The case I want to argue today, is that the world is facing some very serious dangers, and that the UK is – in many ways – acting to exacerbate those dangers rather than make the contribution it could make to mitigate and resolve them. The UK is a middle ranking power with considerable diplomatic, military and development competence. It could do so much by working with others to reinforce the international rules based system that it claims to believe in, rather than desperately hanging on to an increasingly threadbare claim to “global reach and global influence”.
The UK has of course seen its role in the world change massively over theIn the post-Cold War world, where the US has an increasingly muddled sense of its place in the world, and is having a major problem of adjusting to its’ relative decline and the rise of Asia, it becomes increasingly embarrassing for Britain to be so focused on hanging onto America’s coats tails past 70 years. At the end of the Second World War it was economically exhausted but the Empire was still intact. It managed to disentangle the reins of Empire reasonably well, helped by a US that did not at that stage believe in colonialism, and even more by the resistance of the colonised people. But I fear that the days of empire have left the UK is left with the hangover of an unhealthy desperation to be a major player on the world stage, encapsulated in that deeply unattractive image of itself as wanting to “punch above its’ weight”. It is this I believe that has led to an obsession with the special relationship, being a nuclear power and retaining a seat on the Security Council, at all costs. There is a very readable book by Peter Riddle, the former assistant editor of the Times entitled Hug them Close which shows that every prime minister since 1945 has been obsessed with maintaining the special relationship with the exception of Edward Heath – whose whole focus was fixed on getting the UK into the EU.
It is hardly surprising that Britain treasured the relationship with the US, as it adjusted to its reduced role in the world. And this reality was reinforced by the divisions of the Cold War. But in the post-Cold War world, where the US has an increasingly muddled sense of its place in the world, and is having a major problem of adjusting to its’ relative decline and the rise of Asia, it becomes increasingly embarrassing for Britain to be so focused on hanging onto America’s coats tails. I do not for a minute suggest that the UK should fall out with the US, or become hostile in any way; what I do suggest is that the UK should consider afresh what are the major dangers facing us and the wider world and consider how we can better manage our own interests, and contribute to a safer more sustainable global order. I also believe that such a fundamental rethink of UK policy would increase our effectiveness and make us a better friend of the US.
It is not uncommon for those who make this argument to be attacked as anti-American, though it is surely not friendship to encourage an old friend into ever increasing folly. I think therefore I can do no better in describing the problems of the current US position, than to quote from the very articulate lecture given by Ambassador Charles W Freeman on ‘The End Of The American Empire‘ on April 2, 2016. It is worth noting that Ambassador Freeman completed 30 years service in the US foreign and Defence service. He was Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989-92 during the Gulf War. And he was nominated by President Obama to chair the National Intelligence Council, but after criticism from what he called the Israeli lobby, he withdrew his name.
The following is an extract from his lecture:
In the Cold War, we ruled the roost in a sphere of influence called ‘the free world’ – free only in the sense that it included every country outside the competing Soviet sphere of influence, whether democratic or aligned with the United States or not. With the end of the Cold War, we incorporated most of the former Soviet sphere into our own, pushing our self-proclaimed responsibility to manage everything within it, right up to the borders of Russia and China. Russia’s unwillingness to accept that everything beyond its territory is ours to regulate, is the root cause of the crises in Georgia and Ukraine. China’s unwillingness to acquiesce in perpetual U.S. dominance of its near seas is the origin of the current tensions in the South China Sea…
This is of course a very important argument to which I will return. He continues:
These American conceits are, of course, delusional. They are all the more unpersuasive to foreigners because everyone can see that America is now in a schizophrenic muddle – able to open fire at perceived enemies but delusional, distracted, and internally divided to the point of political paralysis…Congress may be on strike against the rest of the government, but our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines remain hard at work. Since the turn of the century, they have been kept busy fighting a series of ill-conceived wars – all of which they have lost or are losing. The major achievement of multiple interventions in the Muslim world has been to demonstrate that the use of force is not the answer to very many problems, but that there are few problems it cannot aggravate. Our repeated inability to win and end our wars has damaged our prestige with our allies and adversaries alike. Still, with the Congress engaged in a walkout from its legislative responsibilities and the public in revolt against the mess in Washington, American global leadership is not much in evidence except on the battlefield, where its results are not impressive.
