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United States of America

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2009

11 am

Before I call Mark Pritchard, I wish to put it on the record that I am joint treasurer of the British-American parliamentary group. I will take a great interest in this debate.

Thank you, Mr. Olner. I am sure you will not mind me saying that you do an excellent job in that capacity. I, too, declare an interest as I am married to an American citizen.

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this timely and topical debate. I congratulate President Barack Obama on his election to office. His arrival in the Oval Office is an historic event, which I hope will do much to repair America’s reputation in the world. I hope that he will introduce innovative policies to deal with old and new economic and security threats. Those threats endanger the United States and the United Kingdom.

Britons want and need a strong and prosperous America. I wish President Obama political wisdom and courage in equal measure. Our two nations enjoy excellent bilateral relations. As reiterated in recent days by Secretary of State Clinton, we are bound by shared values, shared interests and shared priorities. We also benefit from a shared history; a history that witnesses thousands of Americans leaving their homes each year to search out their British cousins and ancestries. Likewise, thousands of UK citizens journey to America to stay with new-found relatives or to enjoy return visits in cities as far apart as Savannah, Sacramento and Seattle.

Our common bond runs far deeper than the £108 billion trade between our nations each year and far deeper than the thousands of American companies that transact business in this country. It is greater than the 158,000 American citizens living in the UK, many of whom are married to British people. It goes beyond the 16,000 American students who enjoy the benefits of a British university education. The bonds that I speak of are etched in blood.

It would be a dishonour to the American people to hold a debate on this subject and not pay tribute to the brave American sons and daughters who have shed their blood over many generations and in many conflicts when fighting to defend the freedoms that we all enjoy today. In the second world war, in Europe alone, nearly 250,000 American servicemen sacrificed their lives to bring peace. The figure is far higher for the global war. America has an honourable and spiritual legacy of brotherhood and fellowship with this country.

Whatever the rationale or justification behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the brave and fearless servicemen and women of the United States continue to put themselves in harm’s way, often alongside British troops and personnel. They do so not only to protect America’s interests, but to protect America’s commitments to its allies and friends. This morning I pay tribute to the American people and salute them. I hope that colleagues will join me in doing so.

Last year, I was asked by a journalist in Washington whether I thought anti-Americanism would die when George W. Bush left office. That was a naive question, even from a journalist who had little time for Bush or for Republicans. Anti-Americanism may well have increased under the second Bush presidency, but the person who resides in the White House is not the magnet for people’s hatred of America. People hate America because of what the American people stand for: their spirit, beliefs and values; their sense of being, providence and destiny; their belief in the freedom of democracy, speech and religion; and their belief in the power of individuals to realise their highest dreams and full potential. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the website “America in the World”, which was established to fight anti-Americanism.

Barack Obama stated in his inaugural address that

“we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man … Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake. And so … know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more.”

It is those beliefs and national virtues that so enrage America’s enemies.

I say to those who disparage the imperfections of democratic Governments that it is all too easy to defend brutal and dictatorial regimes when one does not live under their terror and repression and when one is not fettered by the thought police or religious masters. At its worst, political liberal romanticism is hypocritical to its core and gives succour to America’s enemies and to those who continue to incarcerate the spirit of their people and to shackle the humanity of their citizens. Western-style democracy is not right for every culture and ethnic group, but some sort of accountability and transparency there must be. Governments should be for the people and be elected by the people. In a manner and at a time of the people’s choosing, it should be possible for the people to remove those same Governments.

I believe that freedom is a universal human right. That is why the special relationship is so important. America and the United Kingdom are still a force for good in the world. We should not shy away from ensuring that our economic, humanitarian and military assets are deployed to defend and uphold our mutual and national interests.

My hon. Friend is delivering a passionate speech on this country’s special relationship with America and America’s relationship with the world. At the heart of our special relationship with America is friendship. All friendships need constructive criticism. Does he agree that the reason we have such a great relationship with America is that we have had the courage and conviction over the years not always to agree with everything that America has done? We have stood up for the rights of this country when they have been in contradiction with what has happened in America.

As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In politics, yes men do not always give the best advice. Their advice is a reiteration of what they have heard and so is no advice at all. A candid friend is perhaps the best friend of all. In the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Conservative party and this country seek not a slavish, but a solid relationship with the United States.

In an ideal world, the cultured and enlightened but deeply dissatisfied people of Iran, particularly the young aspirational Iranians, would bring about internal change. Given that Iranians face one of the world’s most oppressive Governments, that appears unlikely in the short term. It is particularly unlikely if Iran’s leaders continue to employ their gerrymandered form of democracy.

A peaceful outcome to the current Iranian impasse must be the goal of all politicians and diplomats. However, it will be achieved only if the international community unites to contain and restrict Iran’s nuclear advancement. There must be new resolve, not a loss of will or an unwillingness to face down the harsh realities of Iran’s aggression. The new American Administration would do well to remember that Iran’s political masters are well versed in duplicity or taqiyyah. Even under the so-called moderate regimes of Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, Iran continued to trade talks for time. As the new President stretches out his hand, I hope that he avoids being seduced into a long, protracted dialogue to nowhere—a diplomatic cul-de-sac of talks about talks—while Iran continues to build a nuclear bomb.

European diplomats and politicians, including some here today, quite rightly talk about carrots and sticks, but they should not turn their faces from the harsh reality that Ahmadinejad’s prize carrot is not improved relations with the United States, but ownership of his very own nuclear weapon—technology aimed at America’s allies, including Europe, Israel and other Muslim nations. Every hour, the nuclear clock is ticking, and the time for diplomatic dialogue is running out. If Iran joins the world’s nuclear club in late 2009, as some US intelligence analysts believe, the middle east paradigm will change irreversibly. It will sound the starting pistol for a new regional arms race, and overnight Iran’s nuclear bomb will have become an apocalyptic stick with which the beat the world, and British interests too. That is why, if diplomacy fails, and Iran’s fist remains clenched, President Obama will need a credible military option to stop Iran.

