13 November 2000
Once again, today it is necessary to make the case for engagement not isolation as the basis of British foreign policy in the 21st Century. There are those who argue that standing apart is the safe and sensible response to a rapidly changing world. I disagree profoundly. Today’s world is shaped by alliances.
Not only are finance, technology and communications global today, so is politics. To maximise our national interest, therefore, Britain should be at the centre of the alliances and power structures of the international community, including the EU.
Too often, standing up for Britain has been measured solely in terms of standing up to "foreigners", not least the EU. Of course, we should defend British interests against anything, including misguided interventions by the EU, that undermines those interests. But it is in fact part of our interests to be a key partner in the world’s major alliances. Our task is not only to prevent those alliances harming us - an oddly defensive posture vis a vis allies. It is to harness those alliances in a far more positive and constructive way to enhance our interests. It is what I call "enlightened patriotism" and it is the true way of standing up for Britain.
The purpose of a nation’s foreign policy should be power, strength and influence in furtherance of its interests and beliefs. That purpose never changes. But the context in which it is pursued does.
Even ten years after the Cold War I am not sure we have fully understood how different the world is.
During the Cold War we knew where we stood. History and geography placed us all on one or other side. I am proud that in those - now distant - days a Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin saw what was at stake and acted accordingly. His leadership helped to create the Euro-Atlantic community. Peace and safety, Bevin argued, could be preserved "only by the mobilisation of such moral and material forces as would create confidence and energy on one side and inspire respect and caution on the other".
Without Bevin we might not have had such a policy but there is no doubt about where we stood. Nor, through the whole period of the Cold War, could there have been any doubt. On the other side of the Iron Curtain others, less fortunate than us, were in a similar position. They also, though for different reasons, had no choice. Containment in a sense contained us all.
Today is different. There is no single all-encompassing struggle from which we cannot escape.
The temptation, therefore is to say: we can sit foreign policy out. On the contrary, the case for engagement today is greater than ever before.
First, circumstances are propelling countries to seek common answers to problems increasingly global in scope.
There is no need for me to tell you that here in the City. You operate at the hub of global markets. And you don’t need to tell people outside the City who find that an economic storm in Thailand can put their jobs in Britain at risk. Fujitsu’s plant in Aycliffe was forced to close, not because it was a bad factory, but because of a financial crisis the other side of the world and a global glut in semiconductors. In the end the 1998 crisis had to be tackled together. The World Trade Organisation will work or not depending on international agreement and whether it works will dramatically impact on the living standards of millions of people.
What worries us today is less some neighbouring country invading us than the spread of nuclear weapons, missiles, biological and chemical weapons. We have seen also how Aids can spread from continent to continent, how crime can operate with global networks, how terrorists can transport their bitterness and their bombs across borders, as can religious fundamentalism. And those who do not believe in global warming should ask themselves if it was just an accident that the 1990s were the hottest decade in recorded history or that the storms and floods that have damaged this country were just a random occurrence, which is why today’s Conference at the Hague matters so much.
These are issues that can only be fully resolved by the global community as a whole. And now regional alliances play a big part in setting the agenda or tipping the balance in favour of one solution or another.
This is the second big change. A thumbnail sketch of international politics shows us that there is the USA - the only superpower. There are the older European powers, including Britain. There is China, with its great history, culture, vast population and, now economic dynamism. There is also India, the world’s largest democracy today with over one billion people, huge potential in the new information technology; Japan, not least because of its economy; and Russia, not least because of its land mass, natural resources and history. All of these are countries that wield substantial power even on their own. There may be others who because of size, population and position join them - Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But whether established powers or emerging, everyone is working out their place in the new world and the alliances to secure it. NAFTA in North America, Mercosur in South America; ASEAN; of course the EU. After the Cold War, much was written about whether NATO could survive. No one writes that today. The queue is those wanting to join.
The third change is Europe itself.
For centuries the countries of Europe have fought each other: the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the First and the Second World Wars, and finally the Cold War. "The history of the human race", said Churchill, "is war". And he was thinking of Europe. Peace, over the centuries, has been not much more than a period when you recovered from the last war and prepared for the next.
Today something quite extraordinary has happened. Within the EU, not only have we not fought each other for more than 50 years but we cannot even imagine fighting each other. All across Europe the great conscript armies are being dismantled. This is also something quite new. It means that within Europe at least we have a new currency of power. Military capability is still vital, but it is no longer such a vital factor in relations among EU countries. Where it is, it is because we are likely to be working together, as in the Balkans, rather than fighting each other.
Fourth, all the big countries have an interest now in stability. Even where there is change, we want it orderly. We don’t want change with chaos. There is too much to lose - in money, jobs and of course, with nuclear weapons, in the cataclysm that would be war. The threats are more to do with conflicts of secession or competing nationalisms. We know the MEPP matters not just to those in the Middle East; but to all of us and that is more than just the price of oil.
