Britain in the World: An Engaged Nation

High Commissioner Menna Rawlings addressed the Australian Capital Territory Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.


What do we mean when we describe Britain as an ‘engaged nation’?

Put simply, it is that, today, the UK plays a major part in addressing the most challenging issues facing the world – be that taking a leading role in climate diplomacy, tackling the Ebola outbreak in West Africa or taking the fight to Da’esh in Syria and Iraq.

And when it comes to acting on the world stage, we put our money where our mouth is. In fact, the UK is the only major country in the world today that meets the NATO target of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence and the UN target of contributing 0.7 per cent of gross national income on development.

But why does the UK feel the need to be an engaged nation? And what strategic thinking informs our approach to international affairs?

I rarely recommend to people I meet that they read government policy and strategy papers – unless they are in need of a cure for insomnia – but our latest Strategic Defence and Security Review is an exception. The SDSR – the equivalent of your own Defence White Paper, which should be published this week – was launched in November and, for the first time, incorporates the UK’s National Security Strategy. By bringing the two together, I believe the UK is better able to present a clear vision for a secure and prosperous UK with global reach and influence.

If I may quote from Prime Minister David Cameron’s foreword to the SDSR, he says this:

In ensuring our national security, we will also protect our economic security. As a trading nation with the world’s fifth biggest economy, we depend on stability and order in the world. With 5 million British nationals living overseas and our prosperity depending on trade around the world, engagement is not an optional extra, it is fundamental to the success of our nation.

For me, as a diplomat, one of the most interesting parts of the review is our commitment to be ‘international by design’ in our approach to national security. So while the SDSR makes it clear that the UK will retain and grow its defence capabilities, it also emphasises the need to work alongside allies, from our established ‘Five Eyes’ partners — Australia, the US, New Zealand and Canada — to European countries such as France and Germany, and like-minded powers in the Indo-Pacific region, such as Japan and South Korea.

That’s because, while there is still much we can do as a single country, the sheer scale and difficulties involved in tackling the world’s problems mean they are far better addressed in partnership with others. Indeed, many of the global issues that we currently face are so severe that they can only be tackled by many countries acting in concert. That’s why Australian medical teams worked side by side with British colleagues in Sierra Leone in the fight against Ebola, our pilots fly together in the skies above Iraq and our counter-terrorism agencies continually exchange information to keep our citizens safe.

As well as articulating a clear UK strategic approach, you will find quite a lot of big numbers in the SDSR. It commits to spending £178 billion (around A$370 billion) on new defence equipment over the next 10 years. That equipment includes 138 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and nine Boeing P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Both of these, of course, will be in service with the RAAF as well, presenting excellent opportunities for greater interoperability and joint training efforts.

At sea, the Royal Navy will increase in size for the first time since the Second World War. We will build eight of the highly advanced Type 26 Global Combat Ships, as well as developing a new class of lighter, general-purpose frigates. Our land forces will also benefit from the establishment of two new rapid deployment Strike Brigades.

At the same time as our SDSR was released, the UK also unveiled a new development strategy. The timing wasn’t a coincidence. The scale of our aid programmes has been known since the government committed to meeting the UN’s 0.7 per cent of GNI target in 2013 – a target that was enshrined in law last year. But what is less well understood is that much of this aid money is directly deployed in support of our national interests – and as such is closely aligned with our National Security Strategy. A full 50 per cent of our aid budget is spent in fragile and conflict-affected states.

For an example of how we use this money to help tackle some of the world’s worst problems you only have to look back as far as the start of this month, when we – working with Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the UN – gathered donors in London from across the globe to raise funds to support the millions of Syrians displaced by war. In a single day, the conference raised over US$11 billion in pledges. The UK alone has committed £2.3 billion – not far short of A$5 billion. Of course, this won’t in itself solve the desperate crisis in Syria. But that convening power goes with sustained engagement: we have to keep earning it.

A great example of UK defence and aid assets working hand in hand comes from this region. Just hours after the devastating Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu last year, a Royal Air Force C-17 loaded with UK Aid was on its way from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire to Brisbane, Queensland. It is testament both to our air forces’ interoperability that, once here, our C-17 served under Australian command and control – adding further vital heavy lift capacity to the RAAF’s own fleet of C-17s.

