William Wallace: Britain’s international priorities, 2015-2020

Lord Wallace of Saltaire
Lord Wallace of Saltaire

Lord Wallace of Saltaire spoke at Chatham House last Thursday alongside Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. As the Lib Dem Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs in the Lords, William Wallace spoke about the the Liberal Democrat’s perspective of the UK’s international priorities over the next five years:

Next year’s general election will come amid a plethora of international crises, in Eastern Europe, the Sahel, West and East Africa, and across the Middle East.  So as the election approaches, each political party should spell out its views on Britain’s underlying national interests, and how best to protect and promote them.

Yet neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband is making any attempt to inform the public about the challenges we face and the means to meet them.  The popular debate on Britain’s place in the world, our friends, partners and enemies, has hardly moved forward in the 25 years since the end of the cold war.  International promotion of national values has become subordinated to the defence of sovereignty against international courts.  Populist nationalism and the right-wing media still promote a nostalgic myth of Anglo-Saxon identity, threatened by a hostile continent.  A Conservative MP put the underlying confusion bluntly in the course of a recent discussion on the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR): ‘We don’t know who we are as a nation, we don’t know where we are in the world’.

Instead of addressing these long-term challenges, the Conservatives are focussed on the defence of English common law against the European Arrest Warrant, and whether and when to hold an EU Referendum.  But the promise of a referendum does not, and cannot, substitute for a foreign policy.  Labour in contrast say very little, either on foreign or defence policy.  The British people deserve better than that.

So I want to focus on a few key themes to set out the Liberal Democrat perspective, and to promote the reasoned debate we need:

  • that the threats we face are shared with our neighbours and partners, not challenges to Britain alone;
  • that British foreign policy should therefore be about partnership, not about exit or isolation;
  • that many of the threats we now face are not military, with implications for how we should allocate a severely constrained external budget;
  • that we suffer from a damaging gap between the presentation and the practice of British foreign policy, which the next government must close; and
  • that any foreign and security policy which denies the central importance of European engagement will have a hole at its core.

Unless those of us concerned with broader foreign policy issues force these onto the agenda – and unless the Conservative Party halts its slide towards UKIP – the prospect of an EU referendum will crowd them out of the election campaign, losing the sympathy of our allies and leaving whichever new government emerges with an even wider gap between policy priorities and public understanding.

Threats and opportunities

The most striking aspect of the 2010 SDSR was the emphasis it placed on non-military threats: global epidemics, cyber warfare, natural disasters, terrorism, organised crime, surges of refugees from failing states and civil conflicts, and the rise of radical movements.  Five years later, these threats are far more evident.  There are NO direct threats to the United Kingdom alone.  But indirect threats, shared with our neighbours and other open societies, continue to proliferate.  Most of us would now add climate change, and energy insecurity, to the list of long-term threats which Britain shares with others.

The protection of Britain’s security thus demands resources far wider than those traditionally assigned to defence: police and international police cooperation, energy conservation, biomedical research, investment in assistance in international emergencies, conflict prevention, state-building, and social and economic development in other states.  Above all, it requires cooperation with other states.  We do not face international challenges alone; so it makes no sense for anyone to talk as if we can meet them on our own.

Security and prosperity go together: the second pays for the costs of the first, and provides the domestic foundations for a stable society.  The global shift of economic and financial power means that the UK is now building a high degree of economic interdependence with the Gulf states, with over 100,000 British citizens resident in the Gulf.  We aim to deepen interdependence with India, and also with China, as emerging economic powers.  But it’s important to place this shift in context.  We have doubled our exports to China over the past 5 years; they now amount to almost 3% of the total, our 10th largest market.  India has risen to be our 15th largest market, with 2% of the total, just ahead of Canada and Australia.  But our most important foreign market, the world’s largest single market, remains the European Union, taking almost half of our exports in 2013.  The British economy is intricately linked to the economies of continental Europe, through supply chains in which British components add value to German cars and French aircraft, through two-way flows of investment and – yes – through reciprocal flows of workers, students, and the retired.  The recovery of the Eurozone, the maintenance and further development of the European Single Market, will be as central to Britain’s prosperity and long-term security in the next five years as they have been until now.

