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Speech Archive

Speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London 1996

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: London

Think about some of the news from around the world over the last week.

Western leaders paying tribute to the new power of the eastern economies in Bangkok. The British Prime Minister finalising the handover of Britain’s last great colony to China.

A leading Presidential candidate in the US now seriously arguing for protection and isolation.

In Russia, the man who broke the Soviet Communist Empire declaring his intention to re-enter politics, but now despised by people whose livelihoods and futures have been made uncertain by the freedoms he won for them.

And Western Europe looks on, nervous, unconfident, but above all uncertain of WHAT to expect in the future.

A Changing and Unstable World: The Realities of Britain’s Position

This is a changing and unstable world.

We in Britain lost the anchors of our old foreign policy when the Berlin Wall came down. In the six years since then, the Conservative Government has been too divided to risk spelling out how radically our international situation has changed. Nostalgia mixed with Europhobia has shut off intelligent debate.

The Government which will take Britain into the new Millennium will have to set out a whole new international strategy for Britain. And it will have to redefine Britain's national interests in terms which a confused public can understand and come to support. That means recognising the constraints on our freedom of action, and reappraising our assets and liabilities.

I want to start by spelling out the fundamentals of our international position six years after the end of the cold war.

We are a European state, on the western edge of a rapidly-changing European international system. The disappearance of the Warsaw Pact has made the European Union and NATO the institutional structures around which a stable European order now has to be built.

Britain’s national interests require us to play the fullest possible part in reshaping and extending this European system. That means working together with our partners within the European Union, most importantly Germany and France.

The key to creating a stable, prosperous, secure and democratic European order is an effective European Union, extended to incorporate the former socialist states of central and eastern Europe. The first priority for the forthcoming IGC should be to prepare the European Union to shoulder this task. This is the foundation on which Britain’s future international role must be built. There is no plausible alternative.

There's a lot of loose talk in Conservative circles about how Britain’s future lies in building closer links with the fast-growing economies of East Asia in preference to locking ourselves in with what they would describe as a “sclerotic European continent”.

There is an even more nostalgic line of argument in the same circles that Britain should cling to the United States rather than to the French and Germans, hoping to revive the `Special Relationship' which gave British governments extra international influence and prestige throughout the cold war.

Both are escapist. One depends on a past that has vanished. The other on a future that is an illusion. And both are founded on a prejudice that Britain’s future lies `anywhere but Europe'.

Escapism (1): A Past that has Vanished

Anthony Eden over 40 years ago talked about Britain choosing `the open sea' as against the continent. But there were then still colonies and loyal Commonwealth countries across the sea, and a Washington staffed with policy-makers who had spent much of the war in Britain. These factors have now almost all vanished. Yet there are still some who appear to believe that Britain should be anchored somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, torn between the historical romance of our kith and kin and the present reality of our geography.

The alliance with the USA has been of immense value to Britain - and to the rest of Western Europe - over the past half-century. It must still be a central aim of our foreign policy that European-American relations should remain close and friendly. But no-one should pretend that that relationship will be as special and intimate as it was when we faced a common Soviet threat, with 350,000 US troops in Europe - many of them in Britain. Nor should anyone pretend that Britain can maintain a claim to an exclusive special relationship of its own. The Anglo-Saxon world which Winston Churchill loved to describe has gone. The balance of the USA has tilted over the past 30 years from the east coast to the west, from New York and Pennsylvania to California and Texas - from the descendants of British and German immigrants to the more recent offspring of Asians and Hispanics. And where America has an interest in Europe, it has an interest in European unity - which is why so many American statesmen nowadays fly straight over London to get to Bonn.

I want the United States to remain fully engaged in Europe - not least because I fear a new wave of American isolationism and what it would mean for us. But the United States is already much less committed to maintaining a physical presence in Europe than they were six years ago. And whether we wish it or not, this process of slow disengagement is likely to continue.

Wise Europeans will not want the US to leave Europe. But they will plan for the day when they do.

That means strengthening the European dimension in the Atlantic relationship in order to create the twin pillar NATO long ago proposed by Kissinger and Kennedy. And it means preparing for the day when we Europeans have collectively to manage our own security and defence.