The stark reality is, however, that the new American President has no feasible military option with which to neutralise Iran’s nuclear threat: a conventional attack is unlikely against the world’s eighth largest army and given America’s existing commitments elsewhere; a tactical nuclear attack is politically unpalatable, would have considerable nuclear, political and diplomatic fall-out for many years, and would be an environmental disaster; and a multiple cruise missile attack is unlikely to penetrate or dismantle Iran’s reinforced nuclear bunkers. That is why President Obama should commit to developing a new generation of non-nuclear, conventional, inter-continental ballistic missiles. The use of such new hypersonic mass technology would restore America’s deterrent and military advantage, and give President Obama much-needed military and diplomatic flexibility. Israel could, of course, take unilateral military action, but that could be seen by America’s enemies as weakness, procrastination or a failure to act. America’s new tone is welcome, but it must not strike a note that empowers or emboldens its enemies.

In the American State Department, the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington DC, including in the previous and current White House Administrations, is a shared view that a united Europe is good news for America’s national security, for its treaty obligations under NATO and for reducing the likelihood of future conflicts in Europe. I understand that view, but it is fundamentally flawed. I understand that a stable Europe is good news for America and Britain, but it is individual nation states, within Europe, that have stood with America in times of need. Never—not even in world war two—has there been a fully united European voice; there have only ever been the voices of nation states, some coming together.

Replace the nation state with political hegemony, and those nations that have supported America—often going it alone—might in future be drowned out by a chorus of diplomatic disapproval and political disunity. I say to policy makers in Washington that a single political Europe with a common defence and foreign policy, and eventually with a single federal President, will not be good for the United States, or indeed for Britain, even if a future President turns out to be former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Starkly, a united states of Europe will undermine, not enhance, the national security of the United States of America. Recent history should teach us that lesson.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, much of which I agree with, but he is in danger of putting up an Aunt Sally. I do not believe that anyone in the European Union is talking about the sort of political union that he mentioned or about getting rid of national vetoes on foreign and security policy, and nor should they. However, what did he think of Vice-President Biden’s speech, in Munich, the other day, when he called strongly for the European Union to take an increased role in this area to ensure that member states do more in supporting the United State’s efforts?

It is right that the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and even we, as individual politicians, put aside partisanship and—dare I say it?—narrow and polarised views, so that we can work for the common good and humanity of all those whom we seek to serve. That means that Europe must work together closely and with the United States. In recent times, however, particularly over issues of major defence and foreign policy objectives, different views have been held in Europe—particularly France and Germany—from those that might have been expressed in this House in support of the United States.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the American and British frustration is that so many European countries that say that they will support our troops in conflict, physically do not? They will go out to places such as Kandahar, but very rarely will leave the bases, whereas British and American troops are on the front line. So many countries that talk the talk do not put up the troops to take part in the action.

Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Those NATO members that enjoy the benefits of membership should step up to the plate to provide more troops, particularly given that we are likely to see a surge over the coming months. It should not be left just to the United States and the United Kingdom—indeed, I pay tribute to Denmark and Canada, and to Australian special forces as well. The role of some of the other countries that he alludes to, and the contribution that they could make to the new surge, is a debate for another time, and perhaps another place, in this House. For example, if Germany cannot provide more troops in a kinetic role, it could provide more in non-kinetic roles, such as in assisting hospital services in camp Bastion, so that troops can be released for duties elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) might want to reread the constitutional treaty—the Lisbon treaty—under which some vetoes would certainly have been given up.

If the United Kingdom loses its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, would it be good or bad for America? American defence and foreign policy analysts need to ask such questions today, not tomorrow, when it is too late. A European Union dominated by a Franco-German foreign policy and defence axis would not be good for America’s national security, or its self-interest. Consider Afghanistan!

Similarly, the United States ought to think very carefully about its stated aim to see Turkey accede to the European Union. On the face of it, the United States has a perfectly valid and rational foreign policy reason for doing so. It makes sense to encourage Turkey to look westwards, rather than eastwards, and anything that can be done to encourage a stable and secular Turkey avoiding radicalisation makes perfect sense. It would be good for Britain and good for America. A peaceful and prosperous Turkey is good for all of us. However, the unintended consequences of Turkey ceding to the European Union would eventually undermine America’s national security, because the free movement of peoples, under existing EU rules, would result in a mass migration of peoples from Turkey to towns and cities all over Europe—I grant that—but in particular over the United Kingdom. In sufficient numbers, such mass migration would change irreversibly the social and cultural fabric of this country.

The socio-cultural dynamic of America’s closest ally will have changed. Such a change will have profound and lasting political and bilateral consequences for the United States. That is not scaremongering, but a candid, over-the-horizon assessment of what could happen given the UK’s past experience with the accession of other EU countries and new applicants. Instead, Turkey should be given full trading access and rights to EU markets, but should not be allowed to become a full member. If it does, the issue of migration post-Maastricht should be dealt with for not just Turkey, but others.

Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman a bit of leeway, but we are straying rather a long way from America.

Given your expertise in the matter, Mr. Olner, you will know that Turkey is currently a very dominant issue in the American Congress. Congressman Ed Whitfield for Kentucky, who chairs the Turkey caucus, takes a different view from me. Nevertheless, such a matter is relevant to the bilateral relations. None the less, I thank you, Mr. Olner, for your guidance.

