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10 Feb 2009 : Column 373WH—continued

11.32 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): 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
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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.

Mr. Mark Field: 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?

Mr. Davey: 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
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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.

Mark Pritchard: 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.

Mr. Davey: 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.

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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.

Mark Pritchard: 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.

Mr. Davey: 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.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): As long as they are about America.

Mr. Davey: 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
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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—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is drawing on my patience.

Mr. Davey: 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
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issues, as well as—this was stated in the Munich speech—the problems of poverty and how it can create instability, tensions and misery.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): 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.

Mr. Davey: 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.

11.52 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): 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.

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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.

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