The next British Government must engage itself in that task. Because it is in our security interests to do so. And because we have a unique contribution to make to the process.

Escapism (2): A Future that is an Illusion

As for the Pacific Rim, I yield to no-one in stressing the importance to Britain of developing the closest possible links with the fast-growing economies of Asia. I spent part of my early professional life as a soldier and student in Asia, and learnt two of its languages. And I have spent the best part of many, many speeches over the last ten years, warning that the globalisation of power and the shift of commercial might to the Pacific Rim is one of the biggest but least recognised facts of our time.

But it is nonsense to suggest that pursuit of Asian investment in Britain, and British exports to East Asia, is somehow an alternative to a closer relationship with our European neighbours. German exports to East Asia have, after all, increased twice as fast over the past ten years as British exports. There's no `either-or' choice for them, nor is there in reality for us.

Those who search for an Asian model for Britain to follow - some mixture of Singapore's social discipline, Korea's planned capitalism, and Taiwan's guided democracy will, I fear, discover that this is as much an illusion of the New Left as seeking to replicate the United States here was for the New Right.

Reality: Europe

So let’s not deceive ourselves. Britain’s future lies in Europe - and our immediate attention should be focused on the priority that we share with our European partners - the need to enlarge the European Union to extend prosperity and stability across central and eastern Europe.

But that enlargement now faces a number of obstacles. We can no longer take the stability of Europe for granted. The last fifty years of peace have depended on the American security guarantee, and came at the cost of Soviet domination over the eastern half of our continent. But this is not the natural condition of Europe - the natural condition of Europe over the last two thousand years has been competition, conflict and war. Indeed, you might argue that waging war has been Europe’s special genius, and engaging in it the primary pastime of Europe’s greatest nations.

And the danger of Europe reverting to conflict, instability and war has always been greatest when Europe’s empires have collapsed. The collapse of the Soviet empire has left behind as many unresolved conflicts as the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman. We have been struggling with some of that legacy in the former Yugoslavia.

If we aim to build a democratic imperium stretching eastwards across Europe to replace the failed Soviet imperium, then we will have to work effectively together - through common institutions capable of common actions. If, in the next decade, Europe cannot find the means to project its power around its borders, then it is unlikely to be able to enjoy security within those borders.

And we may have less time than we think to put this in place. The kindest thing that history will say of Europe’s failures in Bosnia is that this was a crisis which came before Europe was ready. The intervention, albeit late, of the United States probably saved us from an expensive and painful catastrophe in the Balkans. But it is now inconceivable that the conditions for a chaperoned peace in Bosnia will be created before IFOR withdraws in November. If, as currently seems the plan, Europe withdraws with the US “on the same bus” - then the consequences will be renewed conflict, almost certainly involving Croatia and Serbia, starting in the spring of 1997. By the time IFOR withdraws, Europe must have put together its successor. The US has given us a second chance in Bosnia. Europe must not fumble that, too.

So, Chancellor Kohl is right to insist that the central purpose of Europe is not the Single Market, nor social harmonisation, but peace. Those who deny that are as short-sighted as their predecessors of the 1930s. Britain's security, now as then, is inextricably bound up with the security and stability of Europe as a whole.

And by that I do not mean just Western Europe - the countries of the present European Union.

In this wider Europe, Poland will be as important as Spain; Hungary and the Czech Republic as important as the Netherlands. The British Government - and British business - must pay more attention to these emerging markets and democratic states, rather than leaving so much of the running to our European partners, especially Germany.

Germany

But of course it is once again Germany which is Europe's central power - and therefore in this transformed Europe, Britain's most important partner.

Starting with Mrs Thatcher’s misjudged opposition to German unification itself, the failure to adjust to a united Germany has been the greatest failure of British foreign policy over the past five years.

One of the worst aspects of Britain's current political debate is that it has become acceptable in Conservative circles to talk about Germany and Germans in the same tone which English politicians reserved for the Jews eighty years ago, and for the Irish a century ago. The tone we hear from some who should know better, and from a Europhobic press which supports them, seems tinged with an envious bitterness about a Germany which has regained its place as Europe's strongest economy and established a thriving constitutional democracy.