In conclusion, history is shaped for good or ill by the great alliances of nations. The strategic alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom has provided security for more than 100 years. It is a relationship that has, and continues to be, a force for good. That is why America should reverse any foreign policy objectives that jeopardise that special relationship. If Britain and America are a diminishing club of a few good men, then Washington policy makers should be alert to that stark reality and to anything that undermines or threatens it. A weakened Britain means a weakened United States. It is in the national interests of both countries to use all means necessary—however unpalatable and counter-intuitive—to keep this alliance strong and beyond the vagaries and transience of any particular Administration. The alliance should be defended at all costs against all enemies, both within and without, and against those who seek to put enmity between our two nations. Such enemies ultimately want to destroy our way of life and the shared values to which I have referred. America is still a beacon on a hill, as the new American President has paraphrased. It is an extraordinary country with extraordinary men and women. I should like to say without hesitation or equivocation, may God bless the United States of America.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this important debate. I am surprised to be making a full speech because I had assumed that there would be time only for a short intervention. I did not realise that so few Members would be present. It is a shame because, as my hon. Friend said, this is an important area of policy for both this country and the world at large. He made a heartfelt and thoughtful speech. Many of his wife’s family are in the United States, so he spends a lot of time there and understands its ethos.

Let me turn to what the United States of America means to me. As a very young boy I was told of the experiences of a five-year-old girl in the last few months of the second world war. She was very fearful because she had been forced from her home and had ended up in a small village just outside Leipzig, which initially was liberated by the Americans—prior to Yalta and Potsdam—and put into what became East Germany. That young girl remembered the great kindness of the American GIs in the immediate aftermath of the war. Like some of the Russian soldiers, the Americans were by no means entirely innocent of some of the atrocities that went on at the time. None the less, those young GIs gave that young girl her first taste of chocolate and fruit, and she remembered that for the rest of her life. That young girl was my mother, who was a refugee in eastern Europe as the war came to an end. Her story is one of the reasons why, from a very young age, I have very much admired and loved the United States.

My hon. Friend referred to anti-Americanism. He was right to suggest that although there is a sense of a new dawn under the new President, anti-Americanism did not begin under the erstwhile presidency of George W. Bush. Such a feeling goes back many decades. I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s at the height of President Reagan’s rule, and a lot of the anti-Americanism that existed then was driven by envy—envy of America’s wealth and of its superpower status. It was one of two superpowers at that juncture. It was the policies of Ronald Reagan—based on much of the thinking of President Nixon—that ensured that America reigned supreme and that the cold war ended in the defeat of communism.

There is, of course, another element of anti-Americanism. In an old country such as ours, we have tended to regard America as slightly naïve. Its love of freedom, opportunity and aspiration somewhat grates in much of British public life. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we have seen great benefits from America over the last century, certainly in regard to the first and second world war when it bailed us out. Obviously, we stood very tall during those terrible months in 1940 and 1941 before America emerged on the scene. There were no great votes for President Wilson when he finally entered the first world war against the forces of the German and Turkish empires as they were then. Therefore, we have seen those benefits, and we should never underestimate them. One of the difficulties that we face today is that we have only one superpower, and that so much is being driven by America, particularly in the military field, in the aftermath of the terrible terrorist atrocities of 9/11.

My hon. Friend spoke in a very heartfelt way about the issue of the special relationship. However, such a relationship should not be overstated. I am not in any way being negative about the new President. I know that he brings with him great hope, but there is possibly an over-burdening expectation of what his presidency will achieve. Such feelings of expectation could, I suspect, turn to disappointment. None the less, I also suspect that his presidency will prove to be a success. I imagine that he will be re-elected with a very large majority in the future.

My hon. Friend talked about America’s strategy in relation to Turkey, which stems from the fact that it regards Europe as a homogenous block. Much as we have a good relationship with America, which is based on common language, and common history, it would be wrong to overstate the nature of that relationship. If we look at the large Hispanic population in America, and then spool forward a decade or so, I suspect that we will find few people talking about the special relationship between our two countries. Instead, American foreign policy will focus on its relationship with Europe.

Although I instinctively agree with much of what my hon. Friend had to say about the importance of nation states, I also fear that the tremendous economic turmoil facing this country, and the world, will be with us for some years to come. We will hear increasing voices in this country—from across the political spectrum—calling for us to integrate with the power block in Europe. Remember, we eventually joined the EC in 1973 as a defence mechanism. We felt that the only way forward for this country was to latch ourselves on to Europe. That debate on our integration within an all-powerful European block will go on in the decades ahead. In the future, the world will be in blocks. For the short term, the United States will be the only economic, military and political superpower. Clearly, China and India are developing at a great pace.

We must also look to the future, and the United State’s role going forward. Clearly, the 20th century was the American century, just as much of the 19th century, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, was the British century. The great, tumultuous events in the financial markets and the economic downturn, and the sense of insecurity that will be felt by a great many millions in this country and throughout the world, will mean that some of the trends by which power has moved eastwards will accelerate. China has 1.3 billion people, and India 1.1 billion people, and both have huge and growing middle classes. Although those countries will not by any means be immune from the impact of recession and the downturn, they will mean only that their growth will be lower than in the past. They will still have economic growth of which we would be proud even in our better times. We will therefore see the emergence of China and India not only as economic superpowers, but as political and military powers. Consequently, America’s place in the world will be different, as will our relationship with it. I appreciate that I am moving slightly off topic, Mr. Olner—I saw a disapproving eyebrow.

As I said, I am a passionate supporter of the USA and its great ideals, especially when, on occasion, it does not quite reach those ideals. I am especially proud because I have always had a very strong sense of personal connection with the country. Of course, the American embassy is in Grosvenor square in my constituency, and I have been proud to play a small part as a parliamentarian in helping to develop relations between our two countries.

