Profile: The Foreign Office, damaged by the retreat from Kabul, but free at last of Blairite illusions

3 Sep

The retreat from Afghanistan leaves the Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary much diminished in reputation. Dominic Raab was unable, in his appearance on Wednesday before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to efface the impression that until Sunday 15th August, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, he and his colleagues fell far below the level of events.

They were unable or unwilling to grasp how quickly the situation was deteriorating. Raab had gone on holiday, and at first refused to come back.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, who should have been directing the urgent redeployment of staff and other resources to meet the emergency, was likewise on holiday, and disinclined to return.

And one regrets to say that Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador in Kabul, had apparently been given instructions to leave, along with his staff, even though they were the people with the local knowledge needed to process the mass of applications from Afghans who had worked for the British – an order countermanded at the last moment as far as the ambassador was concerned.

It would be unfair to judge this lamentable performance against some imaginary standard of perfection. Evacuations are seldom easy, and this one could have been a hell of a lot more bloody, as Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, points out in this week’s Spectator.

And the wishful thinking which permeated the Foreign Office, the belief (as Raab said on Wednesday) that it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year, was widely shared, not only in Downing Street but in Washington.

Wallace makes an astute point about the impossibility of knowing exactly when a regime will collapse:

“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.”

But in such circumstances, political judgement becomes all the more important. One needs to recognise the point at which changing facts on the ground have rendered the intelligence obsolete.

And long before that point, one has to be careful about relying too heavily on intelligence which says “we are winning”. When the intelligence agencies, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and others agree an assessment at the Joint Intelligence Committee, it is extremely difficult for them to be impartial.

No one has a strong incentive to say “we are losing” or even “my department’s work does not appear to be all that effective”, especially when the actual moment of defeat is probably still a long way off.

Considerable figures – Richard Holbrooke for the Americans and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles on the British side – who long ago warned that we had adopted a losing strategy in Afghanistan were not heeded.

Raab and his officials are reported to be on poor terms. This is in part a matter of personality. Raab likes to have things under control.

Everything has to pass through the Foreign Secretary’s extremely large private office. Officials and junior ministers are allowed very little discretion. Relations with other departments are likewise kept under strict control, and are not at all good.

But this is not just a matter of temperament, important though that is. It is also a question of what kind of a department the Foreign Office is, and what it is for.

Forget for a moment nation-building in Afghanistan. Within the Foreign Office itself, there has also been a kind of nation-building going on: an attempt to bring the department into strict conformity with the most progressive ideas of how the British nation should be, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.

Ambassadors recently started stating at the end of an email their preferred pronouns, and at the foot of the staircase in the Foreign Office photographs were put on display of the first woman ambassador, the first black ambassador and so forth.

All this was in full accordance with what Tony Blair and his followers were preaching both at home and abroad. Liberal interventionism, set out in his Chicago speech of April 1999, had become the new orthodoxy.

In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, Blair at once declared, in his Labour Conference speech,

“The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

And in his memoirs, published in 2010, he writes, with reference to Afghanistan and Iraq:

“I conceived of September 11 as making all previous analyses redundant, or at least duty-bound for re-examination. We could no longer presume that countries in which this virus persisted were none of our business. In the choice between a policy of management and a policy of revolution, I had become a revolutionary.”

So the costly attempt to build a liberal democracy in Afghanistan had begun. Successive Foreign Secretaries followed Blair’s lead and have spoken of our moral duty to uphold women’s rights in Afghanistan.

This policy had the merit, for its advocates, of being impossible for any western politician to oppose. It nevertheless sounded like an inadequate reason for putting British troops in harm’s way, and now stands exposed as the most flagrant Blairite humbug.

All of which is rather confusing for the Foreign Office. To its dismay, it has lost the European Union, the cause to which so many of its best minds have been devoted since the 1960s.

True, it has gained the Department for International Development, but it cannot be said as yet fully to have digested this acquisition.

And yet through the fog of battle, elements of a new doctrine can be discerned. Spending on defence has already been increased, with the Treasury conceding, quite exceptionally, a four-year settlement, while spending on aid has been cut.

There has been a shift from soft to hard power; from liberal idealism to Realpolitik. The Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, John Bew, is the author not only of biographies of Castlereagh, one of the great Foreign Secretaries, and Attlee, but of Realpolitik: A History, a subtle study in which is found the observation:

“To define oneself as standing for or against something remains a natural human inclination, as does seeking reconciliation between one’s morals and the nasty, brutish world. Yet it is also an activity better suited to moral philosophy or theology than to foreign policy analysis.”