I want to emphasise how fortunate it has been for Britain and for the rest of Western Europe that Germany has had such constructive political leadership over recent years. The courage and commitment of Helmut Kohl, Wolfgang Schäuble and others has been remarkable.

West German taxpayers have continued to make the largest contribution to the European Community budget, while pouring vast resources into the former East Germany. At the same time, Germany has been by far the largest provider of Western financial assistance to the former socialist states, including Russia - and has provided haven for by far the largest number of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

Not surprisingly, the strain on their economy has been substantial. We can't take it for granted that such constructive leadership will be available from within Germany for the indefinite future. So we should grasp the opportunity while we can, and cultivate a close relationship built around our mutual interests in a stable, secure and prosperous European order. In the famous words of Thomas Mann - the choice is between a European Germany and a German Europe.

I recognise that I am not the first British politician to seek to build a close British-German partnership. John Major's first priority as Prime Minister was to repair the damage which Mrs.Thatcher had done to British interests through her gut antagonism to Germany. Advised by Chris Patten, welcomed by Chancellor Kohl, he declared that Britain again saw itself at the heart of Europe. He was right to see that Britain's national interests required a friendly and close relationship between London and Bonn; he was wrong to allow himself to be pulled away from it after the 1992 election by the irreconcilables - the “sea green incorruptibles” - within his own party and their allies in the reactionary intellectual right.

France

I do not suggest - or believe - that there should be anything exclusive in cultivating such a relationship. It is equally important that Britain establishes a more open and constructive partnership with France. In defence and security, French attitudes to Britain are now more favourable than they have been for two generations. The Franco-British defence dialogue has come a long way over the past two years. We have learnt much through working together in Bosnia. The French defence review just announced is explicitly modelled on the British force structure. We should recognise the significance of France’s move back towards the integrated structure of the NATO alliance - and be willing to make similarly significant adjustments in our assumptions about defence and foreign policy.

A Government which did not have to look over its shoulder all the time at its sullen backbenchers would seize the opportunity, develop a Franco-British dialogue with the potential to become as wide and as deep as the Franco-German dialogue, and so lay the foundations for a three-way partnership - a new “concert of Europe” - which could provide the constructive collective leadership which Europe needs so badly.

Obstruction, Isolation, Lost Influence, Damaged Interests

The current drift of Conservative policy is entirely in the opposite direction. It courts exclusion from a core Europe of Germany, France and the Benelux, all of whom are united in their exasperation with the obstructive stance and the offensive rhetoric of British policy. There could be nothing more damaging to Britain’s national interests than to allow the formation of a core group of countries on the European continent without Britain.

It would leave our ministers marginalised in European relations with the USA and with East Asia. It would weaken our voice in global organisations. It would reduce Britain’s influence over Europe’s future economic policies. The suggestion from Malcolm Rifkind that we could, instead, model ourselves on Switzerland shows how shrunken the ambitions of British foreign policy have become: that the limit of our aspirations is to be an offshore financial centre and tourist attraction to a continent over which we have abandoned any pretence at influence.

The idea that splendid isolation is preferable to European co-operation may play well before the Conservative Party Conference. But the fruits of obstruction and cheap xenophobia are becoming more and more evident and more and more painful.

I particularly mourn the deterioration in mutual confidence between Britain and the Netherlands in recent years. It was the Dutch who stood out most firmly for British membership in the European Community, against de Gaulle's opposition. It was the Dutch who mediated between Britain and the rest in the final stages of the Maastricht negotiations. The emerging consensus in the Hague is that the only thing to be done about British obstructiveness is - in the words of a recent Dutch Government report - `just to carry on without them'. Nothing more powerfully demonstrates how profligate this Government has been in offending our natural allies and so damaging our national interests.

Any new Government will have to work hard to rebuild confidence and to pursue mutual interests.

Giving Europe Leadership

But we have more to offer Europe than new attitudes. Britain still has a number of powerful assets to deploy in the process of formulating a foreign policy framework for Europe.