I will be interested in what the Minister says when she sums up. The debate has been thoughtful, and I appreciate that we have touched on a range of things. It is easy, in the euphoria following the election of President Obama, to look at things in a slightly superficial way, not least because he is a very forward looking, thoughtful and philosophical man. He has a sense—I suspect that it will develop in the months and years ahead—of America’s place in the world and how the world will develop, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) that it is a shame that more hon. Members are not here to take part, because it sets the framework for much of our foreign policy discussion in years to come. Understanding and appreciating America’s role is critical.

Colleagues will not be surprised to learn that I am euphoric about the election of Barack Obama. It is one of the most welcome developments probably in decades for the message that it sends in America, for this country, and for the world. I know that some in the media throughout the world are indulging in superlatives, but I think they are warranted. It is a fantastic development.

I was privileged to be at the Democrat convention in Denver in the summer. I have never waved any flag as enthusiastically as I waved the American flag when I listened to President Clinton and Barack Obama. They made fantastic speeches. The atmosphere was fantastic, and the feeling of hope and that it was time for change was palpable. It communicated itself across America and the world.

My party has always been a friend and supporter of America. We have sometimes been critical of the incumbent in the White House, but that is different. In democratic politics, one can be critical of a Government or of a politician in another country, but still be a great friend of the country and a supporter of its values and people. It is important to make that distinction; otherwise, we do ourselves and the value of democratic debate down. I agreed with much of what the hon. Member for The Wrekin said, but hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) made an important point when he said that Britain needs to be the candid friend of America and to tell the truth as we see it. When we do so, we are at our most powerful.

The relationship with America is not simply about the relationship with one President or the incumbent in the White House, but with the whole American political system. More importantly, it is about our relationship with the American people. In the US Senate, President Obama voted against the war for Iraq. What is our influence with him? I am sure that it will be great. We need to explain our position, and I am sure that he will look at us objectively. Hopefully, he will look at us in a special light, but we must remember this: the fact that we went along with a President who, in my party’s opinion, made a huge mistake in going to war with Iraq has done us no favours with the new American President. I make that important historical observation because it is best to be candid and to tell the truth to a friend, even if we fundamentally disagree with them. Not going along with just anything that is said or done by a friend is the surest way of sustaining our credit.

That relates to how we should approach our relationship with the new President. My party and I are extremely optimistic, given the foreign policy positions that he has taken in the past, many of the things that he said during the election and the hints and nudges given by Vice-President Biden in Munich the other day. The President’s policies seem to be going in the direction of policies for which we have been arguing for some time, even if others have not.

How do we encourage and support the welcome new direction in American foreign policy? We should remind the new incumbent and his Administration that we have long historical ties, exactly as the hon. Member for The Wrekin said. I join him in paying tribute to the role that American citizens have played in securing the liberty and freedom of our country. It is important always to send that message. In doing so, we need to ask how we can help America to ensure her security and the security of the free world. I differ slightly from the hon. Gentleman in the answer to that question. If we are to help America to deliver on the new mission that President Obama clearly has, we need to be close to our European partners and to bring them along with us. If we are not engaged wholeheartedly with our European colleagues, we will be less able to persuade them to go in the direction in which America and Britain often instinctively go.

Is the hon. Gentleman therefore concerned about the strands of anti-Americanism in Germany and, to a large extent, in France? How can those two key nations within the European Union play their part in ensuring a strong relationship in the future?

Let me be clear: anti-Americanism anywhere is bad. One can be against a policy of a country, but anti-Americanism is, frankly, ignorant. Having said that, I have not seen the level of anti-Americanism to which the hon. Gentleman alludes in France and Germany since the election of Barack Obama. I have seen opinion poll ratings on the new President that the hon. Gentleman and I would die for in our constituencies. The reaction of the 200,000 people to whom President Obama spoke in Berlin during his campaign did not look like anti-Americanism to me. That is perhaps my point. There is huge good will for America and its values—we can also consider what President Sarkozy has said—and particularly for the new President, because of his policy decisions. The question for us in this House is how to encourage it.

Looking at the recent past, the danger is that if we are not careful, British support will be taken for granted. We have not been a candid friend; we have not appeared to ask the questions that should have been asked. America always assumes that we will be on its side and so almost discounts that support. That is the danger if we are not candid about times when we disagree. Furthermore, because we appear to go along with anything that America says or does, however misguided, we lose influence within Europe. That means that we are not influential in America or in Europe—the worst of all possible positions.

Our approach should be to stand up for our values and ideas and communicate them as strongly as possible. It is not about choosing between America and Europe, it is about ensuring that British national interests, which are clearly aligned with those of America in the long term, are delivered by having strong alliances with our neighbours in Europe. Immediate challenges, such as the need to increase NATO forces in Afghanistan, will best be met if we are able to cajole our European colleagues into doing more. We, too, must do more. Britain will almost certainly have to send more troops, despite the problems of overstretch, and a difficult judgment must be made about the number that we send. We must use our leverage with France, Germany and other NATO countries in Europe to try and get them to step up to the plate. If we were able to do that, President Obama would be happy with us, he would react to us in a grateful way, listen to us and be impressed by our level of influence.

I admire the hon. Gentleman’s optimism and I hope that it is worthy of the amount of time that he has given it this morning in relation to our European allies, but the fact is that we have been trying to utilise that leverage for the past five years, sadly to little effect. Of course we need to work with our European allies and America as much as we can, but when those European allies are holding back the British national interest and the joint UK and American national interest, we cannot keep waiting for them to change their minds.