In seeking to shape the world around us we have major assets in the UK’s reputation and soft power: the global reach of English law, language and culture, research universities which attract students from all over the world, some of the world’s largest non-governmental organizations, promoting international development and human rights.  Our open society attracts foreign respect – embarrassingly so when rich foreigners flock to London to buy property, and poor foreigners struggle to reach our borders.  Other governments welcome active engagement with Britain – provided we can maintain a confident approach to international diplomacy, and not sink into sullen and suspicious nationalism.

Global partners, regional partners

The 2010 SDSR cut our defence capabilities below the level at which the Pentagon regarded as the minimum for Britain to remain a privileged ally.  The coalition government renewed the 1998 bilateral defence agreement with France in 2010, and cooperation has intensified since then – from closer cooperation in procurement and support of weapons systems, through shared logistical support in operations in Africa, to the development of a Combined Joint task Force, intended to be operational in 2016-7.  Last month the Defence Secretary signed a letter of intent with his counterparts in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and the three Baltic states to form a second Joint Expeditionary Force.  At the Cardiff NATO Summit the German government pledged to form a third such Force from among European NATO members.  European NATO: a concept scarcely familiar to the British public or Parliament, rarely breathed by Conservative ministers to their backbenchers or the press, but the developing framework for British defence and security policy for the foreseeable future.  The widest gap between between presentation and practice is in defence policy.

We have also already shifted the geographical focus of Britain’s security engagement, away from the distant expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan to smaller-scale commitments across North Africa, and to military exercises and short-term deployments to reassure our partners in Eastern Europe.  Parliament last year refused to accept that British planes should intervene over Syria in what would have been an Anglo-American operation, but we are now operating in a wider coalition over Iraq: assisting regional powers to contain ISIS, but carefully not taking the lead.  Training missions, logistical support for local and regional forces, often within such multilateral frameworks as the partnership between the European Union and the African Union, stretch from Mali through Nigeria to Somalia, and on to Afghanistan.  We are increasingly engaged in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction across North, West and East Africa, recognising that conflict or collapse in that region spills across the Mediterranean and the Channel.

Maintaining a Liberal international order in a disorderly world

We have lived through several decades in which the structures of international order grew stronger, under American and broader Western leadership: promoting an open world economy, widening networks of international law and regulation, negotiating and working to implement higher standards of human rights.  But we are now facing active challenges to the liberal order which we have enjoyed through most of our lifetimes.  The United States is losing the capacity to provide global leadership, suffering from a deeply fractured political system.  Putin’s Russia rejects Western-formulated rules for state behaviour.  China pursues mercantilist policies, and seeks to re-establish its historical regional dominance.  Disorder across the Middle East and Africa is more likely to grow than to diminish.  We may now face an illiberal world, in which the majority of state regimes do not share our values.  We will have to work closely with like-minded partners to maintain and reinforce the institutions which support global order, and to promote open societies against autocratic governments.

One of the illusions of those who want Britain to leave the European Union is that Britain would then be freed from foreign-imposed rules and regulations.  The reality is that international regulations are negotiated through a network of global and regional organizations, from the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization and other UN-associated bodies to the OECD.  The EU Balance of Competences exercise which the Conservatives insisted on in the 2010 Coalition Agreement was told by stakeholders in area after area that the  EU framework is embedded in a wider network of institutions and rules which hold our open international order together.

Before the development of the European Single Market in the 1980s the majority of international standards and economic regulations were set by the Americans, extra-territorially applied to their trading partners.  Since then negotiations between the USA and the EU have set the terms for international standards and regulations, ratified through global conventions.  Successful negotiation of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership over the next 3-5 years would reinforce this tendency.  Our security and prosperity will best be promoted through stronger international institutions, rather than weaker; and within those institutions, Britain’s influence within the most effective regional bloc, the 28-member European Union, despite its unavoidable compromises, will continue to be an asset. And for everyone except the climate change-deniers, European leadership of global efforts to limit global warming will continue to form a vital dimension of Britain’s security.