Realpolitik does not offer some simple key to foreign policy dilemmas. To understand reality, and act in accordance with that reality, is a complicated and never-ending endeavour.

But one of the themes running through the present Prime Minister’s career is a delight in exposing liberal humbug, and a keen appreciation of the real balance of forces in any particular situation.

Boris Johnson is not, palpably, a perfectionist. Nor is he a preacher who gets caught up in visions of his own moral greatness. He is a realist, an anti-Blair, inclined to take people as they are, rather than attempt, whether in Britain or Afghanistan, to remake them as they ought to be.

One aspect of realism in foreign policy is to recognise that success may hardly be noticed; may indeed be achieved because no one is boasting about it.

Our policy at the United Nations, carefully concerted with France and apparently working rather well, is a contemporary example of this.

Triumphalism in foreign policy can be a very dangerous sign. One thinks of Neville Chamberlain giving way to it after Munich. Nor is expertise of much value, when unaccompanied by a commonsensical estimate of what is and isn’t possible.

Sir Anthony Eden offers the great modern warning: an expert who lacked the mental robustness to cope at the highest level, and got us into Suez. In the mid-19th-century, we find Lord Aberdeen, the Conservatives’ most trusted authority on foreign affairs, a man with a deep horror of war, who got us into the Crimean War because he failed to impress on Tsar Nicholas I the danger Russia would run by seizing Turkish territory.

It is fruitless to seek for some golden age in British foreign policy. Even at the height of the British Empire, it consisted most often in the management of weakness.

No sane British statesman ever committed the British Army to a continental conflict except in case of dire necessity, and victory could only then be attained by building coalitions.

Britannia ruled the waves for a hundred years after Trafalgar, but the Royal Navy could not avert humiliations which occurred at numerous points on land, including the retreat from Kabul in 1842, from which there was only one survivor.

The expedition in early 1885 to rescue the wretched, rash, intruding General Gordon from Khartoum arrived just too late.

And within living memory we have seen America, as the great imperial power, exposed to similar humiliations, of which the worst was in Vietnam.

But America still emerged victorious from the Cold War. The retreat from Kabul has filled the August press, and prompted a cry of anguish from Blair.

It marks a change of tone in western policy: a move away from the hubristic policy of nation-building. But there is no reason why, in any but the very short term, it should signify a weakening either of the United States, or of the British Government’s development of a more realistic foreign policy, entrusted to a revived Foreign Office and, before long, to a new Foreign Secretary.

Ryan Henson and James Rogers: The reformed Foreign Office has a fresh chance to counter China and Russia

21 Sep

Ryan Henson is Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Global Prosperity. James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society.

Earlier this month, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) merged into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), a new “superministry” charged with representing and projecting British interests around the world.

Appearing before Parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee this week, the Prime Minister said that within the new department, overseas aid should serve ‘the diplomatic, the political, and the values of the UK.’ We wholeheartedly agree, for we believe the UK must continue to be a force for good in the world.

Indeed, as the international system starts to experience profound geopolitical change – a shift that looks set to accelerate over the next decade – it is in all our interests that the integration of Britain’s foreign and development policy be a success.

According to Britain’s most recent national security assessment – The National Security Capability Review (2018) – the world is witnessing “the resurgence of state-based threats, intensifying wider state competition and the erosion of the rules-based international order”, which has made “it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats.” Likewise, the assessment also emphasised the detrimental impact of climate change.

Geopolitics can no longer be ignored. For the 700 million people who still live in extreme poverty – many in dysfunctional or failed states – will be the first to suffer as authoritarian, revisionist powers continue to expand their influence or if climate change accelerates.

Make no mistake: Russia and China have burst onto the international scene over the past decade. They are deeply authoritarian powers, and their vision of how the world should look is very different to our own. Both regimes see democratic values and liberal principles as dangerous to their own existence. Both seek to extinguish them.

This can be seen by Russia’s “non-linear” offensives in Ukraine and Syria. In Ukraine, the Kremlin has fermented civil war to prevent the country from opening up and moving closer towards the European Union and NATO. In Syria, Russia has engaged in the country’s decade-long civil war to boost its own position in the Levant and broader Middle East and prevent reformers from gaining in influence.

Meanwhile, China has weaponised international development with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as its geo-economic and geopolitical push into Africa and South America. Underpinned by a US$1 trillion budget over the next thirty years, China’s efforts through the BRI provide investment for developing countries, while seeking to capture their political elites so they support, or at least do not challenge, China’s broader international objectives. This has often been achieved through the establishment of so-called “debt traps”. By providing developing countries with loans they will never be able to repay, China is able to compel them, often by stealth, into dependency.

