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Foreign Policy

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009


Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will alter their foreign policy as a result of the election of the new President of the United States.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the foreign policy of the United Kingdom is driven by long-term objectives including countering terrorism and proliferation, preventing conflict, combating climate change and strengthening international organisations. The United States, under presidents of both political parties from Franklin Roosevelt onwards, has long been Britain’s most important bilateral partner in pursuing its goals. We look forward to working closely with President Obama to strengthen this special relationship, as he and the Prime Minister agreed on 23 January.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that our relationship with the United States, which should be of crucial importance to both countries, must be based on equality of value of the views and advice on foreign policy—something on which we have much to offer—and that we must not again, as we have over much of the past 10 years, waste that relationship by acting as a lapdog to the United States?

My Lords, I refute that analysis of the past decade. Of course the United States and the United Kingdom are close partners, and all intelligent people in the United Kingdom would want that partnership to continue, but it would be quite wrong to suggest that the United Kingdom has not pursued its own policy goals. We made clear to the United States—on, for instance, the issues of Guantanamo Bay, which we wanted closed, extraordinary rendition, and Diego Garcia—our disagreement with the policy of the previous President of the United States.

My Lords, is it not encouraging and a refreshing change that, in her confirmation statement before the US Senate on 13 January, Hillary Clinton included not only the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism but also, significantly, climate change, the world-wide fight against poverty and human rights, particularly women’s rights? Is this not a significant change and with the spirit of international co-operation that the new Administration have promised? Does it not show that the foreign policy of the new Administration and of this Government now converge?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for putting a more realistic perspective on future developments. We particularly welcome the movement on climate change. In the past the United States has quite clearly detached itself from a challenge which we all recognise faces the whole world. We greatly welcome the indications from Hillary Clinton that the United States will play a more positive role in that dimension as well as in the other areas that my noble friend mentioned.

My Lords, will the Government accept that those of us who have criticised them for following far too closely the Bush Administration foreign policy on a range of issues very much hope that British foreign policy will change now with a new and much more enlightened Administration? Do they also recognise that our illusion of a unique special relationship with the United States is not shared in Washington? The United States clearly has special relationships with Israel, Canada, Mexico, Japan and a great many other countries. From the other end of the telescope, the relationship looks a little different.

My Lords, Washington’s perspective on foreign affairs will of course be a little different from London’s. The noble Lord has indicated those other relationships to which the United States attaches proper importance, but he will also recognise the special dimension to the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, on which we hope to build further. It is entirely possible and compatible for the United States to develop its relationships with other significant actors on the world stage while at the same time looking to Britain to produce a productive partnership with it in crucial areas.

My Lords, will the Government also continue to press on other, very distinct differences that we have had with the United States on foreign policy? I am thinking in particular about the International Criminal Court, the protocols on chemical and biological warfare, and, of course, policies concerning Cuba. I hope that those will be pressed.

My Lords, my noble friend has accurately identified areas in which British policy has differed from the United States. We think that it is likely that the United States will adopt strategies that are rather closer to the ones that we have recommended and followed in recent years.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one way of meeting President Obama’s obvious wish to make America more of a team player, with less emphasis on going it alone, will be for us here in Britain to work even more closely with our French friends and allies across the Channel and to build on the very close links that we already have on energy, defence procurement and so on? Does he accept that practical Anglo-French co-operation is one of the best ways of carrying Europe forward, and that it will get stronger still under the next Conservative Government?

My Lords, the influence of Kenneth Clarke obviously runs very strong in the Conservative Party, even in the Upper House. I am delighted to see the noble Lord putting forward such a positive agenda for Britain’s co-operation with Europe in effecting policies in the world, in which we clearly see a European voice having an important dimension.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned Guantanamo Bay. Will the British Government undertake to lean on our European partners to take prisoners from Guantanamo Bay who are their nationals?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know the position of the British Government with regard to our nationals. There has been reluctance among several major European states in that respect. We take the view that each state must take responsibility for its nationals, and we look forward to achieving the objective outlined by the noble Lord.

My Lords, has the Minister noted President Obama's offer of special assistance to the Government of Pakistan in combating extremism? Have we made any similar offer, and is there any co-operation between us and the Americans on that matter?

My Lords, we certainly welcome the fact that President Obama is indicating a fresh perspective with regard to Pakistan. Of course we have exactly the same analysis as the United States of the action that needs to be taken, some of which can be taken only by the Pakistan Government, to restrain the training grounds for terrorists. That is an area in which we would expect the Americans to take the lead, because they have a closer relationship with Pakistan on such matters, but we will do our bit.