Any strategic approach to Britain’s international role must address the issue of which are our closest and most reliable partners.  The default position for successive British governments has been that we should at all costs stick closest to Washington. The importance Labour placed in Ed Miliband’s visit to Washington suggests that this is still Labour’s instinctive approach.   Some within the Conservative Party still dream of reviving the Commonwealth; others see a Gulf Strategy as more important than a European one   I was struck last year to learn that an analysis of UN voting, by Peter Ferdinand, had shown that between 1992 and 2008 the UK and France had voted together in the UN General Assembly on 95% of resolutions, whereas the US had voted together with the UK only 65% of the time.  The US and the UK, as this suggests, have different priorities and interests, and different domestic constraints,even though we share underlying values.

There has been a subtle but important difference over the past four years between William Hague’s references to the role of the E3+3 in international diplomacy – towards Iran, on other Middle East issues and beyond – and the American references to P5+1.  Both refer to the same five permanent members of the UNSC and Germany.  But Hague’s formulation recognised that the most like-minded group within this consists of Britain, France and Germany.  Unless British foreign priorities diverge from their recent course from the next election on, I am confident that this will continue to be the case for the next five years.

This leaves a wide gap between public understanding of Britain’s role and the direction of foreign policy.  The image of Britain which leaps out from the pages of the Mail and the Telegraph, and all too often from the backbenches of the Commons, is of a state that stands alone, with only the USA as a valued partner, facing a hostile continent.  The practical reality, above all in the defence and security field but also in global economic diplomacy, is that the UK works most closely with our European partners – as of course the United States strongly wishes us to do.  If after next year’s election the new government does not narrow that gap, by explaining to its domestic public where British national interests now lie, our foreign policy will be confounded by the contradictions between domestic rhetoric and external diplomacy.

Limited resources, spending priorities

Austerity budgets will continue through most of the next five years, unless the British economy makes an unexpected surge.  Popular support for the armed forces does not extend to willingness to pay higher taxes for them.  Since many of the threats to Britain’s security are not military, we need also to look at the balance between the different dimensions of our external budget, as well as its overall size.

I hope this audience approves of the coalition government’s commitment to a substantial overseas development budget, and accepts that it is in Britain’s national interest to maintain it through the next Parliament.  This is not primarily a matter of liberal idealism, or philanthropy; it’s enlightened self-interest. The Ebola epidemic provides a classic case of how we are endangered by crises in countries that lack adequate administration, health services or education.  The desperate journeys of illegal migrants across the Mediterranean will not be stemmed unless European states, Britain among them, work to resolve the insecurity and poverty that drives them to leave their home countries. The government is absolutely right in terms of long-term national interest, too, to emphasise the transformation in the role of women in its approach to development.  Population restraint, social and economic development,  all follow from the empowerment of women; radicalization of young men is easier in societies where women are veiled and shut away.

Spending on soft power also matters in coping with our shifting security challenges.  Russia’s skilful use of information warfare in Ukraine, and its international expansion of the TV network Russia Today, suggests that no new government should cut back the international services of the BBC.  We have cut back on linguistic and country expertise across our diplomatic service, and need to rebuild that as we face asymmetric threats and crises in societies we only partly understand.

Defence spending has been cut, beyond the point at which the UK can mount major operations independently.  Yet maintaining sufficient capabilities to contribute to conventional deterrence across Eastern Europe, and if necessary to play a leading part in containing conflict around the edges of the European region, require continuing investment in expensive equipment.   If we accept that the most frequent responses to instability outside Europe will no longer be US- or UK-led, but will require European or American provision of logistical and ISTAR support to local forces, then we need more transport planes and helicopters, signals and intelligence capabilities, and training teams, with the bulk of our armed forces at home in reserve for the less likely but more severe threats that we cannot now foresee.  As the withdrawal from Afghanistan frees up resources, we and our European NATO partners should be willing to play a larger role also in supporting the many UN missions across North and East Africa and the Middle East, most of which suffer from serious weaknesses in command and control and in logistical support.