While China’s BRI could not be more different to Britain’s lifesaving overseas aid work, it may have had more impact. It is certainly more well-known. With the creation of its new world-facing superministry, the UK ought to strengthen its position as an effective force for good in the world.

While the FCDO should retain and entrench DFID’s lifesaving development expertise, it should also better ensure that Britain adapts to both prepare for, and combat, the emerging threats to the world’s most vulnerable people. If the UK is to stand up for them, it must also stand up for their right to determine their own destiny, free of the threat of climate change and interference from foreign progenates.

The FCDO would therefore do well to initiate an internationally recognised programme of its own – an “International Prosperity Initiative” – to provide an alternative to the “aid” agendas of authoritarian rivals. In practise, this would mean the UK continuing to lead the fight against preventable diseases. Over the past 20 years DfID has helped defeat Ebola in Sierra Leone, saved 6.2 million people from dying of malaria, and immunised 67.1 million more children against preventable diseases. The emergence and spread of Covid-19 only makes this work more important.

It would also mean continuing to support girls’ education, so that the next generation of women are more able to participate as equals in society. The FCDO could make girls in school safer by rapidly and significantly ramping up efforts to eliminate violence in schools, while supporting governance, taxation, and redistribution projects that will be essential to lifting the poorest women out of poverty.

At the same time, an “International Prosperity Initiative” would seek to revolutionise poverty alleviation by combating environmental degradation and promoting more inclusive, open, and responsive, democratic government. Britain could fund more efforts to develop green technologies and help spread them to developing countries, while boosting educational programmes to encourage critical thinking in schools so that the next generation of young people are able to challenge authoritarian narratives.

It’s time to gear up for the future. The UK is not without capacity: we spend on Official Development Assistance approximately 70 per cent of what China spends per year on the BRI. It goes without saying that we should not devise an “aid” programme like China’s, but if we can seize the opportunities the new FCDO offers, Britain can strengthen its capacity to extend international prosperity. In doing so, we will save and improve lives, defend vulnerable people from authoritarian advances, and keep British values at the heart of geopolitics in the twenty-first century.

Jude D’Alesio: The Budget must be centred on young people

30 Aug

Jude D’Alesio, aged 19, is one of the youngest school governors in Britain, and is a Law student at the University of Bristol.

When I listen to my grandparents complain relentlessly about the lockdown, I cannot help but feel slightly frustrated. Frustrated, because I have sacrificed a term at university to go into lockdown to save them from this virus!

The government’s imposition of a lockdown in the UK was aimed at protecting those most vulnerable to contracting coronavirus, principally the elderly. There is no doubt that this was the correct decision, and Prof Neil Ferguson stated that lockdown should have been imposed earlier.

Over 95 per cent of coronavirus deaths have occurred in those older than 60, and 50 per cent of all deaths have occurred in those over 80 according to the WHO. It is only right, therefore, that we seek to protect the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society, from the disease, and the country is certainly united in this goal.

It is undeniable, however, that lockdown has taken a significant toll on the younger generation, of which I am a part. In higher education, lectures have gone digital, and some teaching missed altogether. This especially disadvantages final year students, many of whom will be embarking on their careers with significant gaps in their knowledge, particularly critical in professions like medicine.

There is also the immense damage caused to secondary and further education by the lockdown. At least a whole term of work missed will prove acute in those at crucial points in their education, namely GCSE’s and A levels.

Being robbed of the chance to outperform your predicted grades after months of hard work will deny many the chance to attend the best universities. This can only be negative, as we want our younger generations to receive the best education possible to enable them to pursue their ambitions.

Families with the lowest incomes will be hit hardest by the effects of distance learning; not being able to effectively participate in online classes due to a lack of technology will inevitably create skills gaps among the poorest in our society.

For all these reasons, the next Budget should be focused on, and most beneficial for, young people: their education, their skills, their opportunities.

In many ways, the pandemic has breathed fresh unity into our country as we are united in fighting the virus. It seems fair, therefore, that everyone should in some way bear the cost of the current recession. However, as the lockdown came at the cost of young people, there are undoubtedly changes benefiting young people which can be implemented in the next Budget.

Scrapping the triple lock is a great start. The triple lock, implemented by the Cameron government, increases pensions in accordance with the Retail Price Index, average earnings or 2.5per cent, whichever proves highest. This could enable savings of £8bn a year, according to a leaked Treasury document.