All this means the isolationist tendency is at odds with the new reality. There is a new world order like it or not, and we need to decide our place in it.
And of course it means difficult choices, especially when there is the possibility of military engagement. Every time I have pursued a policy of military engagement since becoming Prime Minister I have faced strong opposition, interestingly not so much from the traditional left as from parts of the right. This was true over Iraq, where with America, we have stood firm against the most dangerous dictator in the world today.
As Milosevic escalated his campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Albanians in Kosovo, there were many who said we should stand aside, that we shouldn’t get involved in other people’s quarrels, that ancient hatreds were better left to run their course.
I am in no doubt that had we not taken the action we did in the spring of last year, Milosevic would still be there and we would be faced with mounting instability in South Eastern Europe. NATO’s southern flank would be unstable. And there would be one million extra refugees seeking safety in the European Union.
On Sierra Leone there were those who said: what’s it got to do with us? But I am sure Britain’s and Europe’s long-term interests in Africa are best served, if we intervene, not excessively, but to do what we can to save African nations from barbarism and dictatorship and be proud of it. And talking of pride, there can be no better advertisement for this country’s values, spirit and professionalism than our Armed Forces.
So we are right to engage. Although not today a superpower, Britain is a pivotal power in international affairs. We are the fourth largest economy; we have armed forces second to none in quality, global commercial and financial reach, a seat on the UN Security Council, a world language, an unparalleled network of European and global alliances.
The task is to use these benefits to maximum advantage, a force for good, both in our own interests and those of the wider world. So we maintain our close and vital relationship with the USA. We build on historical ties like the Commonwealth. We forge strong bilateral links with Russia, China and Japan, with whom we have profound mutual interests. In each and every international club to which we belong, we play our part vigorously and to good effect, from the UN through to NATO.
In short, we must be out there, on our merits, confident in what we are as well as what we were, taken seriously not because of our history alone but because we have something clear, strong and valuable to offer, which we do.
If we approach foreign policy in this way, anything other than a constructive approach to Europe becomes frankly ludicrous. For a start, for the countries I have just mentioned and countless others from Asia to South America, Britain can be a friend in the European Union especially when arguing for free trade and open markets. Stronger in Europe is stronger outside Europe. Less influence in Europe means less influence: period.
But also British interests are now so intimately linked with those of the EU and after enlargement will be even more so. Europe is essential for British industry, British jobs, 3½ million of which depend directly on the EU. To cut ourselves off from the major strategic alliance on our doorstep would be an act of supreme folly.
If we want to stand up for Britain then we have to be in Europe, active, constructive, involved all the time. We have to negotiate toughly and get our way not stand aside and let other European countries make the decisions that matter to us.
Where we believe other countries are wrong, for example on tax harmonisation, we will say so. On the Euro, our position - in principle in favour, in practice provided the economic conditions are met - has not changed and will not change. The only thing I can say for certain is tomorrow someone will report this as a change of policy.
The point I am making is far wider than the Euro. It is that Britain’s interests demand we help shape European policy rather than, passively, be shaped by it.
Over the last three years, our engagement in Europe has transformed Britain’s relations with its nearest allies and it starting to transform Europe itself. Following the Lisbon Summit last March, the European Union is now embarked on a process of co-ordinated structural reform; a process that will create jobs in Britain and throughout Europe.
On defence, we are engaged in a debate that will ensure Europe’s defence policy proceeds absolutely consistently with NATO. We have now entered the debate about Europe’s political future, arguing that Europe can be a superpower, but should not be a superstate in which national identity is subsumed.
All this, to me, is obvious. In a world of alliances, we must have allies. And we do. So let us not throw away our massive advantages, let us make the most of them; be at the centre of events, not a spectator; in particular be a leading partner in Europe not a bit player.
And let us do it not because we are embarrassed about our national interest but because we believe in it. Someone - highly intelligent, but eurosceptic - said to me the other day: "But Norway or Switzerland do fine outside the EU." We have strong ties with both countries. But Britain is not Norway or Switzerland. By history, design and outlook, we are different.
The world needs us to be different. I feel sufficiently confident in British capability to believe we have something important to offer. To be the bridge between the US and the EU would alone justify the argument I am making. But our influence can and should go far beyond that.
It is all, in the end a choice. It is a pity that these arguments of isolationism continue to be so strong. It is our duty to counter them. To show that the patriot is not the person who pulls up the drawbridge and sits in his tower musing on the errors of the world; but the person who recognises that today no drawbridge makes a nation safe and that we are better out in the world, fighting for what we believe in; that tough choices over how to act are a better way of life than the soothing illusions of inactivity.
So my choice, whatever the criticisms, is for engagement. That is where I stand and where I hope and believe you stand too.