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 9:55 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 9:55 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I join all noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Howell on securing this important debate. He is someone who provides great insight and wisdom to all our debates, and today has been no exception. At the outset I assure the noble Lords, Lord Kerr, Lord Hannay and Lord Ricketts, that I have studied our first response to the letter sent by my noble friend. We are working on it and I hope that in the next 48 hours we will have a more comprehensive response to that letter, addressing some of the issues that were perhaps not covered in the initial response from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I share in much of what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said; he will know this. I agree with him that it is important for us to see that the United Kingdom has a huge opportunity on the world stage to influence the debate and foreign policy. Foreign policy has those three elements of diplomacy, defence and development. In this regard, I have seen directly through my own portfolio of responsibilities the benefit particularly on the agendas of women, peace and security of the coming together of those three departments: the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade. The benefits come from focusing not only on conflict after it has happened but building towards conflict prevention. I am sure all noble Lords will agree.

I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Bates, who I am delighted has returned. At the risk of getting a bit personal, poignant and perhaps a little emotional, it would be fair to say that I miss his wisdom as well as the strength of our friendship and partnership in working on joint initiatives, not just on the WPS agenda but on human rights, development and—as touched on by several noble Lords—the important issue of freedom of religion or belief. I will certainly look to his continued support from his new position, although I am sure that in time we will see him return to the Government Front Benches.

I was taken in by this debate. It was one of those with quite limited questions for the Minister; that is always quite welcome. It allowed me to make lots of notes on the things that I should be looking at. On the issue of hunger, I had a moment of reflection as I was looking at the clock 18 hours in, ready with a sustaining glass of water and a subtle mint to break my Ramadan fast. It was a point of reflection for me personally, so I was listening very intensely to the full course of the debate. I congratulate all noble Lords on their insight, wisdom and guidance in this debate, and in the report in particular.

I will take the various issues raised in turn, by country. We anticipate when we look around the world that, as several noble Lords have said, the balance of global wealth and power is likely to continue shifting eastwards. By 2030, China is predicted to be the world’s largest economy while seven of today’s largest emerging economies will have overtaken today’s G7.

These shifts are disrupting established norms and patterns, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, pointed out, which is changing the whole balance of international relations. The international environment is more contested, more congested and more competitive than ever before. As this continues, there will be growing friction over the status and nature of the international order, with a range of new threats from states and, importantly, non-state actors alike. My noble friend Lord Marlesford talked about various organisations which are non-state players but have influence, such as Daesh. We have seen the havoc they have wreaked in both Iraq and Syria.

Although Daesh has been territorially defeated, terrorism remains a potent threat. At the same time, we are seeing a resurgence of state-based threats, especially in the field of cyber, which several noble Lords mentioned. Our growing reliance on digital technology is creating new vulnerabilities. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, in particular talked about that.

Over the next 10 years, the effects of climate change are likely to have repercussions for international stability and security, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, touched on. I assure her that this remains an important part of British foreign policy.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, talked about the role of religion among world states. It is true that that has been seen in some of the conflicts that have taken place. However, I say to him that Shia-Sunni rivalry is not just from the Iran-Iraq war, but dates back 1,400 years. We have yet to see a solution on that front.

Some of these changes represent profound challenges to the existing world order which threaten our interests. Others represent new opportunities. The issue of us leaving the European Union was an important part of today’s reflections. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, that Brexit provides an opportunity to take stock. She said we sometimes need to take time to reflect and take stock of our place and role in the world.

The UK has adjusted the machinery of government to adapt to these new challenges. Since 2010, the National Security Council has been the key body for deciding the UK’s international priorities. The noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Ricketts, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester all touched on its role. The 2018 national security capability review introduced the “fusion doctrine”, which I hope partly addresses the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about the economy. This doctrine integrates all the UK’s capabilities—security, economic and diplomatic—in addressing the national security challenges we face.

The UK’s foreign policy objectives are defined by the three pillars of the cross-government national security strategy, as laid out in our single departmental plan: namely, protecting our people, projecting our influence and promoting our prosperity. It is worth noting that the Chancellor of the Exchequer sits on this committee.

Looking ahead, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to protect our people overseas through our consular and crisis activity. We have strategies to reduce the threat of cyberattack, terrorism, weapons proliferation, serious and organised crime, hostile state activity and the challenges of migration, which were mentioned particularly by my noble friend Lord Dobbs. As we leave the EU, we intend to strengthen Euro-Atlantic security, forging new security partnerships and creating a bigger, stronger and more cohesive NATO.

