Foreign Affairs - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 5 March 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence) 3:56, 5 March 2024

My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, started, he said he was not quite sure how he felt about opening the debate. I wondered whether he was really musing about the fact that normally he would have to spend a whole debate sitting and scribbling in response to everything that we had said. This afternoon, he has now passed this task on to the Foreign Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, can—for once—sit quietly and listen, probably to some of the tributes that will be paid to him, as one of our most indefatigable Ministers who truly has respect in your Lordships’ House.

From the High North to the South Atlantic, from North Korea to South Sudan, there are global challenges and foreign policy concerns for the United Kingdom, our partners and allies. Some speak of a new Cold War; I have never understood that. I do not see how this is a new Cold War. If anything, we are seeing a series of very hot wars. At the time the Cold War ended, the UK, like so many of our partners, took a peace dividend. We now need to consider whether that was at too high a price. Are we paying enough now for our security and defence, or are we overstretching ourselves in diplomacy, defence and development—the three Ds?

In your Lordships’ House, we have two Ministers who have spent—as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, told us—weeks and months travelling around globally, representing this country very ably. Yet, is the country really spending enough on foreign security and defence policy when we face so many challenges? We have a series of challenges, threats and global issues that need to be considered.

In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, got round part of the world in 16 minutes. In her 13 minutes, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, got round some other parts. That in itself demonstrates that we are in a situation where we need to be looking south and east, north and west. I wonder whether we are able to do so effectively. Does the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have the resources to achieve everything that this country and our European and NATO partners need us to do? Does the Ministry of Defence have the resources that we need? Does this country take our foreign policy responsibilities sufficiently seriously? This is not a criticism of this Government or of previous Governments. We need to consider it as a public policy discourse because, if we do not pay sufficient attention to the international, we will be caught out when the next crisis or conflict occurs.

During the last three years, three areas have been, in series, the source of much discussion and debate in British foreign and defence policy—Afghanistan, the Middle East and Ukraine. I will mention a fourth area because I know that the Foreign Secretary has just been down to the South Atlantic and the Falkland Islands. Before I look at the more recent hot conflicts, I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary can enlighten the House about the current feelings in the islands, particularly in light of the Argentine President resurrecting the idea that the Falklands are of significant interest to Argentina. What confidence can he give the islanders? Is he able to answer a question put to me when I was in the Falklands 18 months ago—if Argentina invaded today, would the United Kingdom be able to protect us? At one level, the short answer is that we have forces permanently deployed down there. But, if we were asked whether we could send a task force, the answer might be somewhat different.

I turn to more recent issues. We have a legacy of 20 years in Afghanistan. At the time of the United States’ withdrawal, there was an ignominious departure by the United Kingdom and our other European NATO partners. We left behind too many people who had put their lives on the line by standing alongside the United Kingdom—whether they were interpreters, British Council contractors or the Triples. The cases of all these people have been raised many times in your Lordships’ House. Too often, the answers have reflected interdepartmental differences—a sense that it is not an issue for the Foreign Office, or the MoD, or the Home Office. There is too much buck passing. In his response, can the Foreign Secretary give some reassurance to those people who are still in fear of their lives because they worked alongside the UK and NATO? Can he assure them that we will get them out of Afghanistan, that they should not be risking their lives in small boats, or going to Rwanda, and that we will do the right thing for those people we left behind in Afghanistan?

The Afghan case is too infrequently discussed because the bandwidth is not there. We have moved from Afghanistan to Ukraine—and rightly so. It is absolutely right that His Majesty’s Government and the whole of the United Kingdom has been supporting Ukraine, whether by welcoming Ukrainians into our homes, sending ammunition, training soldiers or through the diplomatic route that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have engaged in. But one of the lessons from Afghanistan is that, when the United States withdraws, it is difficult for the United Kingdom and our European partners to stand alone. If we see that on this side of the channel and of the Atlantic, the message was also not missed in Beijing, Moscow or Tehran.

The third of the areas that have already been discussed today is Israel, Gaza and the Red Sea, about which I will not go into detail because so many other noble Lords will do so. The Foreign Secretary has clearly already been trying to play a role in those areas, making some very important statements about the importance of a two-state solution. We are facing a world where so many of these issues have links with Russia or Iran; Hamas, the Houthis and Hezbollah are all supported by Iran. What conversations are His Majesty’s Government able to have to try to reduce the danger from Iran? That is one of the issues that we do not talk enough about that needs to be discussed.

The final area is China, about which I turn, briefly, to the High North. In recent years, our attention as a country and politicians has been to the south and east, but if we look to the High North, we see that climate change is affecting everyone. Greta Thunberg talked about the world being on fire—that includes the Arctic, which sounds impossible but is true. As the Arctic ices melt, we will see new sea routes offering potential trading opportunities that may be beneficial to the United Kingdom and our allies; but it is also seen by China as the opportunity for a polar silk road. As China signs deals with Russia—and the Arctic, instead of being an area of high co-operation and low tension, looks, potentially, to become one that is securitised by Russia and China—what assessment are His Majesty’s Government making of the High North? Do they have the bandwidth to think not just about the present issues in the Middle East and Ukraine but about potential conflicts and areas of difficulty in the High North?

How far are the Government also looking west? At the moment, we still have a President of the United States who is committed to NATO. If Donald Trump were re-elected in November, could we rely on the United States? If not, what is the United Kingdom doing with our European NATO partners and the European Union? What discussions are His Majesty’s Government having, bilaterally and multilaterally, with France, Germany and the European Union to strengthen our security ties? Will we go through the open door to have a UK-EU security relationship? We have moved beyond the intricacies of Brexit that soured politics for so long and there is an opportunity to think about a security relationship—but will His Majesty’s Government take it? Do they have a strategy for co-operation, or are we destined simply to see ad hocery? At times, AUKUS and the relationship with Japan and Italy on fighter jets look—dare I say—opportunistic.

Can His Majesty’s Government tell us that they have a strategy for the UK’s place in the world in which it plays its right and proper part? Will it demonstrate the leadership that we all need? That is not just about leadership in this place and the other place but about a national conversation that reminds everyone that we must stand up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. If we in this country—not just politicians, journalists and academics but every citizen—are complacent and do not stand up for those things, we will be vulnerable. Can the Government offer the leadership that we all need?