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 9:26 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 9:26 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I join noble Lords in congratulating the committee and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on this excellent report, which has opened new thinking at a critical time in international relations. I know that the noble Lord must step down but I hope that we will not lose his comments in the House because they are always very valuable.

I particularly liked the report’s emphasis on the rules-based order. I have heard some criticism of that, which I understand. There is no doubt in my mind that we have often been hypocritical on that issue. That is not a reason to throw it out the window, however: the rules-based order is vital if we are not to return to a much worse time. I wish to put this in context alongside the idea of a liberal international order, which has been a prop of western thinking since the Westphalia agreement in 1648, followed by the British attempts in the 19th century to emphasise it. Above all, in 1945 and the period afterwards, the Labour Government had a lot to do with this in creating international organisations such as the United Nations, Bretton Woods, the Atlantic Charter, NATO and so on, which have been such an important part of the western idea of not only a rules-based order but a liberal one.

There has been criticism, and rightly so, of the way in which we have lost that order recently. Although it is necessary for the world to maintain a rules-based and liberal order, it is true that, at times, we have been the authors of our failures on not just the political but the economic front. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis that followed did enormous damage to the image of western effectiveness in running economies, and made a number of countries begin to challenge and question it. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, and others have mentioned our failure on some other interventions, but it is profoundly important to say that intervention has not always failed. This is not recent, given that interventions go back at least to the time of the British intervention to stop the west African slave trade. In fact, they can be traced back to Grecian times. We have to be careful about that and it is worth remembering, in view of the criticisms that have been made, that recently we apologised to the Rwandan Government for our failure to intervene and stop what happened in that country. Interventions do not always fail, but they have at certain times, which I accept has made them a problem for us.

Two additional factors are not covered in the report to the degree that I would like, and given that the report is so extensive, perhaps it is a bit mean to mention them. One is population increase. Between 1990 and 2015—25 years—the population of the planet went up by 2 billion. Those 2 billion people have an enormous impact on the political relationship between nation states that have either stable populations or, as in the case of Russia, are actually declining and other states that are increasing their populations dramatically. This means that power relationships will change. It also has a dramatic effect on policy issues such as climate change.

The other factor that troubles me is one that we do not give enough thought to, although it was touched on by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, and others: the importance of religion. It fascinates me that over the past 20-odd years, or really since the collapse of the Soviet Union, political ideologies have declined, but just as they have done so religious ideologies have increased. I have said before in this Chamber that for me God is an idea: there either is one or there is not one. However, religion is actually an ideology which assumes a belief in God. The reason it is important is because for literally a couple of thousand years, religion has played an incredibly important part in government, either in the form of being the Government or, as in recent years, having great influence on government. Iran is the classic example. There is a religious approach to government with a limit to what the political power can do and within that, because of the ideological differences, there is a clash. That clash is important and if people underestimate it they are making a serious mistake, because it is profoundly important in the Middle East through the Sunni and Shia divide. I remember talking to a Sunni man in Egypt. When I challenged him by talking about the problem with religion, be it Christian, Hindu or Islam, being that people often end up fighting each other, he replied, “Give me an example”. I said, “Iran and Iraq”. He said, “Ah, yes, but the Shia are not really Muslims”. In a way that says it all. We do not have to look back that far in our own history to find similar problems. When I was dealing with the Northern Ireland question in the 1970s and 1980s as the chairman of the Select Committee, one of the big struggles was to get Catholics to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as it then was. That was because, if they did, they were often killed.

The religious question is always there. One of the changes which is coming about is that the growth of religion as an ideology is changing the way that politics works. It means that we have to look at it. Religion can be a great stabiliser and help in government, but it can also be a real cause of conflict. If you are looking for the conflict in the Middle East, you cannot ignore the Sunni/Shia divide. That vital point is replicated on the political side by Sunni Saudi Arabia challenging Shia Iran as the dominant power in the Middle East.

I welcome the emphases in the report, and the only other point I want to raise is the danger of nationalism. Living in Scotland as I do now, I listen to Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and I think, “If she thinks that the answer to the world’s problems is nationalism, she is asking the wrong question”. The same applies to Donald Trump, it applies to some but not all of the Brexiteers, and it applies, when we look at how some people are voting in European elections, to the increasing tendency towards nationalism.

I particularly like the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, to the Commonwealth because like him I am a strong supporter of it. Although it will not be easy, also like him I believe that there is a very real possibility of a much closer and better relationship between India and the UK. That for me would be a great step forward. But I would emphasise that somehow or other, as the report makes so clear, we have to adjust to a dramatically changing world and make sure that we think through the strategies that are necessary to understand it. That will help us to get our own policies right in many of these individual areas.