality still falls short of quantity. However, with the help of the ICAI and various Select Committees we can get the balance nearly right. I am firmly opposed to any reduction of our budgets within the 0.7% target.

It seems from the evidence that the UK is going to have to work much harder on its relationship with India —other noble Lords have emphasised this. I agree with the report that, in spite of our historic ties, our Government are not paying India nearly enough attention. Student visas is just one of the areas we should review. I know that the Home Office is trying to make up for terrible mistakes after 2010.

Last week, we discussed peacekeeping; 28 May will be the anniversary of the first UN peacekeeping mission, which was to Palestine in 1948. The report is not enthusiastic about the effectiveness of the UN, and reform seems unlikely. Yet in developing countries and in many situations around the world, the UN is all we have.

The Government have parried a lot of questions, quite skilfully, in a long and carefully considered response. I will add another: will they take any new directions following this report? I make one suggestion: what about Russia and the western Balkans, which we discussed in the EU foreign affairs debate last week? Is that still to be a major foreign policy concern after Brexit? Sometimes I feel that we will lose interest in the Balkans.

At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned the two extremes of Governments flouting the rule of law: South Sudan and the USA. What can the world do about either? Diplomacy can do very little about a country that is still in conflict, except offer humanitarian aid and some minor strengthening of institutions. In passing, I must commend the FCO for its robust engagement in Sudan.

At the other end of the scale is the US Administration. They are, supposedly, our ally and “special relation” but the relationship is uncomfortable. What can we do when the elected President of a world power abruptly threatens war in the Middle East and cannot even inform Congress of his reasons and intentions? I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said. One day, the President may change his mind, as he often does, and reconsider his attitude to the Iran nuclear deal—he will have to find a deal somewhere. However, his contempt for the UN, the European Commission and the international community is thinly disguised; in fact, it is the obverse of diplomacy.

We are hardly soothed by the FCO reply, which decides not to rock the boat, reassuring us that we will continue to work together on a range of issues. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, pointed out in his letter to Jeremy Hunt, the response does not engage sufficiently with specific foreign policy decisions that are clearly against our national interests and those of our EU partners.

On Russia, I am not sure that the world order there is shifting at all. Cyberattacks come and go, and Salisbury has left a very bad taste in the mouth. Previous reports from the EU Committee following events in Crimea and Ukraine urged the FCO to rebuild its relations and language skills; I was glad to hear my noble friend Lady Coussins reinforce that point. It would be good to hear from the Minister that this is progressively happening. The report also calls for “better understanding” of Russia. We easily forget how much we have in common with the Russian people, through our shared history and culture. Again, the response to paragraph 85, recommending more dialogue, is muted but that may be relevant to any description of our intelligence and counterterrorist activity.