On that point there is no difference between the hon. Gentleman’s point and mine. The UK ultimately decides on its foreign policy and where its troops go, and I would be against giving up the veto on that. However, during the past five years that he mentioned, we have lacked influence because of previous mistaken foreign policy decisions, and we have not been in a position to persuade people to do more. That is the danger. However, with a new President changing the parameters and in the light of speeches made by Vice-President Biden, I hope that we can reach out and have more influence.

The hon. Gentleman may be right—I might be Panglossian in my optimism, but we should approach this as a new chance and opportunity to take difficult decisions and bring others with us.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he has been very generous. I want to be crystal clear on this point when foreign policy statements are made by the hon. Gentleman, not only in this debate but in future debates. In relation to the United States and wider foreign policy issues, is it the policy of the Liberal Democrats to give up the veto on foreign policy and defence matters? I understand that that was a stated aim of his predecessor.

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could show me that statement. Our party passed a policy at its October conference, stating very clearly that we would not give up the veto on foreign policy or defence measures. My understanding is that that has been a long-standing policy of our party. That is factually the case, although I know that there are some in British politics who have tried to portray it as otherwise.

In some of the discussions about how we relate to the new American Administration, I have been slightly worried about the unseemly competition regarding who will shake hands with President Obama first. Will it be Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy or Prime Minister Brown? [Hon. Members: “Tony Blair.”] People are mumbling Tony Blair. He may well have got there first, but I am talking in terms of incumbents.

We ought to get past this issue. Sir Nigel Sheinwald and others should try to persuade the Government and the American Administration to approach such diplomatic niceties in a different way. Perhaps it would be good if a number of European Union leaders met President Obama at the same time, whether in London at the G20 or elsewhere. We must make it clear that Europe wants to work in partnership with the new Administration as much as possible. It will be interesting to see whether there is any change in how we approach our relations with America in those respects.

I know that there is lots of time left in this debate, and I do want to hear from my colleagues. However, I have a few more substantive points to make.

They are on America, of course, Mr. Olner.

My first point regards the foreign policy team that Barack Obama has put together—it is absolutely fantastic. The wealth of experience, knowledge and judgment is tremendous, not only because of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, or Vice-President Biden, but because of special envoys such as Senator George Mitchell in the middle east and Richard Holbrooke in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are some talented people, and the way that Obama organised that team quickly is characteristic of the way that he fought his presidential campaign and developed his political career. It was done in a measured and structured way that bodes well.

I talked with Democrat foreign policy advisers during the convention in the summer. It was clear that they want to see a big change regarding investment in foreign policy. In terms of the smart power that we have been hearing about, they want to build up the state department and the diplomatic weight and mass within America’s diplomacy and foreign policy architecture. That is welcome. To give one example of the need for such actions, I am told that there is currently only one civil servant in the State Department who can speak Farsi. Given how significant Iran is, we need people who can speak Farsi and understand what is coming out of the country. That is a small matter, but it exemplifies my overall point.

Given what we heard from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was worried about cuts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, I would say to the Minister—

I was drawing on the lessons from the United States, Mr. Olner. It has many lessons for this country, not least that of investing in diplomacy.

One could stand here all day debating the many countries and issues in the in-tray of President Obama and his team. I would like to pick out one or two issues, not least because they were matters raised by Vice-President Biden. As the hon. Member for The Wrekin said, Iran will be high on that list. We have seen reports in The Guardian about a letter that was drawn up in response to President Ahmadinejad’s welcoming letter following the election of President Obama. It tries to extend the hand of peace; we will see whether it is met by an unclenched or a clenched fist.

I am more optimistic and positive about that approach than the hon. Member for The Wrekin, who warned us not to be too hopeful that it will work. He may be right; if intelligence reports are correct, Iran is well along the road of having enough enriched uranium to produce a bomb. However, there is a danger that the policies tried over a long period have not worked. We need to think afresh, as President Obama clearly has been doing, about how to stop the Iranian regime’s attempts to get a nuclear weapon. We all know how hideous that regime is in many respects and how destabilising it would be if it got a nuclear weapon. We must explore all options. I am delighted that the new President is genuinely open-minded about that. Given our critical situation, we need to try as many routes as possible.

On the missile defence system that President Bush wanted to establish, I note that Vice-President Biden’s comments were carefully worded. It is true that the new Administration have not yet resiled from the project. However, they are talking about the costs and whether the technology works. Most interestingly, they are talking about involving Russia in the project. Many of us are not against the technology and can see its many advantages, but our major concern is how destabilising it was to the relationship between NATO and Russia. It was particularly notable that Vice-President Biden made that point in his speech in Munich.

It is fantastic to see an Administration who talk so positively about engaging with the rest of the world on climate change and who are so concerned about pandemics and how damaging they can be to hundreds of thousands of people, mainly those living in developing countries. The Obama Administration clearly want to tackle those issues, as well as—this was stated in the Munich speech—the problems of poverty and how it can create instability, tensions and misery.

Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a conclusion? He has now spoken for longer than the Member who secured the debate, and has not allowed sufficient time for the Minister and the chief Opposition spokesman to have the same amount of speaking time as him.

I will certainly do so, Mr. Olner, as I am keen to hear from my colleagues. I thought that I was doing the House a service by keeping the debate going. [Interruption.] I thought that I was playing a helpful role. People do not normally acknowledge that they are trying to keep a debate going, but there we are. It is fantastic news that America has a new leadership. We welcome them, and we look forward to working with them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate.

Anybody who watched the television coverage of President Obama’s inauguration would have been moved by what they saw. For a start, as a number of other hon. Members have mentioned, it was the inauguration of the first African-American President. Some journalists described it as a second reconstruction. Hearing and seeing the reaction of ordinary African-American voters, I felt the sense of a country coming together, a century and a half after its bloody civil war. The inauguration also demonstrated what American citizenship and democracy mean, as the leaders of the nation, rival candidates and rival parties assembled at the Capitol and we saw the peaceful transition of power from one President and one political party to another.

