Paddy’s warning on the threats to democracy and peace

In his last speech to the House of Lords in January this year, Paddy had some strong words for both Donald Trump and the Brexiteers and some useful reflections on where the world should go from here.

Here is the speech in full:

My Lords, I will wait for noble Lords to perform the usual exodus. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem has just said, “What we want is genesis, not exodus”—which may well be correct.

I am privileged to lead this debate. For reasons that I will not bother the House with, I have been spending a lot of time recently doing some research into the 1930s. I am struck—actually, horrified—by the similarities between our suddenly turbulent and unpredictable age and those years. Then as now, nationalism and protectionism were on the rise; democracy seemed to have failed; people hungered for the government of great men; and those who suffered most from economic pain felt alienated and turned towards simplistic solutions and strident voices. Public institutions, conventional politics and the old establishments were everywhere mistrusted and disbelieved. Compromise was out of fashion; the centre collapsed in favour of extremes; the normal order of things did not function; change and even revolution was more appealing than the status quo; and fake news—built around the effective lie—carried more weight in public discourse than rational arguments and provable facts. Painting a lie on the side of a bus and driving it around the country would have seemed very normal in those days, too.

Perhaps the last time that we stood as close to large-scale conflict as we stand now in the world was at the height of the Cold War—but then we had a comfort which I fear we do not enjoy today. Then, the western liberal democracies stood together in defence of our interests and our shared values. Now it pains me to say that, under President Trump, the most powerful of our number thinks that standing together is less important than going it alone, that the abdication of leadership and responsibility is preferable to engaging in the international space and that collective action takes second place to “America First”.

Throughout the long years of the American century we have taken great comfort in the fact that our alliance with the United States and its Presidents has ​been built not just on shared interests but on shared values. Today we have to face the wrenching reality that this US President seems not to share our values; his recent racist comments have shockingly illuminated that fact. The liberal principles that have underpinned every civilised age, every peaceful period and every prosperous society are now under attack as never before, but President Trump appears more aligned with those forces ranged against liberal values than with those seeking to defend them. Throughout the American century we have taken comfort in the fact that the leader of the western world, although flawed like the rest of us, was well informed, judicious and cautious about going to war. Now I fear that we have an American President who seems all too frequently ignorant of the facts, unpredictable, foolhardy and reckless. Bang goes my invitation to the state dinner.

This is frightening stuff for those who, like me, place their faith in the Atlantic alliance. So what do we do about it? For the moment I fear that the answer is to grin and bear it in the hope that the US will find its way back to sanity. After all, we in Britain are not entirely free of this kind of lurch into stupidity ourselves. When the battle between the America that we know and love and Donald Trump ends, I think only one side will remain standing: either Donald Trump will destroy American democracy as we know it or American democracy will destroy Donald Trump. Personally, my money remains on the strength of that old and deep democracy.

However, even if on both sides of the Atlantic we can find our way back to saner and safer ground, is there something deeper going on here? The slow divergence of interests between Europe and the US does not date from President Trump’s election, although that has undoubtedly accelerated the process. Even under President Obama the US’s gaze was arguably looking more west across the Pacific than east across the Atlantic. I have no doubt that NATO and the Atlantic axis will remain Europe’s most important alliance for as far ahead as we can see, but it will not be the same alliance as it has been for these last 50 years. To remain strong, in my view, the Atlantic relationship will have to look far more like JF Kennedy’s 1962 vision of a twin-pillar NATO than the present conjunction of a giant on one side and 21 pygmies on the other.

We will need a NATO that is mature enough to cope with areas where our interests do not perfectly elide. We should not be shy, for example, of calling out Israel for its illegal occupations just because Washington chooses not to, or of strenuously supporting the Iran nuclear deal just because Mr Trump wants to wreck it. I have no doubt that the United States will remain the world’s most powerful nation for the next decade or more, but the context in which she holds her power has now totally changed. The American century was one of the few periods in history when the world was monopolar and dominated by a single colossus—when all the compasses had to point to Washington to define their position for or against. Now we are moving into a multipolar world, more like Europe in the 19th century than the last decades of the 20th. A foreign policy for the next 50 years based on what we have done for the ​last 50 will be a foreign policy clumsily out of tune with the times—which I think is exactly where we currently are.