Diplomacy-free foreign policy blows up enough things to liven up the TV news but it generates terrorist blowback and it’s expensive. There is a direct line of causation between European and American interventions in the Middle East and the bombings in Boston, Paris, and Brussels as well as the flood of refugees now inundating Europe. And so far this century, we’ve racked up over $6 trillion in outlays and future financial obligations in wars that fail to achieve much, if anything, other than breeding anti-American terrorists with global reach.
We borrowed the money to conduct these military activities abroad at the expense of investing in our homeland. What we have to show for staggering additions to our national debt is falling living standards for all but the “one percent,” a shrinking middle class, a rising fear of terrorism, rotting infrastructure, unattended forest fires, and eroding civil liberties. Yet, with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, every major party candidate for president promises not just to continue — but to double down on — the policies that produced this mess.
I recommend a reading of the whole lecture – and indeed his lectures on the Middle East – but I hope this extract clearly summarises what serious difficulties the US is currently facing. And yet it is to this muddled thinking that British foreign policy is centrally dedicated. The recently published National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence Review commits the UK to almost every objective one can think of, but on the US relationship it says:
[T]he US is the leading global economic and defence power, and the world continues to look to it to shape global stability and to lead international responses to crisis. The Prime Minister and the President of the United States have recently reaffirmed the essential nature of our special relationship. The US is our pre-eminent partner for security, defence, foreign policy and prosperity. Our contribution to the special relationship includes our European and global reach and influence; intelligence; the strategic location of our overseas territories; as well as military interoperability, and the U.K.’s ability to undertake war fighting independently or as a lead nation in a coalition.
British Government – National Security Strategy & Strategic Defence Review.
The document goes on to commit to strengthening the interoperability with the US of our Armed Forces so that they are better able to work together when required through regular planning and training together – and thus it would seem showing an intention to join in more failed wars.
I am afraid that Ambassador Charles Freeman is closer to reality then our Strategic Defence Review. The US is in difficulty, making serious mistakes that exacerbate the problems of the Middle East and the danger of terrorist attacks; and UK unconditional support simply enlarges the problem. This surely imposes a duty on those of us who understand the mistakes that are being made to come together and work to persuade public opinion that we could make a much more useful contribution and that we should refocus the central thinking in our foreign policy.
The adjustment of the 1997 government to the post-Cold War world was a commitment to the establishment of the Department for International Development (DFID). This arose from Labour’s traditional commitment to strengthening departmental arrangements on development, but this was the first establishment of a separate department headed by a Cabinet Minister. DFID was allocated a growing budget, but almost more importantly, as a full department, it was entitled to challenge UK policy on trade, environment, arms sales, conflict resolution and so on. This was sometimes uncomfortable. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was very upset by the establishment of the new department and went out of its way to try to destabilise it; the old leadership in the Department of Trade and Industry was astonished to find its views on Britain’s trade interests challenged by this upstart department. There were similar reactions in other parts of Whitehall on arms sales in particular, but over time the new department was seen to be a success and both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister begun to identify themselves with the development work of the government.
It was in the government’s second term, after 9/11 that the commitment to the special relationship took overwhelming priority and the disaster of the Iraq war unfolded.
Remarkably, the incoming Coalition government in 2010 committed to retain the separate department and the commitment to a budget of 0.7% of GDP. And the Conservative government which took power in 2015 retains that commitment. Cynics say that this happened because the conservative party was so anxious to “decontaminate the Tory brand”, and that may have been part of the motive, but nonetheless the UK ODA budget has risen from about £2.5billion in 1997 to £12 billion now. A price has been paid for this. There are constant attacks in the media and from the right wing of the Conservative party on British development work and this has led to defensiveness, aversion to risk, and massive bureaucratic regulation.
