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The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, spoke to radio 4 outlining some of the Government's vision for UK foreign policy.
Evan Davis, presenter (ED): Three words William Hague will use today to describe his foreign policy: “distinctive, agile, energetic”. He wants to focus on opportunities not just threats; he wants to reach out to emerging powers - India and Brazil, for example - not just be preoccupied with the EU, US and Middle East. He’ll set out what all this means in a speech later today but imposing on his upbeat vision: the inescapable grim challenge of Afghanistan, whether and when we talk to the Taliban and whether the Taliban will want to talk to us. Well, William Hague joins us now. Good morning.**
William Hague, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (WH):** Good morning.
ED: Can we start on Afghanistan, and I suppose the need for clarity in the sense of our strategy there, there’s a sense that we either need to commit for the long-haul and say, “We will be there for as long as it takes, or we need to get out.” But we’re in this rather halfway house at the moment, sort of, half-committed for a set time period which encourages the Taliban to think that we’re not really committed and not to talk to us. What… just give us some clarity.
WH: No, we’re very committed to making this work, to giving the international strategy in Afghanistan the necessary time and support to succeed. And I think it’s very important to bear in mind that the military pressure on the Taliban is going to increase further over the coming months, the so-called surge of United States troops is still going on and the capability of the Afghan national security forces is all the time increasing. In fact, a great deal of what British forces are going to be doing in Afghanistan in the future is partnering with Afghan forces, increasing their capabilities and experiences. So I know we’ve heard… we’ve just heard earlier in your programme a so-called Taliban spokesman saying, you know, there isn’t going to be… they wouldn’t be interested in talking even if we wanted to talk to them, but the pressure on those people is going to increase over the coming months.
ED: Was it a mistake then to… for the Prime Minister to refer what seemed like a deadline, a five-year deadline, on our participation there?
WH:** No, the Prime Minister is only saying what he said before as leader of the opposition. He said before the general election that, of course, in the next Parliament he would hope - anyone would hope - that the British combat troops were coming home. But he’s also stressed that’s not setting a timetable…
WH:** …for what happens over the next few years. Britain wants this to succeed, this is our… as you quite rightly said, our single biggest problem and issue in foreign policy, but we are working together with more than 40 other nations. The Kabul conference I will attend later this month will bring those nations together again, with the Afghan government, trying to make sure that they’re building up their own capacity to conduct their own affairs.
ED: So, I mean… so just to be absolutely clear then, although that would… it would be nice to get everybody back by the end of the parliament it’s not a deadline, we could be there well beyond the end of this parliament if necessary?
WH: Well no, look, the end of the parliament is a long way away; that is five years away because we’ve said this parliament will last until…
WH: …2015. And we’ve always said - the Chief of Defence Staff, for instance, has said - that the Afghan forces should be able to conduct their own affairs, should be able to stand up themselves without other nations’ effort to be alongside them by 2014. So I don’t think it’s any great surprise then or any great mystery - there’s no great mystery about this - saying that by 2015 really we should be in that position…
ED: Should be.
WH: …where the Afghan national security forces will be looking after themselves.
ED: Should be, but we may not be.
WH: Well, could there still be British troops who are training; could there still be British troops in that kind of role? Well, of course there could be. But this combat operation is what the Prime Minister has been quite rightly talking about over the last few days.
ED: But you’re either setting a deadline or you’re not setting a deadline, and as I understood from your earlier answer you’re not setting a deadline. If it was necessary, if things didn’t go as well as we planned - and we have to face the possibility that it might take longer to train up the Afghan army - if we… if it doesn’t go to plan the troops may be there longer because we are there, we are committed and we’re not half-committed.
WH: We’re committed to the Afghans being able to conduct their own military operations…
ED: Right. Which might take time.
WH: …and their own security. And, you know, that takes time, but I would be very surprised if that took longer than 2014.
ED:** It would be a surprise but it’s not inconceivable. And just in terms of talking to the Taliban, do you have in mind a kind of timetable - I’m assuming that you agree with the head of the army, General Sir David Richards, who has said that at some point he thinks that is the right way to go and that some sort of national reconciliation is going to be enormously helpful to Afghanistan - do you have in your mind some sort of timetable for when we might be able to persuade the Taliban to come and talk?
WH: I don’t think you can put an exact timetable on this. This is an Afghan-led process; again, it was agreed by the international partners of Afghanistan in January that there would be a process of reintegration of former Taliban fighters and of reconciliation which would be Afghan-led. And that is the crucial point to remember, that is a process to be led by the Afghan government but based on former Taliban fighters accepting the Afghan constitution, accepting the legitimate government in Afghanistan and renouncing al-Qaeda. So, yes, there must be a process of reconciliation. I don’t think any of us have ever argued that there would be a military solution to the problems of Afghanistan - we’ve always said there has to be a political process as well.
