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 9:34 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 9:34 pm, 21st May 2019

The seismic changes in the world of recent times should not threaten but thrill us. This was the topic I chose to speak on two years ago at an event in Borjomi, Georgia, to a group of young people from the Middle East, the Gulf and the Caucasus. They had gathered to discuss how the shifts in global patterns under way impacted on their respective regions. It was the first time many had reflected on the relationship between their respective areas with tense political relationships. Not one of the young people who attended came from countries whose establishment or borders were older than three generations. Their families had lived through constant change, but the issue now is whether the changes over recent years are of such an order of difference that our entire concept of foreign policy should also be reflected on.

During the committee’s hearings for this inquiry—I have the privilege to serve on the committee under the noble Lord, Lord Howell—I frequently reflected on that event. Such a large and comprehensive report as this cannot be given full justification in this short time, so I wish to focus on the developmental changes that other noble Lords have referred to, the transformative nature of new technologies, change in this generation and opportunities for the UK in particular.

These changes will probably mean that this is the first generation in whose lives the biggest challenges will be universal in nature, not focused just on people’s own region, country or continent. Climate change, universal rights and obligations, crime and terror networks and cybersecurity worries are by definition no longer only national challenges. The rules-based system—with 75 year-old institutions designed to address a former world and a peacebuilding concept—is in need of reform, but pragmatically the committee said that that is difficult to achieve. We regretted some reform agendas stalling, but I was struck by the comments of the former Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Hague, who told us that while he was content for today’s global order to use that 1945 order, it would not be desirable to have it in 2045. I agree with that, and we must start thinking now about how a new world order—a new regime for rule-making—will take its place. This consideration will have to take into account that no previous time in human history has seen such rapid social, economic, technological and political change as that dating from when I was born, in the mid-1970s.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, referenced population growth. The population of the world has grown from 3.9 billion in 1974 to 7.5 billion today, and is forecast to be 9 billion in 2050. Africa’s population is expected to grow threefold this century. The world economy has grown astronomically—from $5.5 trillion when I was born to $77 trillion, and per capita GDP has grown from $1,400 to $10,300 globally today. This is a marked economic and social development that has also been reflected in improved life expectancy and reduced child mortality. People are more prosperous, healthier and better educated today, and there is an emphasis on social spending. Spending on defence globally has gone down from 3.7% in the year I was born to 2.2%.

Today’s world is in many ways a much smaller one. There were 401 million air passengers in 1997; in 2016, the figure was 3.7 billion. The world is much more closely connected as a result of the internet. Half a trillion text messages are sent every day; there were hardly any in the mid-1990s. These are the most significant changes and outweigh possibly the biggest innovations of previous centuries—John Harrison’s marine chronometer and the establishment of GMT.

Politically, too, there has been progress. The number of countries considered democratic or largely democratic in the year I was born was 34; today it is 87. The number of people living in a largely democratic environment has risen from 1.7 billion to over 4 billion today. This will not necessarily mean, however, that they are stable countries; nor does it mean that there are loyal and sustained identities for people in those countries, many of which exist as a result of decolonisation and the effects of two world wars.

On disruption and change—the title of the first section of the report—what comes with democracy is a belief that the individual is a stakeholder. Democracy establishes a social contract which requires the Government to deliver against the expectations of those who vote them into power. Therefore, the rules-making bodies are even more significant, given that the expectations of the people are much higher. Now, the growth in populations is creating a greater need for services and trained staff in schools and hospitals, and Governments are unable to meet the demands of their peoples.

In addition, trust in state institutions such as broadcasters, statistical bodies and the civil service is coming under increasing pressure—including in the United Kingdom. Populations are becoming less trusting of the United Nations, as is shown in trend data from the Brookings Institution and Pew research.

As we have heard consistently in this debate, both the US and Russia increasingly take a transactional relationships approach in response to these changes. These are huge global shifts, and they take a transactional, state-by-state approach, putting country first—disruption and destabilisation in order to extract advantage. This is inconsistent with what we consider to be the British approach of stability and co-operation to create an environment in which we can gain advantage. In addition, other organisations and structures are growing to challenge the established 1945 order, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Howell.

Because of these seismic shifts, there is a more conducive environment for benign and malignant non-state actors to thrive. I do not necessarily disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, but a simple reliance on the concept of the nation state does not reflect the changes we have seen in this past generation.

Finally, what can the UK do in response to this? The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, was absolutely right in his devastating critique. If we are to be a leader on cybersecurity threats, the rule of law, progressive trade, the ethics of artificial intelligence, human rights, privacy, generational opportunities, investment for youth, transparency and anticorruption, and to be a lead investor for Africa and a top governance partner on global goal 16, we have to have respect in the world. On a visit to Iraq last year, an MP said that they were watching the Brexit proceedings there every day, and laughing and crying at us—neither are what you want to see as a reflection of British foreign policy.

If we are to take advantage of these changes, perhaps it is as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, said. His contributions always warm my heart in these debates, and even more so today because he quoted from Memory Hold-the-Door by John Buchan—a former constituent of mine, perhaps, in the Borders—which I quoted in my maiden speech in this House. Buchan said that the Borderer qualities, and those that he admired most in human nature, were,

“realism coloured by poetry, a stalwart independence sweetened by courtesy, a shrewd kindly wisdom”.

I hope that those characteristics will be reflected in our foreign policy in the future.