The current main rate of corporation tax, sitting at 19 per cent, has been stagnant since 2017. Such desperate times surely call for a cut in the rate, in line with the government’s aim to make us more competitive post-Brexit. Additionally, the government’s plan to merge the Foreign Office with DFID, whether the correct decision or not, will undoubtedly produce savings.

The proceeds of growth, merely the beginning of a range of reforms, should be reinvested heavily in young people’s education and opportunities to redress the balance caused by coronavirus. This must include the £1bn ‘catch-up’ plan to enable school children to bridge the gap left by lost teaching. However, amounting to only £80 per student (IFS), further funding once coronavirus passes should be on the cards.

This is, of course, only a starting point, and many more steps must be taken to alleviate the portentous educational, financial and social burdens which have overwhelmed my generation. But, there have been clear losers during this pandemic and the next Budget should recognise as such.

Damian Green: Here are our One Nation ideas for reviving post-Covid, post-Brexit Britain

27 Jul

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

There has been a flurry of comments about One Nation Conservatism, and what it means in the 2020s, over recent weeks. This is very timely, as for many years the One Nation tradition was linked with pro-European views, to the point where views on Europe seemed to become its defining characteristic.

Those times are clearly past, and one of the aims of the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs is to set out a new set of policy priorities, both in domestic and international policy, which we want the Government to adopt. We hope that we are pushing at a reasonably open door, as the Prime Minister has always described himself as a One Nation politician, and certainly his levelling up agenda is absolutely in that tradition. His description of himself as a “Brexity Hezza” may have been rejected by, well…..Hezza, but nothing is easy these days.

Getting the country back on the track it voted for last December is the task for the next four years, and One Nation ideas will play a central role in the successful pursuit of that project. The last thing the Conservative Party or the country needs is a continuation of the Brexit divisions. If the only thing that matters is how you voted in 2016, we will never move on. So through the summer and autumn the One Nation Caucus will be publishing a series of policy papers designed to set out a full agenda for government in the post-Covid period.

The first of these papers is Restarting the Economy, which brings together six MPs from various intakes to address the central issue of our times. Stephen Hammond is the lead author, and he emphasises the importance of a relentless focus on levelling up to extend growth beyond London.

Key proposals in the paper include the development of new local economic bodies to drive growth, expanding the number of planned freeports, and creating technology adoption funds to support the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The report also suggests a number of policies to protect people on low incomes, including suggestions for ending consumer rip-offs, and proposals for managing repayments of Covid business loans, recommending an approach similar to the Student Loan scheme.

Each of these is a meaty idea in its own right, and the full paper is available on the One Nation website. But this array of economic ideas is only the start of the wider project to position Conservative ideas at the heart of the national political debate post-Covid.

Labour may be under new management but one of the features of the Starmer era so far has been the avoidance of any policy discussions. This is clearly a conscious tactic, but while Labour pursues it there is a space to fill in shaping the public mind. It is often observed that intellectual regeneration is more difficult inside a governing party, but it is not impossible, and is absolutely necessary if conservatism is to have another successful decade.

The financial crisis, Brexit, and Covid-19 have been three black swans that have swept aside the original plans developed the last time the Conservative Party was in opposition. They have incidentally also swept aside Tony Blair’s fond idea of making the twenty-first century “the progressive century”, by which he meant the New Labour century. How does that look in 2020?

So now is exactly the right time for One Nation Conservatives to think hard and set up debates. After the economic paper our next publication will be on social mobility, how we can bring it back, and why we must not think about it in traditional terms. Following that we will be publishing a paper on the environment, showing how capitalism is not the enemy of achieving carbon New Zero, but the only way of reaching it.

Future papers will look at Britain’s place in the world, covering trade and aid, and specifically what the new configuration of the Foreign Office and DfId offers in the realm of making our aid spending (which One Nation Conservatives strongly support) more effective in the future. We will also be taking a hard look at schools and what they can do better to spread opportunity, and at the new world of work.

It is very pleasing that all cohorts of the Parliamentary party have contributed to these papers. Former Ministers have worked with many members of the 2019 intake on the individual ideas, proving that there is no shortage of new thinking on the back benches, and that One Nation ideas are alive and well in the rising generations within the party.

Whether or not you think of yourself as a One Nation Conservative, I hope you will welcome the fact that those of us who are in that tradition want to contribute publicly to the key debates that will dominate the coming decade. The public will of course judge the Government mainly on its actions. But every political party needs to demonstrate that it can apply its principles to new circumstances. In a world that changes as fast as this one constant intellectual regeneration should be our goal. The One Nation recovery papers are a contribution to that.

