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 9:43 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 9:43 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and members of the committee for producing this excellent report. It has been an excellent debate and, despite its length, I have remained here throughout and been fascinated by all the contributions. I was reflecting that, last night, I was sitting in front of the television and watched a documentary about another seismic change in our political world. Many of the players in that seismic change contributed to the debate today. And that change was, of course, a political party getting rid of its pro-European leader and electing Margaret Thatcher. Politics is often about these changes, and sometimes I find them difficult to accept.

Tonight’s debate and the report are very important. I agree with the report’s final conclusion that we need a more agile, active and flexible diplomacy to handle our international relationships and ensure that we are in a stronger position to protect and promote our interests. I also agree that the report is a sound basis for a constructive debate, which I am sure will be ongoing, but agreement on broad aims, I feel, is a little optimistic. What should our aims be, taking in to account the global power dynamics, our resource constraints and domestic public opinion?

The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, quoted James Landale of the BBC, who wrote,

“countries with a strong sense of national identity, a healthy economy and a stable political leadership with a clear agenda tend to have good foreign policies”.

Landale went on,

“perhaps we need to work out first how we see ourselves as a nation”.

In the New Statesman, Paul Mason, who has been a strong supporter of the left, put it another way, saying that,

“a foreign policy begins from the questions: what are the long-term interests of our country and how should we achieve them”.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, and other noble Lords said, for 50 years the twin pillars of our foreign policy have been our alliance with the United States and our support in the European Union. Breaking one of those pillars will clearly have an effect on the other. The idea that we can simply carry on with a strong alliance with the United States while breaking the European Union, as the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, put it, is madness. If you believe in multilateralism, it is madness to participate in the destruction of one of the most successful, albeit flawed, multilateral institutions on your doorstep, especially as Trump’s presidency has been so transactional and short-termist and has had little respect for long-standing alliances and partnerships. I think I have previously quoted Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq. He said:

“Other than the neo-isolationism I don’t think there is a pattern to his foreign policy ... I think he is purely reactive”.

That is what makes him unpredictable but, from we have heard in this debate, we can still understand what that is about.

As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, put it in his introduction, Trump’s America-first agenda and the US national security strategy have significant implications for international relationships around the world. The overriding theme is the focus on American prosperity as a core national security goal. At one level, this is a basic principle of any coherent national security strategy, and it certainly informs the United Kingdom’s strategy. The United States is a very important ally of the United Kingdom. Our relationship remains very important, but it is not personal. It is not between not individuals but between two nations and two peoples. We should ensure that our resources strengthen that relationship. I hope we can get the message across to the President when he comes that our relationship will be sustained not through a simple personal relationship with him or his changes in policy but through that long-standing commitment of our two nations and two peoples. Through that alliance, we need to get a better understanding of the broad aims that the report focused on. What are the broad aims of a foreign policy?

One thing that I think we can all agree on is Britain’s part in creating a just, safe, secure and sustainable planet free from the fear of hunger and poverty. In my opinion—the noble Lord, Lord Bates, alluded to this—the report lacked one thing, which was a coherent focus on the United Nations 2030 agenda. That should be our approach to building our foreign policy: delivering sustainable development goals that leave no one behind. Those goals are universal and we should measure all our activities against them. We should not say to other countries, “Do this”, without understanding that it is something that we want to achieve ourselves—the goals are universal in nature. Importantly, development, defence and diplomacy have to go together. As my noble friend Lord Anderson said, we need to demonstrate a joined-up, whole-government approach.

My right honourable friend Emily Thornberry gave a keynote speech earlier this year in which she argued that the UK’s foreign policy should be used to promote our values and not only our commercial interests, with a greater focus on human rights. She said—I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Bates, on this—that we need a strategy to protect civilians in conflict that sets out detailed plans for work on conflict prevention and resolution, post-conflict peacebuilding and justice for the victims of war crimes. That is vital. We also want to see the creation of a Minister for peace and disarmament. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke about the need for a focus on ensuring that we do not end up in another escalating arms race.

We need to strengthen our commitment to the UN and acknowledge its shortcomings, particularly in the light of repeated abuses of veto powers by some permanent members of the Security Council. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, highlighted that too. However, working with our international partners, we can build support for UN reform and make its institutions more effective and responsive. It is vital that we do so.

I want to conclude on a point that the right reverend Prelate referred to. The ingredients of a thriving democracy are not limited to Parliaments and parliamentarians. Civil society organisations, in which I include churches, trade unions and women’s groups, are a vital and important part of democratic life, frequently being the only guarantors of human rights in society. Often, it is not Governments but the people who defend these rights.

One thing I am really pleased about is the report’s emphasis on the Commonwealth and soft power. The last two CHOGM summits reaffirmed the commitment to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to support the empowerment of women and girls. Too many women, disabled people and minorities are still discriminated against and denied access, and we should focus on how to support civil society in the Commonwealth to build the sort of changes that we want to see.

My final point is that, if we are to see the change we desire, we should perhaps take up the position of the Swedish Government—I recently met the Swedish ambassador—who have adopted a feminist foreign policy. They measure an activity by its impact on addressing gender equality, asking how it empowers women and changes things for the better. That is one of the things that we should all be looking at on a cross-party basis. This is not about simply taking a party-political position. It is about creating a safer world for all.