But our armed forces are not just there to deliver aid. For many months, UK forces have been on the ground in Iraq, training Iraqi troops in much-needed counter-IED techniques. Meanwhile, in the skies above Iraq and Syria, the Royal Air Force has has conducted more air strikes than any other coalition member with the exception of the US. Approximately 850 British military personnel are involved in operations against ISIS. Around two thirds of those personnel are deployed in the region to support the air campaign; while the remaining personnel are on the ground in Iraq providing training and military advice.

The UK also recognises that our defence and aid assets are best used when informed by a detailed understanding of the world and its peoples – that can only be provided by an extensive diplomatic network. The UK is represented in over 85% of the world’s countries – making our network one of the largest in the world. And it is a network that really does do diplomacy – whether it is helping to secure the historic Iran nuclear deal or contributing to the success of the COP21 climate talks in Paris.

The UK also plays a leading role in a wide variety of multilateral organisations – perhaps the most important of which is the UN Security Council, where we sit as a permanent member alongside the US, Russia, China and France. But we’re also active and leading participants in NATO, the G7, The Commonwealth and, yes, the European Union. More on that later.

Of course, it has been suggested that the digital age will see the ‘end of diplomacy’ but that has been proclaimed many times over the centuries – perhaps most famously by Lord Palmerston on receiving his first telegram, when he said: “My God! This is the end of diplomacy!” But in my view diplomacy is more important than ever in the digital age – although it will need to adapt and change. In his book ‘What’s wrong with Diplomacy?’, Kerry Brown argues that where secrecy, pomp and elitism once dominated diplomatic strategy, inclusivity and transparency are of increasing importance.

I think he’s right, which is why the UK is ensuring that today’s diplomats can engage in the new as well as the old ways. For me, the ability to use social media to engage – to amplify, to tell a story of what we do as diplomats and why it matters, to challenge, to debate – is transformative. We’ve had to innovate and adapt to the technology revolution. Of course we have further to go and there have been some bumps along the way, and we can do more to move towards more open policy-making as well as being on transmission. But it’s an encouraging story so far.

It is occasionally suggested that countries do not have values, only interests – a twist on another of Lord Palmerston’s many famous sayings: “England has no eternal friends, England has no perpetual enemies. England has only eternal and perpetual interests.” I firmly reject that. Our Prime Minister often speaks of our values – democracy, individual liberty, free speech and mutual respect, tolerance and understanding but, above all, the rule of law.

You may recall that last year was the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, to which the origins of the rule of law have been traced. Now’s not the time to retell the tale of how this ancient parchment took on such global significance – but it is interesting to note the reverence with which Parliament House just up the road treats its copy of the Magna Carta, whose origins lie half a world and eight centuries away.

We are confident that the UK’s values resonate with billions around the world, setting the standard that others seek to reach. And our confidence in these values enables us to act with ambition in dealing with issues that seem intractable. You may recall that two years ago we launched a major global initiative to end sexual violence in conflict, supported by 155 countries around the world. That work will take many years, perhaps decades, to reach fruition but we believed it was important to put down a marker that sexual violence in war will not be tolerated and that offenders will not be able to act with impunity.

Our values also play a key role in our development work. For example, our aid specifically aims to give voice, choice and control to girls and women – through education, health and opportunities – for the simple reason that it doubles the number of people who can create their own country’s future.

We are proud too to have played a strong role, alongside Australia and many others, in achieving last year’s agreement by 193 countries to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 new global goals are broad: they cover the same areas as the Millennium Development Goals (ending poverty and hunger, gender equality) but add in new areas that are also crucial to sustainable development, like clean energy, climate action, peace and justice, and reducing inequality. Supporting the Goals is the right thing to do, and – because they promote peace and stability in our globalised world – it is also the smart thing to do for Britain.