A new aid strategy alongside the Government’s National Security Strategy was presented to Parliament by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the support of the Secretary of State for International Development in November 2015 as part of the Spending Review. The following are its’ priorities
to allocate 50% of all DFID’s spending to fragile states and regions – the current target is 30%
to increase aid spending for the Syrian crisis and the related region – this is hardly surprising and reflects Treasury determination to minimise Syrian costs
to end all traditional general budget support – this is sad, budget support is the means to help countries strengthen their government systems rather than parachute in aid which then comes to an end leaving nothing sustainable behind it.
to use an expanded cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) to underpin our security objectives by supporting the international work of the National Security Council (NSC) – this is to be a massive fund of over £1billion pa which is not to be managed by Dfid and is to be focused on UK security objectives
to create a £500 million ODA crisis reserve to allow still greater flexibility to respond to emerging crises such as the displacement of Syrian refugees – the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD which sets the rules on what counts as official development assistance, allows the first year spending on refugees to be counted
to fund a new £1 billion commitment to global public health (the “Ross Fund”) which will fund work to tackle the most dangerous infectious diseases,
to use a new cross-government Prosperity Fund, led by the NSC, to drive forward our aim of promoting global prosperity- this is another major fund not managed by Dfid
It will be interesting to see how this policy rolls out. More and more of the money is being allocated through departments other than DFID and the development effort is to be tied in more tightly to government security policy objectives, but the commitments to implement the Sustainable Development Goals and their focus on poverty has been maintained.
My conclusion is that there is a clear tension between a commitment to a world that is more safe and stable because poverty is reduced, [Newly established as] a full department, DFID was entitled to challenge UK policy on trade, environment, arms sales, conflict resolution and so on.public services improved and conflicts are resolved – which grow out of the core commitment to international development – and the support for a big growth in military spending, an expanding NATO and for the current muddle of a militarily aggressive US foreign policy. But it is important to note that they increased commitment to development which has now been maintained for 20 years has created this tension at the core of UK foreign policy and therefore opened the opportunity to enhance the policy framework that follows from the development perspective. This will require a shift in our relationship with the US to one where we feel able to disagree, vote differently in the Security Council and refuse to join misguided warmongering (which Harold Wilson did to his eternal credit in case of Vietnam).
It is now perhaps right to turn to an outline of the crises facing the world which will enable up to focus on the way in which our foreign policy should be shifted. What follows does not claim to be an exhaustive account of those challenges but provided an outline of the problems that must be faced.
The first gathering crises results from climate change. Suffering is already being experienced in increased droughts and floods and these are likely to escalate and lead to the displacement of very large numbers of people and the risk of more conflict. On this the UK has adopted a different position to that of the US – and President Obama has bravely tried to shift the US position. On Climate Change, EU leadership has been strong and principled and for this reason, as well as many others, we must do all we can to maintain the UK membership of the EU – whatever the flaws in some of its arrangements. There has been some backsliding by the present government in relation to this policy within the UK but development policy is strongly committed to work on climate change, adaptation and resilience. I fear that the UK position on this question would be likely to deteriorate if, as I think unlikely, the referendum were to results in a vote for Brexit.
The second major crisis that may well intensify and is unlikely to be resolved for many years is the crises of the Middle East – with its links to the growth of Islamist terrorism worldwide. On this the US is tied to a massively unbalanced commitment to Israel which helps to inflame the region and threaten Israel’s long-term future. And just as President Obama seems to be calling into question the US relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – the UK appears to be determined to strengthen these alliances. The claim of UK support from an international rules base system is called into question by a failure to take any action to try to require Israel to abide by international law. And EU policy that gives Israel privileged access to EU markets and various funds and programs, without requiring it to abide by the commitments to international norms and human rights, which are a condition of its’ trade treaties, leads to justified claims of hypocrisy, and causes resentment and hostility to the EU in the region.