We retain one of the world’s most experienced and effective Diplomatic Services. We have professional armed forces with the skills and training that make them the among the best in the world when it comes to modern peace-keeping and peace-enforcement. We benefit from speaking and writing in the world’s most commonly-used language, and from the reputation and quality of the BBC World Service. We offer the example of a relatively successful multi-racial society, to a world where many countries are struggling to come to terms with ethnic tensions and the inclusion of minority groups. We provide education for many bright young people from other countries and continents. And we have a network of Commonwealth and other contacts which give Britain a world perspective which is wider than that of any other European country with the possible exception of France.

I don't mean to suggest by all this that Britain should aim to `punch above our weight'. That is a ludicrous concept, much loved by the last foreign secretary. But it is based on nostalgia, and begs the question: who are we punching, and why? What I do want to suggest, however, that Britain has a real role to play in ensuring that Europe is outward-looking and engaged, rather than inward-looking and insular.

So, we should see progress towards an effective common foreign and security policy within Europe as serving Britain's interests, not as threatening them. We should approach the coming IGC with constructive proposals to strengthen that co-operation, not to resist every suggestion that others may make. We should build on the Franco-British defence dialogue, strengthen the Rapid Reaction Force in Germany, and support moves to improve foreign policy cooperation, through a more effective defence and security secretariat in Brussels.

We should see all these as the first steps towards constructing an effective European pillar within the Atlantic alliance; while at the same time strengthening Europe’s voice in the world and our capacity to carry more of the burden of our own defence.

There will of course have to be a lot of hard talking among European governments before we can hammer out the details. We will have to resist the constant danger that domestic politics within single states may hijack common policies. There will be some hard questions to negotiate over voting weights, vetoes, and qualified majorities. But that is the direction in which we should be going. That is what Britain's interests now require. That, I suggest, should be the European framework from within which Britain can develop a constructive wider foreign policy for the next Millennium.

Wider Foreign Policy: Beyond the Nation State

I want next to turn to that wider foreign policy. Here, again, we will have to think radically - even uncomfortably.

The idea that the sovereign nation state can remain the basis on which the world is managed is one of the nostalgic myths from which we are going to have to break free. No state alone - not even the United States, or China, and certainly not Russia - can cope alone with the scale and complexity of the international challenges which we all collectively face. We will only succeed if we learn to co-operate and build the institutions within which co-operation is possible.

The New Challenge of Environmental Security

This is particularly true when it comes to the environment, where the challenges require foresight, long-term planning and policy changes way beyond the scope of any single nation-state.

Look at Henry Kissinger’s book “Diplomacy”, read its 500-plus pages, and you will not find a single mention of the environment as a factor in international relations. It is inconceivable that a statesman of similar stature, writing today - let alone in twenty - fifty years’ time could take such a restricted worldview.

The environmental impact of the industrialised and fast industrialising world, now poses at least as great a threat to our national security as conventional conflict.

Take, for example, the recently reported threat to the ice shelf off Greenland - the Odden feature - as a result of rising global temperatures. The potential impact on ocean currents - particularly the potential reversal of the Gulf Stream which gives Britain its temperate climate rather than the climate of Labrador - is a real threat to British agriculture, industry and life. Yet, in the face of these and other threats from global warming, the industrialised world has so far completely failed to agree on anything more imaginative than a stabilisation of greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels - which still means, of course, a steadily rising concentration in the atmosphere.

Or consider this fact. One US stealth bomber costs 2.5 billion dollars. But the cost of ALL financial transfers to developing countries, from the WHOLE developed world, for the THREE years from 1994 to 1996 under the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion, amounts to just half a billion dollars - a fifth of the cost of the US stealth bomber! Yet there is a strong lobby within the US for scaling down their Montreal Protocol commitments, or even withdrawing altogether. Is the threat of skin cancer, or the damage to eyes and crops and ecosystems caused by ozone depletion any less of a threat to the lives of US citizens than the dangers against which the Stealth bombers are aimed?