On projecting our influence, one of our top priorities over the coming year will be to manage our future relationship with the EU. Harnessing the opportunities and mitigating the risks of EU exit, and negotiating a strong future relationship, are key priorities. At the same time, we will continue to play a global role in championing the values that matter to us, and promoting UK leadership—a point raised by various noble Lords. We will promote our leadership on issues such as media freedom, with a conference in July; gender equality; and freedom of religion or belief, on which I lead for the Government as the Prime Minister’s envoy.

We will also manage the uptake of new technologies—for example, through regulation—and will continue to play an active role in preventing conflict and instability. That was an area of clear focus in the contribution from my noble friend Lady Helic. I pay tribute to her work. Indeed, we are working together, along with our noble friend Lord Hague, in preparing for the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative conference in November this year, five years on from the 2014 summit.

Several noble Lords mentioned the important relationship with the United States. I say from the outset to my noble friend Lord Cormack that I have listened very carefully and I share his view. I do not have direct influence over the agenda for the President’s visit, but I will certainly take back his suggestions. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, also highlighted from his own experience some of the concerns about the current policy being pursued by the United States.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling and others, such as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that the UK’s ties with the United States run very deep. This includes our security co-operation and intelligence sharing, and our commercial, academic and cultural links. We remain closely aligned on a wide range of issues, including security, defence and trade. For example, we worked closely with the United States in the UN Security Council on the Yemen peace process and in our co-ordinated response to the Novichok attack in Salisbury. My noble friend Lady Helic raised the importance of our relationships in Europe and across the Atlantic when we dealt with that attack. Those remain key priorities. My noble friend Lord King also underlined the US’s important role.

We are able to raise differences with the US when we have them because of our close relationship. We sometimes do so discreetly and privately. At other times we take quite a public stance. There are current US policy positions with which we disagree, such as the US’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran, a point well made by my noble friend Lord Lamont. Equally, we have differences over the Paris climate agreement and the recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel, but we enjoy very close co-operation across the Five Eyes partnership. Indeed, notwithstanding the US’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, we have reached out and have a very strong partnership with the United States on the importance of freedom of religion or belief, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in our work on standing up for persecuted minorities, faith minorities and those of other beliefs around the world. We continue to work very closely in that respect.

Perhaps there are times when, in a very soft power way, if I could phrase it that way, we could show what our approach is in Britain. Recently, during Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit, we had a very productive session with faith leaders at Lambeth Palace. That was a way of showing how you take faith communities with you to build alliances and work with civil society, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I assure him that that is part and parcel of our priorities.

My noble friend Lord Howell rightly talked about China’s belt and road initiative and the report focused on China. China is our largest trading partner outside Europe and North America and a fellow member of the UN Security Council. China also has an important contribution to make in the debate on how to adapt the rules-based international system to the demands of the 21st century. The noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Hennessy, shone a light on this important relationship. For all these reasons, we must, and continue to, work with China to support our foreign policy goals.

Striking the right balance in our relationship with China is important. That is why our policy in China will remain clear-eyed, evidence-based and firmly rooted in our values. We maintain a constructive and positive dialogue on major issues and we are clear and direct when we disagree. Again, we have done some excellent work on Yemen and Burma with China, but where we have differences, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, we have disagreed with it in the Human Rights Council, particularly over its treatment of Christians and the Uighur Muslims, who are being held in camps in China. Our relationship with China is important and we continue to focus on it. It was also the focus of contributions from my noble friend Lord Tugendhat and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton.

Russia is again a key priority. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked whether the Balkans matter. He will recall that only last summer the United Kingdom hosted the west Balkans summit. In this respect, the Prime Minister announced an increased level of funding in support of the initiatives taken. That has risen to £80 million for 2020-21.

Our relations with Russia are not where we want them to be and we have deep concerns about aggressive Russian activity. It was not that long ago—from memory it was July 2017—that the former Foreign Secretary visited Russia. However, in the wake of the Salisbury attack the United Kingdom took determined action, together with our allies, to stand up to Russian aggression by co-ordinating the largest ever collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers. We will continue to co-ordinate closely with our international partners to identify and respond to hostile state activity.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, also raised the important point of continuing dialogue. I assure the House that we continue to engage with Russian authorities where necessary, including in our dialogue on terrorism and aviation, to support our interests and protect British nationals. Again, as fellow members of the UN Security Council we continue to engage directly with Russia on important peace and security issues. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Browne, that we work closely on issues such as terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation. The issue of keeping the JCPOA on the table is also supported by Russia and China.

We will continue to engage with wider Russian society through cultural exchanges, business links and programmes involving youth, civil society and human rights defenders. The United Kingdom remains open to a better relationship with Russia and we look forward hopefully to bridging some of the gaps that have occurred. However, there are challenges in this relationship and noble Lords are well-versed on those issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked who is conducting the dialogue with Russia. I already mentioned the previous Foreign Secretary’s visit in 2017. My colleague and right honourable friend the Minister for Europe continues to engage directly while I, along with Karen Pierce, our Permanent Representative at the Security Council in New York, engage directly with Russia on many issues of common concern and we will continue to do so.