On this issue the UK could play a more constructive role and has historical responsibility that should encourage it to do so. It should be willing to separate from US policy, help to push the EU to apply the conditions containing in its trade Treaty and to be willing to work with other allies to develop a coalition committed to a just future for the Palestinians, and a halt to Israeli expansionism.
We should also work with others to bring an immediate end to the Syrian war rather than follow the complete muddle of US policy. We should similarly work to try to defuse the growing Iranian/Saudi – Sunni/Shia conflict which has been exacerbated by the consequences of the Iraq war, and threatens prolonged instability and conflict in the region. We did well to support the Iranian peace deal but there are many dedicated to undoing it. And our increased concentration on our relationship with Saudi Arabia– which I presume is led by an unhealthy focus on arms sales– makes our interventions unbalanced and unhelpful.
We also face the prospects of the doubling of Africa’s population and the risk of a growth of instability in a very youthful, urbanising continent on Europe’s doorstep. This requires a much more concentrated effort to promote jobs, public services and hope for the future. Our development efforts make a contribution here but this issue requires more focus from all relevant international institutions to prevent instability and conflict and give the people of the continent the chance of a better future.
My view of the migration crisis is that we should commit to a renegotiation of the Geneva Convention so that it is no longer necessary to arrive in order to apply for asylum. It is this requirement that ensures that the current system is run by criminals who specialise in people smuggling. This requirement also makes it difficult to return economic migrants to their countries and thus undermines public support for a decent asylum system. But this renegotiation is only possible if each of our countries agree to receive reasonable numbers of asylum seekers in a properly organised and fair way.
The issue of Al Qaeda/ Isis terrorism will We should commit to a renegotiation of the Geneva Convention so that it is no longer necessary to arrive in order to apply for asylum. It is this requirement that ensures that the current system is run by criminals who specialise in people smuggling. This requirement also makes it difficult to return economic migrants to their countries and thus undermines public support for a decent asylum system.remain a problem for sometime to come but can be contained and resolved if policy towards the Middle East can be intelligently reconsidered. We should remember our experience of Irish terrorism and various left wing groups in continental Europe and apply the lessons learned rather than pursuing the present policy of inflaming fear and Islamaphobia.
The expansion of Nato up to Russia’s borders should also be reconsidered. I cannot understand why Ukraine cannot be encouraged to trade with both Russia and Europe, rather than be encouraged to hope for membership of the EU and Nato. And in the South China Sea, where we are a very marginal player, it is surely in everyone’s interest to keep shipping lanes open rather than escalate military spending and tension across the region.
It is not my view that the future is hopeless. The progress made in Paris on climate change was important. The advances taking place in renewable energy technology are encouraging. Current policies towards the Middle East are so obviously flawed that they have to change – though it could get worse before it gets better. The prospects for development in Africa are considerable and with a large, young, educated population keen to embrace new technologies and a better future, the prospects could be bright. However business as usual will create intensifying problems. The UK does not have the capacity to change all of this alone but if it were willing to shift focus, including being willing to consider negotiating away its nuclear weapons and to support a revamp of the Security Council to better reflect the modern world, it could help defuse some of the current problems and even help the US to reconsider some of the errors of its current policies. This would also be a shift in priorities that the citizens and one of the most diverse countries in the world could be proud of.
In conclusion I want to suggest that although there are many voices of criticism of UK foreign policy–on nuclear weapons, arms sales, Israel/Palestine, the special relationship, the EU, NATO, development policy etc, there is a lack of positive vision how the UK could play amore constructive role that would better serve our own interests and that of the wider world. There is no significant political party that is likely– as yet–to put forward such a strategy. And the establishment think tanks make their contributions within the existing conventional wisdom. I would like to therefore suggest that those who are critical of current UK foreign policy – and they are many- should try to create a new network around which all those who share an alternative vision could cluster and work together to elaborate a more constructive role for Britain in the world – which in time could influence the mainstream UK foreign policy outlook.