Alan Mak: Britain should champion a new Five Eyes critical minerals reserve system

30 Jun

Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The on-going trade dispute between the US and China has put the spotlight on so-called “critical minerals”. We in Britain cannot afford to be passive observers. Instead, we should take an active interest in this key strategic and economic issue, and play a leading role in safeguarding access to critical minerals, both for ourselves and our Five Eyes allies. Ensuring our scientists, manufacturers and technology businesses have a secure and reliable supply of critical minerals is vital for Britain’s leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Critical minerals consist of the 17 Rare Earth Elements (REE) recognised by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, with names such as promethium and scandium, plus other economically valuable but relatively rare minerals such as lithium and cobalt (used in batteries), tungsten (used in defence products including missiles), bauxite (the source of aluminium) and graphite (key to battery production).

The REEs have unique magnetic, heat-resistant, and phosphorescent properties that no other elements have, which means they are often non-substitutable. Whilst used only in small quantities, they are key components in a wide range of consumer products from mobile phones, laptops and TVs, and have widespread defence applications in jet engines, satellites, lasers and missiles.

Although they are more abundant than their name implies, REEs and critical minerals are difficult and costly to mine and process. Converting critical minerals embedded in rocks from under the Earth’s crust to separated elements is a complex and costly process which often involves the use of highly concentrated acids and radiation.

China hosts most of the world’s processing capacity and supplied 80 percentemploy of the REEs imported by the US from 2014 to 2017. On average, China has accounted for more than 90 pe cent of the global production and supply of rare earths during the past decade, according to the US Geological Survey.

By contrast, the US has only one rare earth mining facility, and currently ships its mined tonnage to China for processing. Lynas Corporation, based in Australia, is the world’s only significant rare earths producer outside China. Other critical minerals are similarly concentrated in a small number of producer nations. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was responsible for around 90 per cent of the world’s cobalt production in 2018, whilst Guinea dominates bauxite, with around 35 per cent of the world’s reserves.

As globalisation and industrialisation accelerate around the world, critical minerals have become a highly sought-after resource for the high-technology, low-carbon and defence industries. They will play a vital role in Britain’s future plans for economic growth, innovation and green industrialisation, especially as we renew and expand our manufacturing base in the wake of Coronavirus.

Given the national strategic and economic importance of critical minerals, the UK needs to act now and lead efforts to protect our national supply for the future. Neither we nor our Five Eyes allies can remain reliant on one producer for anything, including critical minerals. Here are four steps we should take:

Establish a New Five Eyes critical minerals reserve stockpile

The Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the UK has been in existence since 1941 and provides the perfect foundation on which we should develop a new critical minerals reserve that would end our collective vulnerability of supply.

The reserve would consist of inter-connected physical national stockpiles of critical minerals, and then extend to become a processing chain that all partners could draw on. The US already maintains stockpiles, and creating others including in Britain would lead to new jobs. The UK is never going to become resource independent, but through international co-operation we can diversify supply and refine, through innovation, the processing of these elements.

Use our international aid budget to secure critical minerals supplies

As the Foreign Office and DFID merge, the UK can align its development goals alongside diplomatic priorities. We should deploy our international aid to unleash the untapped supply of critical minerals in developing countries, effectively funding the start-up of new critical mineral mines and processing plants. This would enhance our supply of these elements and create jobs, transforming communities around the globe through trade, not just aid. China has already implemented a similar strategy in Africa, for example providing Guinea with a $20 billion loan to develop the country’s mining sector.

Create a new National Critical Minerals Council

The Government should establish a new National Council composed of metallurgists, scientists and foreign policy experts to monitor global trends in critical minerals, and advise the Government on rare earths and its strategic stockpile. Given the national security and defence procurement implications, the National Council’s establishment would help to keep this issue at the forefront of future policymaking.

Become the world’s greenest stockpiler by incentivising private sector involvement in critical minerals processing

The Government should provide funding for greater research into how we can improve the processing chain of critical minerals with a focus on how we can tighten environmental controls in this sector internationally.

The UK should establish itself as the world’s “greenest stockpiler” of critical minerals by offering incentives that encourage private sector investment in recycling processes and reward companies that contribute to the UK stockpile. We need more facilities like the University of Birmingham’s Recycling Plant at Tyseley Energy Park, which is pioneering new techniques that are transforming the recycling of critical minerals such as neodymium, which is commonly found in hard disk drives.

The Coronavirus pandemic has taught us the importance of supply chain security, whether for PPE or critical minerals. With our reputation for scientific excellence, global alliances and diplomatic networks, we can help ourselves and our allies strengthen our access to the key minerals that will power our economic growth and innovation potential for decades to come.

This is the first in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.