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“A purely western world view is no longer safe for a country like Britain”

6 min read

As the Lords International Relations Committee completes its first three-year term, chair Lord Howell reflects on how Britain must adapt its approach to foreign policy to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world 

Listen carefully and you can hear a creaking sound in King Charles Street. This is the thinking machine inside the noble Foreign and Commonwealth Office slowly adjusting its view of Britain’s role, purposes and interests in the 21st century and the digital age.

The 70-year-old default position in British foreign policy has crumbled away. The process has been going for at least three decades but it has taken the Brexit shock and Donald Trump to jerk it sharply forward. Expert and experienced minds are struggling to adjust to a totally new international relations pattern, with new distributions of power and influence flowing along unfamiliar and complex lines.

A purely Western world view is no longer adequate or safe for a country like Britain, placed as it is between the circles of American and growing Chinese and Asian power. Both our security and our trade require new and clever engagement with alliances across boundaries, and a new agility in operating within the global networks of our age.

So, across the way in Whitehall, how have the two Houses of Parliament been matching these enormous shifts in perception and foreign policy focus?

On some fronts the House of Commons and its committees have been well ahead of the game. The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has been pouring out a stream of reports highly relevant to the new power play – its latest one, on reawakening UK-India ties and the need for their massive invigoration in all areas, being a good example.

Indeed as far back as the 1990s the same Commons committee was urging Whitehall to realise that the trans-continental Commonwealth network, far from being a historic burden, was going to be one of the gateways to the gigantic new consumer markets and economic power of Asia and Africa where Britain’s fate would be largely determined – a view which in those days was met with stolid disinterest by the Foreign Office and its advisers.

It would be encouraging to show that the House of Lords had been on the same track of advanced thinking over the years, given its heavy membership of deeply experienced foreign policy veterans. But incredibly, until as recently as 2016, the Lords had no permanent committee addressing this new dimension of foreign policy and British interests in a radically shifting world order.

The wider landscape of booming Asia and the developing world was there, but somehow it was regarded as marginal to mainstream international interests which were considered best viewed through the EU prism.

A crack was opened in this type of thinking by an ad-hoc committee report back in 2013, entitled Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, which called for a “radical change in the mindset” of the makers of foreign policy, and a new emphasis on clever soft power methods to maintain influence and safeguard British interests, in reinforcement of harder power military strength.

But it took five years of argument and lobbying to persuade the wheels within wheels by which the Lords makes up its mind to set up a permanent, or so-called sessional, committee to focus on major global developments outside the European and Atlantic regions, and to begin opening minds in both Westminster and Whitehall to the glaring new facts of a hyper-connected planet, leading to what in effect has become a new cycle in the history of international relations.

Objections were eventually overcome and the International Relations Committee has now completed its first three years of existence. Under the rotation system of Lords membership, it is now about to be reconstituted for a new phase in a new parliament – whenever that happens!

Has it done its job so far, and has it helped new thinking about Britain’s altered position in the world and how best to adapt to it?

'We are dealing with a hopelessly under-resourced Foreign Office establishment'

One problem is that we are dealing with a hopelessly under-resourced Foreign Office establishment. As a former foreign secretary William Hague has pointed out, FCO departmental spending is less than that of Kent county council. Its budget amounts to less than 0.3% of total departmental spending. Lack of resources to oil the wheels makes change that much harder.

The committee’s flagship reports have been a major one in 2019 on British foreign policy in shifting world order, and an earlier one on Britain’s changing Middle East interests as a century of oil-related Middle East concerns have given way to the region’s propensities as a seedbed of terrorism and non-state anarchy and disruption.

These longer inquiries have been interspersed with shorter ones on the western Balkans and Yemen, and latterly on nuclear proliferation dangers and crumbling arms control, and on the Pacific Alliance; and with briefer ones still on UN reform, on Nato and on the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in April 2018.

Through all these there has been a common thread. This has been the urgent need to respond to new global threats which can only be handled by stronger and restored international rules, and fresh ties and alliances in an age of shifting power sources.

Until recently we seemed to be getting nowhere with Whitehall and the FCO. But the very latest message to the committee on overall foreign policy – a second response to our report from the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt (now otherwise engaged) – reflects a refreshingly different tone.

Pointing out that soon the world’s largest economy will not be a democracy, his latest message speaks of new engagement with Asian networks and the transformative impact on diplomacy of the ongoing digital and communications revolution.

This is a genuinely new pan-Whitehall foreign policy voice and it is very much in line with the direction which the International Relations Committee has been urging all along. Without undue conceit or vanity, it is just possible that their Lordships have made some modest impact on the conventional pattern of governmental strategic thinking.

The hope must be that the renewed committee continues with innovative pressures on officialdom, offering not just analysis of problems but also solutions to, or at least illuminations of, the colossal conundrums and paradoxes of a transformed 21st-century world order.

With the Commons utterly preoccupied for the time being, perhaps their Lordships can help fill the gap.

Lord Howell of Guildford is a Conservative peer and chair of the Lords International Relations Committee

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Howell - Lords Diary: Lord Howell


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