Out of curiosity, I looked on the internet to see how al-Jazeera was covering the events. It was covering the inauguration live. I could not help but wonder what impression would be gained by the millions of viewers living in countries where people cannot choose their own Government or rid themselves of leaders in whom they have lost confidence when that spectacle of American democracy in action was displayed in front of them.

The starting point for this debate is that the United States, for all its faults, is still a land of opportunity and a beacon for much of the rest of the world. It is a country where central to the idea of citizenship is the notion that any ambition, any dream, can be realised. When I was observing the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, I was struck by the fact that every taxi driver I talked to seemed to come from either Ethiopia or Eritrea, but that each was now determined to make himself into an American and achieve as much as he could in his new life in the new world.

It is a good thing that the dominant world power since 1945 has been a country committed to democracy and the rule of law, but American influence and power rest on far more than military force. One must consider as well its commercial influence and its cultural influence through television, film, music, sport, brands of clothing and the food that is conspicuous in virtually every country of the world that one can visit.

When it comes to relations between this country and the United States, we have shared and suffered a great deal together over the past 100 years. I shall not recount the history, but every weekend, when I go to Princes Risborough library in my constituency, I see a modest brick monument to an American pilot, Lieutenant Sparky Cosper from Texas. During world war two, he was flying over the Chilterns when he had a problem with his plane, and he deliberately steered it to crash in the countryside, killing himself rather than endanger the lives of citizens in the town below. That sort of individual case was replicated, I am sure, in many towns and villages throughout the United Kingdom.

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Looking forward, I think that our relationship with the United States should be close, but it ought never to become slavish. We share a great deal—language, culture and a relationship built on trade, investment, defence and intelligence—but we do not need to be starry-eyed. There have been unhappy episodes in our history: 1812 is one such example; one also thinks of President Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts in the late 19th century to build up a blue-water American navy, partly because of fears that the United States might have a military clash with the British empire. Although I certainly wish President Obama and his Administration well, we should not pretend that they will be anything other than hard-headed in the defence of United States interests first and foremost. That is what their electorate expect.

My questions for the Minister concern four subjects that seem important in terms of our bilateral relationship with the United States. The first is international trade and protection. Most of us in this country, across party boundaries, hoped that some of the Democratic party’s campaign rhetoric about the need for protectionism would not be translated into legislative action. We have been concerned about the “Buy American” provisions that are now being debated in Congress.

I note that those provisions have been somewhat watered down by amendments tabled within the last week. However, when I was in Toronto last Thursday and Friday, the Canadian Ministers with whom I discussed the issue were certainly of the view that the deal was still far from being a satisfactory one. In particular, they felt that individual states and individual municipal authorities in the United States might be able to invoke protectionist clauses in their procurement contracts, on the grounds that they themselves were not parties to international agreements prohibiting protectionism.

I would be interested to learn what approaches on this subject British Ministers have made and intend to make to their counterparts in the new US Administration. I would also like to receive from the Minister some assurance that the British Government really will stand by our long-standing commitment to free trade, as something that is not only in the interests of our own country, but in the interests of spreading prosperity among the poorest countries in the world.

Secondly, I want to say a few words about Iran. I welcome without reservation President Obama’s decision to have contact with the Iranian regime. It is very easy to talk to one’s friends, but if one simply refuses to talk to people one ends up diminishing the opportunities for mutual understanding, let alone the opportunities for diplomatic progress. However, in line with that new American approach to Tehran, there needs to be real determination on the part of European countries to back up America’s carrot with a rather bigger stick than European powers have been willing to brandish up to now.

I know that it is difficult to get European agreement on these matters. However, more than 12 months have passed since the Prime Minister said that we needed to have a block on new European oil and gas investment in Iran and so far no legislative action to give effect to that ambition has been forthcoming. Frankly, it is galling to hear the Iranian deputy Commerce Minister boast, as he did last month, that 67 per cent. of Iran’s foreign trade in 2007 came from Europe and that he is able to say:

“EU members are not paying any attention to the UN resolutions against Iran.”

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what her colleagues are saying to their counterparts in other European countries about the need to back up President Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Iran with sanctions that clearly demonstrate the intention of the whole of the European Union to isolate Iran commercially if it is not willing to enter into serious discussions about how to obtain verifiable assurances that it will not develop nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, the question of Iran brings me on to broader questions of nuclear doctrine and nuclear policy. In the past 12 months, it has been striking to see how men who have been characterised as hawks in US politics—men such as former Secretaries of State Kissinger and Shultz and former Senator Sam Nunn—are now campaigning very publicly for significant changes in US nuclear doctrine and for a major reduction, to be achieved through negotiation, in the stocks of nuclear weapons that are held internationally. Do the British Government support those initiatives? The Foreign Secretary’s paper last week suggested that they are behind such an approach, but I want to tease out from the Minister whether our Government believe that that new strategy has implications for their policies on the modernisation of Trident and the future of the British nuclear deterrent.

Finally, I cannot avoid saying a few words about the allegations that have been made about torture and abuse. Harking back to my opening remarks about the importance of America’s democratic moral example, if we and the United States say that we stand for democracy and the rule of law, evidence that we have failed to live up to those standards in practice does us significant harm in international relations and indeed in terms of domestic public confidence.

Can the Minister say whether the Government are minded, even at this stage, to make fresh representations to the US Administration following the court ruling in the case of Mr. Binyam Mohamed? In a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), dated yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said:

“I did not, however, discuss the details of Mr Mohamed’s Judicial Review proceedings.”