Environmental degradation also threatens security in a very direct, very traditional way, too.

At the heart of the Gulf War was the issue of oil. But in many parts of the world, water is already as scarce and as valuable a resource as oil. The Aral Sea has lost 60% of its volume to irrigation since 1960. Confrontation threatens between the former Soviet states of central Asia over control of water supplies. The same problem exists in the Middle East, where Turkey is diverting the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, and in the Nile Valley, where Egypt has always stated that any reduction in the flow of the river would be regarded as an act of aggression. The wars of the twenty-first century will increasingly be resource wars.

These three examples underline the need for diplomats and governments to learn a wider concept of security.

I could have devoted a whole speech to outlining what needs to be done. That is clearly not possible this evening. But I do want to highlight five key areas.

Environmental Security : Five Key Policy Issues

First, and most obviously, we need to establish effective and equitable mechanisms for international burden-sharing. The key issue here for the next eighteen months is the successful resolution of the current negotiations on the Climate Change Convention. The UK and European Union should do their utmost to promote agreement in 1997 on significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Secondly, people have to understand that effective action requires resources. The ozone protection treaty has shown how we can successfully combine sticks - trade sanctions against non-parties - with carrots - financial support to developing countries - to get people to participate and achieve identified goals. More resources will be required for similar financial transfers in other areas - and there is no point trying to turn a blind eye to this.

Third, environmental objectives have to be incorporated into every area of government policy - from energy to the economy, from taxation to transport to trade. It should, for example, be a key objective of trade departments to work for a “Green Gatt” at the first meeting of the World Trade Organisation this December.

Fourth, Britain must be far readier to work on a Europe-wide basis to meet environmental objectives. It is ludicrous that EU member states accept that the Commission will negotiate EU-wide commitments in forums such as the Climate Change Convention, but then refuse to accept any joint element in meeting those targets. This is a crazy way to run an international policy. The UK was quite happy to accept Commission competence in negotiating an agreement on the Uruguay Round of GATT. Indeed, this joint approach was probably essential to its success. So what’s the problem taking such an attitude in environmental areas, too?

Finally, we need an environmental equivalent to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to underpin a global system of environmental protection. This would set out basic principles for governments’, companies’ and individuals’ conduct towards the environment and development, together with a definition of responsibilities for achieving environmental sustainability.

To match this Declaration, we should establish an environmental “Geneva Convention” outlawing deliberate acts of environmental destruction and guaranteeing Red Cross-type immunity to personnel engaged in clean-up operations in times of conflict. The Gulf War showed both the need and the urgency for such a structure.

A Broad Definition of Security: Common Security

I have highlighted the example of the environment, because it illustrates a larger point - that security in the twenty-first century is a broad rather than a narrow concept.

Even the problem of armed conflict illustrates this change. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these conflicts were, primarily, between states and about borders. Today, more often than not, they are between ethnic, religious and tribal groups, and either within or across borders. One recent calculation was that of 82 conflicts in the world today, 79 are in this latter category.

Conflicts of this sort can, however, destabilise whole regions, by unleashing floods of refugees, damaging regional economies and environments, and drawing in neighbouring states as a result of the interests and activities of minority groups in their populations.

The great fear of the Bosnian conflict was that it would spread south through the Balkans to draw in Muslim Albania and Turkey, and Orthodox Christian Greece, and north up into Hungary through the minority populations in the Vojvodina. The same parallels can be found in African conflicts like Rwanda’s, and will be found, probably with increasing ferocity, in due course in Asia, too.

It is only a matter of time before weapons of mass destruction become a permanent part of this dangerous mix.

Reform of the United Nations

What all this means is that collective security alone is no longer enough. We are going to have to create an effective context for common security, too. We cannot, as individual nations, have individual security, unless that is anchored within a framework of international law which is effective and enforceable.

In other words, it is in our direct interest, as a medium-sized nation, to work for a reformed and strengthened UN.

And here again, Britain could have a real and powerful role to play. Here again, our wider world view, our Commonwealth links, our political and military experience in peace keeping and conflict resolution after the end of empire, and our position on the Security Council - all put Britain in a unique position to drive UN reform - especially in peace keeping and peace making.

