We are at peace, we are prosperous and we live on an island– so why do we bother doing foreign policy at all?
For most of our history, the world has been dominated by the brutal maxim that the “strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Might was always right, and power was all that counted and nations down the centuries seemed grimly compelled to vindicate Shakespeare’s warning:
“Power into will,
will into appetite;
and appetite, a universal wolf,
so doubly seconded with will and power, must make perforce a universal prey and last eat up himself.”
As Foreign Secretary of a former imperial power, I know that in the past we succumbed to the temptation of will and appetite. And none of us can forget how, in the 20th century, aggressive tyrants made the globe their prey, starting two world wars and leaving over 100 million people dead. And afterwards our predecessors realised that humanity would not survive another catastrophe of that scale.
So a generation of far-sighted leaders built an assembly of international rules and institutions designed to make law – not power alone – the arbiter of relations between states. Britain joined hands with the United States of America, with France and nearly 50 other nations to create the United Nations. And the UN General Assembly adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights without a single dissenting vote, proclaiming – and I quote – the “inalienable right of all members of the human family”.
In the same era, 23 nations founded what would become the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank began to fund reconstruction and recovery across the globe. The volume of world trade has multiplied 40 times since 1950, generating countless jobs and livelihoods in every corner of the earth. And in recent decades, the fastest economic growth has been concentrated in the developing world.
Now, the UK wants to welcome Brazil, India, Japan and Germany as permanent members of the UN Security Council, alongside permanent African representation. Our aim is to uphold a historic shared achievement that benefits everyone. And I honestly shudder to think what might follow if through neglect, or complacency or timidity, we turned away and allowed what we have worked for to be torn down.
Today we have no higher priority than to support our Ukrainian friends until they prevail, as they inevitably will. But that will not be enough to sustain the international order unless its principles and institutions command the support of the world beyond Europe and North America. We are living in a momentous period of history when the pace of change is accelerating at hurricane force.
As recently as 2001, 80 percent of countries conducted more trade with the US than with China. Yet by 2018 there had been an almost complete reversal: nearly 70 percent of nations trade more now with China than the US. And in the coming decades, an ever greater share of the world economy – and therefore the world’s power – will be in the hands of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
As Foreign Secretary, I will make a long term and sustained effort to revive old friendships and build new ones, reaching far beyond our long-established alliances. My starting point is that we don’t view the changing balance of power with any sense of loss or regret.
The reason why the world’s geopolitical centre of gravity is moving south and east is precisely because hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty. And that, that is the single most wondrous development of my lifetime. And it’s a vindication of the world order, a vindication of free trade, of international development, of innovation and scientific advance, in fact everything that Britain has spent generations working for.
Now, we have to recognise that the UK’s future influence will depend on persuading and winning over a far broader array of countries in the Commonwealth, in the African Union, in ASEAN and elsewhere. Many are old friends; others we know less well. They often describe themselves as “non-aligned” and they are wary of committing themselves in any direction just because other countries want them to, and that is exactly as it should be.
Our job is to make our case and earn their support, investing in relationships based on patient diplomacy, on respect, on solidarity, and a willingness to listen. Because this isn’t about dictating or telling others what they should do: we want a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship, based on shared interests and common principles. And that means always thinking 10, 15, 20 or more years ahead. We must have strategic endurance, a willingness to commit to relationships for decades to come.
During my time as Foreign Secretary, I want to make sure that our diplomacy is focused on that time horizon. Because the interests that we are protecting and the values that we are promoting will outlive any and all political cycles here in [Nigeria and in] the UK. The main focus of the future powers that I’m discussing is on securing their own economic development and their own resilience against threats, including from climate change, from disease and from terrorism.
We will press on with developing clear, compelling and consistent UK offers, tailored to their needs and our strengths, spanning trade, development, defence, cyber security, technology, climate change and environmental protection. Because we know that in the coming decades there will be economic shocks, and climate change will have its baleful effects, and countries will want technology, finance and access to markets to support their development.
That’s why, in the last year, the UK has offered guarantees to allow almost £5 billion of extra multilateral finance for the developing world, and we support the ambitions of the Bridgetown Agenda to reform the financial system and unlock more resources. And we will offer a reliable source of infrastructure investment through the British Investment Partnerships, through UK Export Finance, and through the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure.
We’ve got the message and we know that resources need to flow more quickly from these initiatives into real projects on the ground. And we will make full use of the powers we have regained by leaving the EU, including the ability to sign free trade deals, and Mutual Recognition Agreements, designed to encourage innovation and reduce trading costs.
In the end, all our fortunes will depend on a stable and peaceful international order. My generation was born long after the Second World War and we reached adulthood just as the Cold War was coming to an end. We stand on the shoulders of wise and compassionate leaders who created the laws and institutions that prevented a universal relapse into the old order, where the strong prey upon the weak. Now the UK must work with our international allies and new partners to sustain the best of this achievement, which seeks to protect every country and create the setting for everyone to prosper.
That’s why our diplomats and our development experts make the effort; that’s why I fly somewhere almost every week, that’s the ministers in this department do likewise, that’s why I’m striving to build the partnerships of the future, so our country can flourish, alongside our friends, both old and new.
-Cleverly is the UK Foreign Secretary