That is, he did not discuss them with Secretary of State Clinton when he visited the United States. In the letter, the Foreign Secretary goes on to argue that that was because the High Court had given British Ministers a copy of its judgment in “advance” of it being handed down, on “strict conditions” of confidentiality. However, the Foreign Secretary went on to say in his letter to my right hon. Friend that a US spokesman had said on 4 February that

“The United States thanks the UK government for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information and preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens.”

The right hon. Gentleman went on to say in his letter:

“On that basis, I saw no need to speak again to Secretary Clinton in the period between the judgment’s public release and my statement on Thursday.”

The problem that we have here is that the judges stated on 4 February that it was

“difficult to conceive that a democratically elected and accountable government could possibly have any rational objection to placing into the public domain such a summary of what its own officials reported as to how a detainee was treated by them”.

The judgment said that there would not be a breach of national security if that summary was made public. I accept, straight away, that it is possible for judges to get it wrong and to make assumptions that the disclosure of particular material would not harm national security interests when, in fact, it could do so. I also accept that the terms of an intelligence-sharing relationship must give to the country supplying the information a veto on whether or not that information is disclosed, but it is of course open to a country supplying intelligence to decide to waive that right of confidentiality. I find it baffling that the Foreign Secretary appears not even to have made a request to the US to do that. I therefore hope that the Minister will also be able to say something about that point when she responds to the debate.

In my view, relationships between Britain and the United States need to be built on both friendship and frankness. There will be times when our interests clash and there will be occasions when we disagree about particular issues. However, I am confident that our shared values and our shared interests mean that the relationship between our two countries will remain of critical importance to both in the years to come.

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate, which is, as he said, timely. Indeed, it could not have been much more timely if he had chosen the date. I endorse his congratulations to President Obama, and I join him in his tribute to the Americans who have stood by us and those who have fallen with us. I am sure that the whole House would do the same.

The UK’s relationship with the United States is our single most important bilateral relationship, and is vital to our prosperity and security. It is based on shared values and shared objectives, and has been cemented, over many years, through the work that we do together on a wide range of issues that are important to the peoples of both countries. Those issues range from climate change to terrorism and the economy, with many points between. We will be a close and productive partner to the new Obama Administration—I look forward to that—and will seek to grow and strengthen the partnership through a common commitment to tackling the challenges faced by the people of Britain and America. In that context, I, too, welcomed Vice-President Biden’s speech, in Munich on Saturday, on foreign policy, which set out with clarity and vision how we can expect our partner to act in future.

Our Prime Minister was among the first world leaders to speak to President Obama after his inauguration, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary held discussions with Vice-President Biden in Munich at the weekend. Hon. Members will be aware that the Foreign Secretary was one of the first Foreign Ministers to hold face-to-face discussions with Secretary of State Clinton last week in Washington. Hillary Clinton has summed up the UK-US relationship as having stood the test of time, and I believe that to be the case.

We strongly welcome the early steps and commitments that have been taken by President Obama, including those on climate change, and the Executive orders of 22 January on the closure of Guantanamo Bay and on the review of detainee treatment and interrogation techniques. The Government have long held that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility should be closed, and those early moves demonstrate to us a real commitment to addressing the challenges of violent extremism in a manner that is consistent with human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law. We strongly welcome that.

Will the Minister put on record whether the Government would be prepared, on the request of the American Administration, to take into this country detainees who have been released from Guantanamo Bay but who are not UK citizens?

No, I cannot confirm that. The Foreign Secretary has said recently that we have undertaken our duty. However, we will work with countries that are already seeking our assistance in facilitating the closure of the detention facility.

The Minister has said how much she welcomes the new Administration’s commitment to closing Guantanamo Bay and to opposing torture. Does that not make more ironic the Government’s positions of not being prepared to take any more detainees from Guantanamo who are not British residents or citizens, and of not pushing the American Administration to publish summaries of intelligence reports that British judges wanted published, because they might reveal torture? The Government’s position on both those issues is the reverse of what the Minister is welcoming from the American Administration.

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I do not share his views. The Government’s position has always been that we wanted Guantanamo closed, and it has also been our position to support British citizens and those who were legally resident in the UK, and to seek their return. We have brought back a number of such people, but there are a small number outstanding. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Secretary of State’s statement of last week on the matter. I shall return to the issue, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) has asked me to do so.

Let me address some of the specific points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about protectionism. I assure him that the Foreign Secretary has already raised concerns, during meetings with his counterparts, about perceived protectionism, and he will continue to do so. It is worth remembering that President Obama has repeated his commitment to avoid taking a protectionist approach in response to the global economic situation. I feel it is our duty to continue to build on that position.

Several hon. Members discussed Iran. The UK and the US are very much as one in recognising the threat that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to security in the middle east and beyond. We wholeheartedly support the new Administration’s desire to engage directly with Iran, as expressed by President Obama and reiterated by Vice-President Biden at the weekend. Overnight, President Obama has again said that the US is looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face to face. Also overnight, the Iranian President said that Iran is ready to hold talks in a fair atmosphere. We are discussing strategy closely with the US, with a view to convincing Iran to change its approach to nuclear. It is essential to dissuade Iran from progressing towards obtaining the technology that is needed to make a nuclear bomb. The possibility of direct US engagement may help to change the dynamic, but Iran must act to rebuild the confidence of the international community. It continues to enrich uranium and to increase its capacity to do so in defiance of five UN Security Council resolutions.