Everything has changed in the world—except, it sometimes seems, Britain’s view of it. British foreign policy in the post-Trump era will have to be much more flexible, much more subtle and much more capable of building relationships on shared interests—even with those beyond the Atlantic club, and even with those with whom we do not necessarily share values—than the simplicities of the last decades, when we only needed to snuggle close to our friendly neighbourhood superpower to be safe and powerful.

In a world dominated by a single superpower, might—not, unhappily, diplomacy—is the determiner of outcomes. So our present foreign policy is dominated not by diplomacy but by the use of high explosive. See a problem in the world, drop a bomb on it: that is what our policy has been. The string of western defeats in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and, most humiliating of all, Syria should tell us that this age is over. We have lost contact with the essential truth of Clausewitz that war is an extension of diplomacy by other means. We have remembered the war but we have forgotten the diplomacy—and so we have failed.

In an age when building alliances will protect and enhance Britain’s interests better than using military capacity alone, high explosive will, I believe, be less useful to us than effective diplomacy. To be diminishing our diplomatic capacity, as we are currently doing, is folly of a very high order.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the current slide towards isolationism is that, in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, the only solutions to our problems are multinational ones. Climate change, trade imbalance, resource depletion, population growth, nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, poverty, migration and conflict suppression are the greatest problems we face—and not one of them can be solved by nations acting alone. As a medium-sized nation with global reach but, sadly, diminishing weight, it is in our interests to see a rules-based world order rather than one shaped by might. So actively pursuing the strengthening of multilateral institutions seems to me a necessary cardinal principle of a sensible British foreign policy.

Lastly, we have to deal with the consequences of our own folly. I make no secret of it: we Lib Dems seek to reverse Brexit, which has already resulted in a catastrophic shrinkage of our ability to protect our interests abroad. I reject the notion that in seeking to reverse Brexit we are acting either undemocratically or unpatriotically—any more than, for instance, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who I recognise as a true democrat and a patriot, was acting in contravention of either of those principles by constantly and determinedly seeking to change the country’s mind after the 1975 referendum. But one thing is certain: whether we are in the EU or out, our foreign policy must continue to place its first emphasis on working intimately with our European neighbours because that is the best way—indeed, the only way—to pursue our nation’s interests in a dangerous, volatile and turbulent age.​

It is too little recognised just how much the terms of our existence as Europeans have changed over the last two decades. Europe now faces an isolationist US President to our west, the most aggressive Russian President of recent times to our east, and, all around us, economic powers now growing up, some already stronger than any single European nation. The right reaction to this new context of our existence is not to allow ourselves to be broken up and scattered, but to deepen European co-operation and co-ordination. This way only does our country’s best interest lie. So, inside the single market and customs union or out, inside the EU or separated from it, our only sensible foreign policy is to proceed in lock-step with our European partners.

I can put it no better than the Government’s own paper on post-Brexit foreign policy. Britain’s future relationship with the EU should be,

“unprecedented in its breadth, taking in cooperation on foreign policy, defence and security, and development”.

Precisely, my Lords. The question we debate today is: do the Government mean that, or will the country’s interests once again be hijacked by the anti-European prejudices of the Tory party? I beg to move.

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2 Comments

  • Peter Hayes 24th Dec '18 - 3:21pm

    Thanks for publishing Paddy’s recent speeches it shows the depth of his thought and the reason many members became active deliverers (in my case) or canvassers and supporters.

  • Peter Hirst 24th Dec '18 - 5:50pm

    I can only hope that our present seemingly liking of strong, nationalistic and populist leaders and polices is a passing trend; soon to be surpassed by a more collaborative and humane way of doing politics as dangers such as climate change increase their grip on global society.

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