Understandably, noble Lords raised the issue of Brexit. The noble Lords, Lord Hennessy and Lord Ricketts, talked about future objectives, as did my noble friend Lord King. The UK is realistic about our position on the world stage and our ability to influence world events. In 2019, we continue to be a leading member of NATO and a permanent member on the UN Security Council. In London, we have what is arguably the world’s largest financial centre, while the use of the English language is well known—and yes, as the Commonwealth Minister I am proud that we are working together to strengthen the work of the Commonwealth as we chair it in the lead-up to Kigali next year.

In the context of the UK’s departure from the European Union, the UK’s “Global Britain” agenda frames how we will invest in our relationships. Let me assure noble Lords who raised the issue of EU exit, including the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and my noble friend Lord Tugendhat, among others, that our bilateral ties with European partners provide a strong foundation for continued co-operation. We are working closely with our European partners on international issues, such as the JCPOA, and will continue to work closely in strengthening our ties once we leave the European Union. There are regular ministerial contacts beyond our direct engagement. For example, through the European Council we recently worked closely on the agenda for securing a resolution at the UN Security Council on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Our other engagement through fora such as NATO, the OSCE and the UN will continue to demonstrate where we will be dealing directly with our European partners.

The noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Anderson, mentioned India as an important and valued partner, which it is. We have spent a great deal of time building and nurturing that relationship. I hear clearly the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on the visa issue. I am closely working through the issue he raised of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which is particularly close to my heart. There will be positive engagement with India as we move forward. The point on visas is well made, and there are areas we need to look at much more closely to ensure we can nurture and strengthen that relationship.

The rules-based order was raised specifically by several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Kerr, Lord Grocott and Lord Ricketts, and my noble friend Lord Lamont. My noble friend Lord Dobbs also raised this issue. I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, that of course we need to reflect on our engagements and what their long-term impacts will be, particularly when we engage militarily. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we can all look to recent interventions, but how we then learn from those and start building nations is important. In particular, I have recently had some very positive engagement and I believe that Iraq presents a huge opportunity in that respect.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, my noble friend Lord Tugendhat and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, raised the issue of soft power. Whether it is the BBC or the British Council, the use of languages is important. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and my noble friend Lady Meyer talked about the importance of languages. We are investing quite heavily in this and I take on board that we can invest more. Caroline Wilson, the FCO Europe Director, has been appointed as the cross-Whitehall languages champion and is working directly with academia on improving the situation. The issue of religious literacy was raised. We are working on this through the Diplomatic Academy, and appointments are made not just through the FCO but through DfID and the MoD. My noble friend Lady Meyer also raised the issue of scholarships. In December, Sir Kim Darroch, our ambassador, announced a 50% increase in Marshall programme scholarships.

I am conscious that time has caught up with me. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, and my noble friends Lord King and Lord Howell rightly raised digital communication and cyber. That will be an important challenge, because digital communications are a priority on the world stage. In 2016, the Future FCO report identified digital diplomacy as a key means of engagement. Since then the FCO has embraced digital tools to engage with, influence and support diplomatic activities. Our digital diplomacy is now widely considered world class. We are working through various programmes to deal with the challenges of cybersecurity. Most notably, we are working extensively with Commonwealth partners on increasing capacity and technical support for small island states.

My noble friend Lord Howell, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, my noble friend Lady Helic and other noble Lords raised the issue of numbers and Foreign Office resourcing. By 2020 there will be over 1,000 new staff in position and 14 upgraded posts. I can say to my noble friend Lady Meyer and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that this includes uplifts on key European positions. In the interests of time, I am happy to write directly to noble Lords summarising those uplifts.

Finally, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. Understandably, a wide range of issues was covered. As I said, we will be responding to the subsequent note from my noble friend Lord Howell in the next few days. From the rise of disinformation and authoritarian Governments to the threat of climate breakdown, the challenges we face are complex and serious. The threats we face are compounded by the growing strain on the international rules-based system on which our prosperity and security have depended for so long. I assure noble Lords that we will work with partners across the world to defend and reform international institutions, as we are doing at the UN. The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, asked for specific examples. Issues of sexual exploitation and abuse is one; governance reforms at the ICC is another. We continue to be engaged at that level.

We believe that engagement and dialogue is the right approach. Protection of our people, projection of our influence and promotion of prosperity in a shifting world order remain key priorities of British foreign policy. Regarding my own direct engagement, I assure noble Lords that the wisdom, insight, experience, challenge and advice of your Lordships will play a crucial part in navigating this path as we continue to consolidate and strengthen the United Kingdom’s position on the world stage.