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.

Neil Shastri-Hurst: Trump is right to criticise the WHO. But it needs reform, not abandonment.

23 Jul

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, surgeon, barrister, and senior member of the Voluntary Conservative Party in the West Midlands.

“The WHO really blew it…We will be giving that a good look”. President Trump fired a shot across the bows of the World Health Organization (WHO).

In his Tweet on April 7 this year, the President barely concealed his disdain. It had been clear for some time. Going further, he vowed to defund the organisation.

At the time, many questioned whether the president had the authority to shift policy in such a dramatic way. Then, at the beginning of July, Trump’s administration notified both Congress and the UN that a formal notice of withdrawal from the WHO was being submitted.

This week, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, even accused it accused of being a “political not a science-based organisation”, whose director general is too close to Beijing.

These criticisms of the WHO are as scathing as they are clear. Trump claims that the organisation is submissive to China, complicit in assisting a cover up as to the risk Covid-19 posed, and, as a result, has failed to sound the klaxon sufficiently swiftly to the wider world amid the spread of the virus.

Is there credence to his analysis? In short, yes. There is no doubt that the WHO’s response could have been better. There are genuine concerns as to the credibility and weight given by the WHO to China’s assurances regarding Covid-19; in particular, China’s unsubstantiated declaration that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”.

Given China’s history of misinformation, scepticism is justified. Those defending the WHO will point to the challenge it was faced with. Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, is a self-confessed critic of the WHO.

However, she has acknowledged that “[i]t’s hard to fault a lot of what the WHO has been trying to do, given the difficult balancing act of trying to get countries to address this epidemic and take it seriously, while also trying to keep all countries at the table”.

And that is one of the real sticking points; the WHO has a diplomatic as well as scientific role. There is some strength to the line of argument that publicly confronting China may have proven detrimental in the longer term. After all, the importance of data sharing, with respect to this and future pandemics, will be vital. The retrospectoscope is a dangerous tool. Therefore, it would be unfair to laden the WHO with too many criticisms when faced with a novel and evolving situation.

However, in certain respects the WHO’s response has appeared somewhat leaden footed at times. Optics matter, and presentationally a firmer stance with China was needed.

Not dismissing its shortcomings, the United States’ decision to withdraw from the WHO is of concern for all players. I fear that it will serve to weaken our collective ability to tackle future global health crises.

The challenges and, dare I say, deficiencies of the WHO have been apparent for some time. During the Ebola epidemic that spread across West Africa, questions were being asked about institutional failings and their impact on global health. Arguably, the time for reform was some years ago. As the world takes stock in the shadow of Covid, it is high time that such reform takes place now.

When the WHO first came into existence, in 1948, it was at the vanguard of global health. Made up of the world’s leading minds pioneering the health agenda, it was the epicentre of concentrated knowledge. But times have changed. The field is much more crowded, with multilateral and bilateral agencies competing alongside large non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for space.

With the emergence of new stakeholders, the WHO has, at times, appeared to have lost its sense of mission. Its scope has outgrown its budgetary resources. It is weighed down by bureaucracy. It is, in many ways, a conflicted organisation; independent scientists operating in an overtly political arena.

That said, the WHO still carries cachet; its formal authority can and must be harnessed to mobilise other global health organisations in the pursuit of better health outcomes.

A prime example of that cachet can be seen when one looks at information gathering. Its members are provided with access that would otherwise not exist if nations operated in isolation. It is unimaginable that US scientists would have, albeit belatedly, been permitted to enter Hubei Province, and the city of Wuhan, had they not done so under the auspices of the WHO.

In the midst of a global fight against a deadly pandemic, I would implore the United States, and other nations minded to follow suit, not to retreat from the WHO but to reform it. The WHO is more than a sum of its parts: it is incumbent upon its members to work together and shape it for the better.

Covid-19 cannot be managed by nations acting alone. It needs a global response. This will be just as true of future pandemics. Less economically-developed countries will continue to rely heavily on the WHO in tackling these health crises. It is the only global health organisation that has the reach and infrastructure to do so.

By walking away from the WHO, America will take with them 15 per cent of the WHO’s $4.85 billion two-year budget. This will only mean that the organisation, already cash-strapped, will find fulfilling its mission all the more difficult.

There is another point that must not be overlooked. The sizeable hole left by the US will provide an opportunity for less altruistic countries, such as China, to fill the void. With a greater financial stake, they will have greater power and influence to wield.

The task facing the international community is to preserve the integrity of the WHO, while at the same time acknowledging its faults, and setting about reform. This will not be a simple process but its importance must not be underestimated.

There are a number of different models that will need to be considered. One example would involve leveraging expertise from NGOs and multilateral agencies by outsourcing key activities. In order to achieve such a co-ordinated approach, it would be imperative that the WHO provides strong, global leadership and policy direction from the centre.

Furthermore, there is a strong argument for the WHO beefing up its powers. The first step would be bolstering the International Health Regulations 2005, so that the WHO can impose sanctions on those countries who repeatedly and fragrantly contravene the rules.

History is punctuated with examples of when the world has found itself at a crossroads. The world currently finds itself in such a situation. Rather than turn inwardly, we must hope that nation states look outwards. We must hope that global co-operation continues to grow. We must hope for the reform that is desperately needed.

The WHO must embrace this challenge. In facing emergent health threats, a reformed WHO will unite the global community.