We ought to view Bosnia as a signpost pointing to the UN’s present failures and to what must be done to put things right. If we fail to learn the lessons from Bosnia, then the UN will slide further and further into ineffectiveness and decay. Nations simply will not send their young men to risk their lives for this kind of humiliation and farce again. The UN will then slowly follow the League of Nations into oblivion just when we need it most.

The agenda for reform of the UN that Britain should be driving is a very long one - especially in the field of peace keeping and peace-making.

The starting point must be a reformulation of the principle of intervention. We need to establish a new doctrine that allows for intervention when a state, acting in gross defiance of human rights or international law, or causing deliberate, lasting and widespread damage to the global or regional environment, endangers our common inheritance or undermines the stability of neighbouring states or the region.

Then there are practical reforms. We must improve methods of information-gathering and develop ways of anticipating and preventing conflict more effectively - including preventative deployments like the one to Macedonia. It is always easier to prevent a conflict than to stop one once it is underway.

We need a military planning staff to oversee UN peace-keeping and peace-making operations. And we need a pool of earmarked UN peacekeepers of the right quality to carry out this most difficult of soldiering tasks.

We need a UN Staff College to train officers in the techniques of peacekeeping - and given our experience in this field, Britain should strive to see this established in Britain. I merely note in passing that Greenwich just happens to be empty!

We need an assured system of finance and logistics to avoid the sort of chaos, waste and under-resourcing which bedevilled the Bosnian operation and brought the UN into such disrepute.

And we must, at last, establish measures - such as an arms sales register - to ensure that the UN can begin to control the arms trade which is now itself such a cause of instability.

Co-opeation, Leadership, and a New Foreign Policy for Britain

We stand on the threshold of the next Millennium, facing uncertainty and turbulence all around the globe.

What is needed now is co-operation and leadership. And each is inextricably bound up with the other. For leaders to have any impact in the twenty-first century, they must be prepared to work with others. For co-operation to succeed, we need broad horizons and long term vision. Here there is a real role for Britain to play - both within Europe and in the wider world.

That leadership will not come from “Little Englander” nostalgia. It will not come from delusions about “special relations”. It will come by building new alliances with our European partners, and then helping Europe to lead the way for more effective co-operation on the global stage.

Over thirty years ago, Dean Acheson remarked, cruelly but accurately, that Britain had lost an empire but had not yet found a role. In a sense, the Cold War deep-froze the past and allowed us to enjoy for a little longer the role of America’s closest transatlantic partner, with a divided Germany as our front-line.

But the unification of Germany, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the shift of economic might to the Pacific Rim, the globalisation of power, and growing awareness of environmental degradation - these have created the new reference points for the world in which Britain must live.

My argument is that Britain’s new role has to be found within a coherent and co-ordinated team of European states. We need to be a full and active member of that team - not standing on the sidelines while a smaller five-a-side team plays matches with North America and East Asia. It is in our interest to ensure that the team trains together and works together. We share the responsibility for promoting teamwork rather than rivalry among the leading players.

Global politics in the new millennium will not revolve around the European region, even less around individual ex-imperial European powers. But Britain and its European neighbours have vital interests at stake in the promotion of global co-operation and in the maintenance of global stability. We will most effectively pursue those interests if we combine our efforts, rather than attempt to maintain separate channels of influence, separate but shrunken military capabilities, separate but expensively-administered aid programmes.

There is a real danger that this year’s Inter-Governmental Conference will get bogged down in the details of procedure and voting systems and lose sight of longer-term objectives - and of longer-term dangers. The alternative to the achievement of an effective institutional structure for a post-Cold War Europe is a fragmented and unstable Europe; prey to national rivalries and local conflicts.

To leave Britain to become a free-rider in a fragmented Europe, in which Germany would inevitably deploy the heaviest weight of political and economic power would be a disastrous neglect of our national interests.

There is a real alternative for Britain. A role we are well-equipped to play. A role it is in our interests to play. And a role, as we approach the next millennium, that the next government must ensure that Britain does play.

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