ED:** On… finally on Afghanistan before we talk about your speech today, is… are the Americans thinking very hard about what they’re doing there? Obviously Petraeus is going out there now, taking over from General McChrystal; the Americans had started… had suggested… President Obama had suggested by the middle of next year it would be nice to start getting people out. That again was seen as perhaps a mistaken application of what… well, looked a bit like a deadline on the American involvement there. Is there much of a reappraisal going on in the States at the moment?
WH: Well, that was never a deadline. What the president said about July 2011 was the beginnings of a draw-down of a large increase in forces, so no-one should take that as a deadline from the United States. The United States, like us, is very committed to giving this the time and support to succeed. And I talk to Hillary Clinton about it a great deal; the Prime Minister’s discussed it with President Obama. We will, in our thinking, think with the United States. I think that’s very important in British foreign policy over the coming months, that we work on this closely with the United States and share our thoughts and our plans together, but I think that there’s no difference at all between us at the moment.
ED: Right. Let’s talk a bit about the more upbeat side of your foreign policy, the opportunities rather than the threats, and the subject of your speech today. Just outline what it means in practice as a “distinctive, energetic and agile” foreign policy.
WH: Well, the sort of thing it means in practice is that today we are launching a taskforce with the United Arab Emirates to build up across the board our links with that particular country, saying that ministers together will look at what we can do in education, in culture, in commerce, in diplomacy to build up our links systematically and strategically over the coming years. Now that’s one example. In a month’s time or so the Prime Minister will go to India with a wide range of other Cabinet ministers, again building up our links in a systematic way that promotes the British national interest and, of course, is good for the conduct of world affairs more broadly. So that is the sort of thing I mean, and I don’t think British ministers in the past have actually sat in a room together and said, “How are we going systematically to promote the opportunities of British citizens and the opportunities for British businesses over the coming decades?” So it’s an intensified engagement, with countries like that and countries of Latin America, which I hope can be taken forward across parties and on a sustained way over many years to come.
ED: I’m interested in whether, that kind of thing, whether it works actually. I mean, I know you talk in your speech about following the foreign minister of Bahrain on Twitter and that kind of thing. I’m wondering whether all of that, sort of, mood music stuff really does much in foreign policy or whether it’s… ultimately it’s just substantive economic and other interests that’ll drive what nations do. Does it… do you think… you’re optimistic it can make a big difference?
WH: It’s a mixture of these things, is the honest answer to that, and the Bahraini foreign minister and I following each other on Twitter won’t of itself solve a lot of problems although it illustrates how we keep in touch with each other in entirely new ways. It’s also true that successful economic policy is the foundation of successful foreign policy; that is a measure of the real damage done to this country by the outgoing government because they were happy to trade on the economic successes of their predecessors while letting the economic state of this country drift and go into decline - now that’s a big challenge for us in foreign policy. But what this approach involves is the Foreign Office becoming more economically and commercially focused and that the deal, really, then with the rest of the Government is that foreign policy runs through the veins of all the other Government departments. So that what we’re doing in higher education, what we’re doing in culture or sport, what we’re doing in the business department, ties in with the foreign policy of Britain. It sounds an obvious thing when you put it like that, but obvious as it may be I don’t think this has been attempted in government for a long time.
ED: Well, sorry, I’m not sure which is driving… is it foreign policy is there to drive economic policy or is it the economic policy is there to drive the foreign policy?
WH: Well, they’re very much connected together. No nation…
WH: …can have a successful foreign policy without respect for what it’s doing economically and for its economic prospects in the world, and therefore the Chancellor’s Budget and the central task of this Government to put our national finances back into shape is essential to our foreign policy success. But on top of that we’ve got to be taking the opportunities in the world and what I’m arguing is that our relations with the EU are crucial - and in fact those have been neglected as well - and with the United States we have our unbreakable alliance. But the real economic action in the world has been taking place in Brazil and India and China and the Gulf States, and that is where those are the places to which we now have to connect ourselves much more strongly than we’ve ever tried to do so before.
ED: The countries we need to suck up to a bit more. Just one last question: do you want Britain, in foreign policy terms, to bat above its weight in international affairs? What are we, sort of, 1% of the world population, 4%, 5% of the world economy I think. What… do you want us to bat above our weight in foreign policy terms?
WH: Well, to begin with in some respects I want us just to bat our weight. We are 12% of the population of the EU, but the number of British people going in at entry level into the European Commission is less than 2%. So we’re better, in instances like that, just bat our weight for a start.
ED: There’s a language requirement for the EU which has probably got in the way.
WH:** But in the rest of the world, of course we need to bat above our weight. But we are a country in a very good position in what I describe as a ‘network world’ to take maximum advantage of those networks. And that is what we’ve been failing to do in recent years, we’re now going to go about it in a systematic - and, yes, optimistic - and strategic way.
ED: Foreign Secretary, thank you very much.
WH:** Thank you.