Some within the military would like to expand the UK footprint in the Gulf as we withdraw from Afghanistan, alongside the US and the French and in response to active encouragement from the Gulf states in which UK forces are currently based.  That seems unwise.  The Gulf states are themselves well supplied with advanced weapons and armed forces.  The multiple problems of the Arab and Muslim worlds are rooted within those worlds.  Outside powers should be willing to support and assist those within the region – as in Africa – but not to take over responsibility, nor to take sides between Sunni and Shia or between different political tendencies within the Sunni world.

One of the most costly procurement decisions the new government will face will be whether to go ahead with the full replacement for the UK Trident force.  Motivations for the acquisition and earlier renewal of the UK nuclear deterrent force have mixed sober assessment of the Soviet military threat to Britain and to central Europe with sentiments about Britain’s status as a great power. I hope that in 2015-16 we may look for a more dispassionate debate, weighing the opportunity costs of a full Trident replacement against remote but existential threats in a still-nuclear-armed world.

Status, sovereignty and security

Sadly, the public debate on British foreign policy is focused more on status than on security priorities, more on sovereignty than shared interests and values.  The Daily Mail and the Telegraph publish the rantings of Daniel Hannan, dreaming of a libertarian White Anglo-Saxon sphere, facing an irretrievably unfree and corporatist continent – a vision which entrances his colleagues on the Conservative right.  Migration Watch has persuaded the public that the threat of migration comes from across the Channel, abetted by Brussels, when the long-term problem that we face together with our European partners is of immigration pressure from unsafe and unstable countries beyond the boundaries of the EU.  The defence of British sovereignty has shrunk to the protection of Parliament from the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights.  UKIP has channelled resentment at the loss of Britain’s superior status compared to France and Germany into a call to reduce that status further, by imitating Switzerland and opting out of multilateral engagement.  Labour is largely silent, absent from the debate.

Those of us who are committed to rational, evidence-based, debate on foreign policy must therefore address the myths that inhibit a reassessment of Britain’s national interests and of how best to protect and promote them.  These myths are of long-standing.  I found on my shelves the other week a pamphlet that Harold Macmillan, as Prime Minister, had published in 1961 – over half a century ago – on Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community.  Accepting that this was ‘perhaps the most fateful and forward-looking policy decision in our peacetime history’, he reminded his sceptical backbenchers that ‘we in Britain are Europeans’ and that ‘practically every nation, including our own, has already been forced by the pressures of the modern world to abandon large areas of sovereignty and to realise that we are now all inter-dependent.’ [Britain, the Commonwealth and Europe, CPC 1961, pp.3, 5, 7]  Most of his successors have been far less courageous in spelling the realities of Britain’s position to their parties and their public – while the UKIP/Conservative right continue to deny that Macmillan, Douglas Home or Heath ever spelled out the implications of European engagement, and peddle their fantasies of England gloriously alone.   The Conservative leaders who took the UK into the European Union spelled out that this was a political decision, not simply an economic one, with major implications for British foreign policy.  James Callaghan and Lord Carrington played leading roles in the development of EU foreign policy cooperation.

Now, as then, and for the foreseeable future: without a European policy, we do not have a foreign policy.  Beyond the irritation with the Brussels institutions, the arguments over the EU Budget and the details of EU regulations, Britain’s security and prosperity are inextricably linked with those of our neighbours across the Channel.  Beyond the petty arguments over a handful of judgements by the European Court of Human Rights, we share the same values.  The practice of British foreign and security policy already reflects that reality; sadly, the public presentation has lagged far behind.  If this country is to construct a coherent international strategy to guide it through the next Parliament, it must root it in European cooperation, and justify that to a sceptical public.  There is no alternative.


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