Earlier I said I would return to the topic of the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

Last year Prime Minister David Cameron set for himself the task to negotiate improvements in four areas of the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Those were economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration. Last weekend, after the kind of mammoth late-night negotiations for which the European Union is rightly famed, the UK reached a deal with the other 27 member states. As a result of that deal, the Prime Minister has stated very clearly that he believes that Britain will be safer, stronger and better off in a reformed European Union. And he has committed himself – and the UK government as a whole – to campaigning to remain in the European Union in the forthcoming referendum.

So, in almost exactly four months’ time – on Thursday the 23rd of June – the people of the UK will decide for themselves the merits of ‘in’ or ‘out’, ‘remain’ or ‘leave’. Whatever the result, it will be major democratic event in the history of our country and one in which everyone who is entitled to take part should ensure they have the ability to make their voice heard.

That includes Brits living in Australia – if you have been registered to vote in the UK at any time in the last 15 years you will be eligible to vote in the referendum. You can register very easily by going to our website – www.gov.uk – and searching for ‘register to vote’. It takes about five minutes – I’ve done it myself and it really is very simple. So if you are a Brit, I encourage you to sign up and have your say. And best not to leave it too late, there are some disadvantages to living in Australia and one is that the postal ballots have a long way to travel. The earlier you sign up, the more likely that your local electoral registration office will be able to get you your ballot in plenty of time to get it back to the UK before polling day.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are plenty of people who would say that the UK’s role in the world is declining, and that we are not the engaged nation we once were. Of course I accept that the sun has well and truly set on the British Empire, and that in today’s multi-polar world our role is very different to what it was 50 or 100 years ago. But that doesn’t mean we’re not an engaged nation in this, the 21st century. I had an amicable debate with Michael Fullilove about that after he said in the first of his excellent Boyer lectures that the UK had “lowered its ambitions” in recent years, adding: “the British will spend the next few years debating whether Scotland should leave the UK, and whether the UK should leave the EU. That won’t leave much time to think about the rest of the world.”

Of course I recognise that a lot of energy will be spent in the UK in the next few months preparing for the EU referendum, just as Australia will have a hard focus on elections this year. But as I pointed out to Michael, we are pretty good at multi-tasking; and also at doing ‘more with less’ including in the field of foreign policy. So the Foreign Office, for example, reduced costs and opened a number of diplomatic posts during the previous (Coalition) government. And, in addition to our hard spend on aid and defence referred to earlier, we perform strongly in terms of soft power, through our digital diplomacy and cultural reach – including through the BBC, and iconic British brands such as the English Premier League and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which has just performed to sell-out crowds in Melbourne.

Others have suggested that the UK-Australia relationship, too, is in permanent decline. Gareth Evans writing in the Australian this week suggested that people who think that Brexit will lead to a revitalised ‘Anglo-sphere’ are kidding themselves since the world has moved on. But I have to say that I would baulk at any suggestion that our bilateral relationship is defined purely by nostalgia, or that the UK has brought nothing of significance to the region’s defence since the end of the Second World War.

My own way of thinking about UK/Australia is that we are a historic relationship, a modern partnership, which delivers for both our countries. And in terms of that modern defence and security partnership, I would argue that our close collaboration helps to keep both our countries safe – whether that be in terms of sharing intelligence on key threats, building shared capabilities on countering extremism, terrorism and cyber, or on doctrine, training and personnel exchange co-operation. Today there are around 50 British MoD civilian and military exchange and liaison officers here in Australia, working alongside your armed forces.

So for me, this is one of the strongest and most important pillars of our modern partnership, in a world where threats are globalised, unpredictable and fast-moving. And we remain closely involved with Australia in efforts to understand and contain strategic threats in this region – whether that be the South China Seas or North Korea. In this way, we are continuing partners in the defence of this region and of Australia.

I’d like to end on one final point. The UK is proud to be an engaged nation but we also recognise that, in a globalised world that brings globalised risks, there is no real alternative. Nations that retreat from the world don’t cut themselves off from these risks but they do cut themselves off from the great benefits to be realised by greater international co-operation.

That’s why we remain – as we have always been – engaged with the world. Eager to talk, to trade, to co-operate – but also retaining the capability to act with purpose when the situation demands it.

Published 26 February 2016