UK Foreign Policy after Trump

House of Lords debate on Foreign Affairs after President Trump

18 January 2017

I have been spending a lot of time recently researching the 1930s.

I am struck by the similarities between this suddenly turbulent and unpredictable age and those years.

  • Then as now, nationalism and protectionism were on the rise, democracy seemed to have failed;
  • people hungered for the government of strong men;
  • those who suffered most from economic pain felt alienated and turned towards simplistic solutions and strident voices;
  • public institutions, conventional politics, the old establishments were everywhere mistrusted and disbelieved;
  • compromise was out of fashion;
  • the centre collapsed in favour of the extremes;
  • the normal order of things didn’t function;
  • change – even revolution – was more appealing than the status quo
  • and “fake news” built around the effective lie, carried more weight in the public discourse than rational arguments and provable facts.
  • Painting a lie on the side of a bus and driving it round the country, would have seemed very normal in those days.

Perhaps the last time we stood as close to war as we stand now was at the height of the cold war.

But then, we had a comfort we do not have today.

Then, the Western liberal democracies stood together in defence of our interests and our shared values.

Now, under President Trump, the most powerful of our number thinks standing together,

is less important than going it alone;

abdication is preferable to international leadership;

collective action takes second place to America First.

Throughout the long years of the American century, we have taken great comfort in the fact that our alliance with the United States and its Presidents has been built not just on shared interests, but also on shared values.

Today we have to face the wrenching reality that this US President does not share our values – as his recent racist comments have so shockingly illustrated.

The liberal principles that have underpinned every civilised society, every peaceful age and every prosperous society are under attack as never before.

But President Trump appears more aligned with those forces ranged against liberal values than those seeking to defend them.

Throughout the long years of the American century we have taken comfort in the fact that the “Leader of the Western world”, while flawed like the rest of us, was well informed, judicious and cautious about going to war.

Now we have an American President who is ignorant, unpredictable, foolhardy and reckless.

(Bang goes my invitation to the Sate Dinner…)

This is frightening stuff for those who, like me, place their faith in the Atlantic Alliance.

So what do we do about it?

The answer is, grin and bear it in the hope that the US will find its way back to sanity.

After all, we in Britain are not entirely free of this kind of lurch into stupidity, just at the moment.

When the battle between the America we know and Donald Trump ends, only one side will remain standing. Either Donald Trump will destroy American democracy, as we know it. Or American democracy will destroy Donald Trump.

Personally my money is still on the American democracy.

But even if, on both sides of the Atlantic, we can find our way back to saner and safer ground, is there something deeper going on here?

The slow divergence of interest between Europe and the US does not date from President Trump’s election, although this has accelerated the process.

Even under President Obama the US gaze was looking more west across the Pacific than east across the Atlantic.

NATO and the Atlantic axis will remain Europe’s most important alliance for as far ahead as we can see.

But it will not be the same Alliance as it has been for the last 50 years. To remain strong the Atlantic relationship will have to look far more like J.F. Kennedy’s 1962 vision of a twin pillar NATO, than the present conjunction of a giant on one side and 21 pygmies on the other.

We will need a NATO which is mature enough to cope with areas where our interests do not elide –we should not be shy for example of calling out Israel for its illegal occupations, just because Washington doesn’t. Or of strenuously supporting the Iran nuclear deal, just because Mr Trump wants to pull the plug.

The United Sates will remain the world’s most powerful nation for the next decade or more.

But the context in which she holds her power has changed. The American century was one of the few periods in history when the world was mono-polar and dominated by a single colossus.

When all compasses had to point to Washington to define their positions, for or against.

Now we are moving into a multi-polar world – more like Europe in the nineteenth century than the last decades of the twentieth.

A foreign policy for the next fifty years based on what we have done for the last fifty, will be a foreign policy clumsily out of tune with the times. Which is exactly where we currently are. Everything has changed in the world, except Britain’s policies towards it.

British foreign policy in the post Trump era will need to be much more flexible, much more subtle, much more capable of building relationships on shared interests – even with those outside the Atlantic club – and even with whom we do not share values – than the simplicities of the last decades where we only needed to snuggle close to our friendly neighbourhood super power to be safe.

In a world dominated by a single superpower, might is the determiner of outcomes, not diplomacy. Our present foreign policy is dominated, not by diplomacy, but by high explosive. See a problem in the world, drop a bomb on it. The string of Western defeats; Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and most humiliating of all Syria should tell us that this age is over.

We have lost contact with the truth of Clausewitz, that war is an extension of diplomacy by other means. We have remembered the war but forgotten the diplomacy – and so we have failed.

In an age where building alliances, will protect and enhance Britain’s interests, better than using military capacity alone, high explosive will be less useful to us than diplomacy.

To be diminishing our diplomatic capacity, as we are currently doing, is folly of a very high order.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the current slide towards isolationism, is that, in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, the only solutions to our problems are multinational ones.

Climate change, trade imbalance, resource depletion, population growth, nuclear proliferation, over-population, poverty, migration, suppressing conflict – these are the greatest problems we face – and not one can be solved by nations acting alone.

As a medium sized nation with global reach but diminishing weight, it is in our interests to see a rule based world order, rather than one shaped by might. So actively pursuing the strengthening of multilateral institutions, should be a cardinal principle of a sensible British foreign policy,

Lastly we have to deal with the consequences of our own folly.

I make no secret of it.

We Lib Dems seek to reverse Brexit, which has already resulted in a catastrophic shrinkage of our ability to protect our interests abroad.

I reject the notion that, in seeking to reverse Brexit we are acting either undemocratically or unpatriotically. Any more than, for instance, the noble Lord Lord Forsyth, who I know to be both a democrat and a patriot, was offending either principle by seeking to change the country’s mind after the 1975 referendum.

But one thing is certain – in the EU or out, our foreign policy must continue to place its first emphasis on working intimately with our European neighbours. Because that is the best – indeed the only way – to pursue our nation’s interests in a dangerous, volatile and turbulent age.

It is too little recognised just how much the terms of our existence as Europeans have changed these last two decades.

Europe now faces an isolationist US President to our west, the most aggressive Russian President of recent times to our east and all around us, economic powers growing up, some already stronger than any single European nation.

The right reaction to this new context, is not to allow ourselves to broken up and scattered, but to deepen European co-operation and co-ordination.

So, inside the single market and customs union, or out – inside the EU or separated from it – our only sensible foreign policy is to proceed in lock step with our European neighbours.

I can put it no better than the Government’s own paper on post-Brexit foreign policy. Britain’s future relationship with the EU should be – and I quote – : “unprecedented in its breadth, taking in cooperation on foreign policy, defence and security, and development.”

Precisely My Lords.

The question we debate today is, does the Government mean it, or will the country’s interests once again be hi-jacked by the anti-European prejudices of the Tory Party?

My Lords, I beg to move.