More broadly, we welcome President Obama’s promise to take the lead in working for a world in which the roles and risks of nuclear weapons can be reduced and ultimately eliminated. Last week, the Foreign Secretary launched a policy information paper on the subject, outlining the UK’s position and the work we have done in that area. We applaud the United States’ decision to enter the multilateral debate about Iran’s nuclear programme. That is vital not just for the middle east, but for the global integrity of the non-proliferation treaty. On 27 January, President Obama said,

“it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us”.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury talked about sanctions. The UN Security Council has passed three sanctions resolutions imposing a range of measures—banning the supply of items that could contribute to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic programmes, denying visas for key officials and entities associated with proliferation, and calling on states to exercise vigilance with all Iranian banks and to inspect cargoes on Iran Air and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

Will the Minister confirm whether the Government are content, even if not happy, with the current support of the Governments of France and Germany for such sanctions?

The EU has implemented those sanctions and has gone beyond them by freezing the assets of more entities, banning more officials from travelling and imposing further financial vigilance requirements against Iranian banks. We will work with international partners this year and beyond to bring further pressure to bear on Iran, including through extended and toughened sanctions. I say to the hon. Gentleman that this is something to which Iran has to respond. I hope that Iran will take that opportunity in the spirit that President Obama offered.

We welcome the priority given to climate change by the new US Administration. It is a distinct policy shift from the previous Administration and we welcome that. We will encourage the United States to define what it believes constitutes dangerous global temperature increase, and discuss what its contribution to avoiding it might be. However, of course, there is an immediate opportunity, and we encourage the new Administration to play a leading role when the world meets in Copenhagen in December to agree the follow-up to Kyoto. The new US commitment in the area of climate change means that we have a much better chance of securing an ambitious global agreement on how to tackle the problem.

On the economy, close working with the new US Administration to counter the effects of the global economic downturn will be crucial. The economic crisis is global in nature and has consequences for every country. As hon. Members have said today, we need global solutions, which is why we are in close and regular contact with the new US economic team and others to ensure a co-ordinated and effective approach. Of course, as hon. Members know, President Obama will join the Prime Minister and other world leaders at the London summit on 2 April, which will build on the action plan agreed at the Washington summit in November last year. The summit will include matters such as enhancing sound regulation, strengthening transparency, reinforcing international co-operation, and promoting integrity in financial markets. Crucially, it will also include reforming multilateral institutions.

Hon. Members raised the matter of the EU. A strong EU-US relationship is important for our opportunities and chances to improve the world. The relationship needs to be strong and I feel that hon. Members have acknowledged that. However, there will inevitably be disagreements. There have been disagreements at regional level, for example, over the US policy on Cuba, and between individual countries—as hon. Members have mentioned—for example, over Iraq.

The US and the EU have strong economic ties that will underpin the relationship and take us through the rough and smooth. The Foreign Secretary was heavily involved with the informal discussions with his counterpart EU Foreign Ministers last year during the French EU presidency. They considered key priorities on which to engage with the new Administration and the vital partnership that we need to develop. Transatlantic relations were a welcome priority for the French presidency. The EU needs to continue to present focused clear and positive messages to the US to cement early involvement.

The result of the meetings among the Foreign Ministers of the EU was a paper that sets out many of the important issues that require close EU-US co-operation, in particular, the middle east peace process, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Georgia and other matters. We should consider the comments made by the Foreign Secretary about the approach of the EU to the US. In relation to that, I have in mind the comments of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). He wisely said that we should exercise caution in our expectations of the new President. The Foreign Secretary suggested—I believe this is right—that the EU’s message to the new Administration should be about what the EU can offer the US, rather than simply being a list of expectations and hopes for US movement and help. The EU needs to think about how it can add value and get the best from the relationship. It needs to exercise activity and suggestion in what it can do in key areas of EU-US co-operation.

I shall now refer to the specific matter raised in respect of Mr. Mohamed. Perhaps I could clarify the issue for the benefit of hon. Members. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked a legitimate question about what was discussed with Secretary of State Clinton. It is, indeed, the case—as has been confirmed—that the Foreign Secretary did not discuss the detail of the judicial review of Mr. Mohamed’s case because, under the terms of the embargo, he would have been in contempt of court to have discussed the matter with Secretary Clinton. However, I can say to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that the Foreign Secretary will meet Mr. Mohamed’s legal representative this week. I hope that that will be welcomed.

I also wish to put on the record that the subject of the ruling was not the position of any specific Administration; it was about the principle of intelligence relationships. I refer hon. Members to the Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House last week when he made it clear that it is right

“that a country should retain control of its intelligence information, and that that cannot be disclosed by foreign authorities without its consent.”

On the disclosure of intelligence, about which the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked, I can again do no better than refer to the Foreign Secretary’s statement when he said that

“were our own classified information to be disclosed in such a way, it could compromise our work, our sources and therefore our security… the disclosure of the intelligence documents at issue, by order of our courts and against the wishes of the US authorities, would indeed cause real and significant damage to the national security and international relations of this country.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 990-91.]

I would like to conclude my comments. Our relationship with the United States is, without doubt, as important now as it has ever been. As hon. Members have confirmed today, US leadership is crucial for us in so many important issues, including many that have not been raised today. I particularly wish to mention development and the reform of the UN, which are crucial to our advancement. We are right to be close to the US and we will continue to ensure that that is so. We will also continue to offer the US our support, which will be unequivocal, but not uncritical. It is emphatically in the UK’s interest to do so. As Vice-President Biden said in Munich on Saturday:

“Our partnership benefits us all. This is the time to renew it.”

Does the Minister agree that it is particularly unhelpful to the so-called special transatlantic relationship when some Members of the House suggest that all this country’s and, indeed, some of the world’s current economic ills started in America?

It is important to say from where the economic challenges come, but perhaps the purpose of this debate—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will feel that this is a good note on which to end—is to consider what we can now do together to overcome the challenges that we face.

Sitting suspended.