UK foreign policy in a shifting world order Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction and current situation

1.The evidence we have taken since January confirms that the international scene is in a state of turmoil and upheaval. The most visible features are new centres of world power and influence, increased populist and nationalist pressures, far-reaching networks of crime and terror, new and empowered networks of political dissent and assertions of identity, extreme polarisation of political viewpoints, the rise of non-state actors and movements, the disruption, and in some cases destruction of established industries, the distortion and corruption of news and views on a worldwide scale, and mass movements of migrants and refugees. As to the root causes of this radical transformation, many explanations have been offered, and no single one suffices. But it is clear that the influence of the ongoing digital revolution and the accompanying global connectivity on an unprecedented scale, affecting every sphere of modern existence, plays a central role in this turbulent scene.

2.Whichever explanation is preferred, it is clear that major dilemmas and quandaries arise for British foreign policy, with old alliances, assumptions and priorities all in question. The direct challenges are there to see: a harsher and more inward-looking America, a shrinking political centre-ground in much of Europe, a more aggressive Russia—using cyber malevolence and poison in place of its former power, the collapse of some regimes in the Middle East with governments dramatically weakened or overthrown, and China rising on the back of new technologies to an eminence not enjoyed for centuries. But perhaps the most serious of all, and in consequence of these changes, we see widespread disregard for the laws, rules, treaties, customs and international institutions which together make up the rules-based order, which was constructed between nations after the Second World War so that never again could we return to the barbarism of two world wars and so that the comparative peace we have enjoyed could be preserved.

3.Our inquiry has sought to analyse and understand some of these disturbing trends, although to encompass them all would be impossible—not least because change is continuing at a hectic pace, as one form of globalisation rapidly succeeds another, trade patterns are revolutionised, and growing volatility brings unforeseen crises. Nonetheless, we reach some conclusions and recommendations—which we hope will be useful—as to how a nation in the UK’s position—with all its advantages but also all its constraints—can best equip itself to navigate a course through the dangers and opportunities immediately ahead. We have entered an unfamiliar world—which could be called a new epoch in human affairs—in which new policies, new partnerships, new methods of implementation and new tools of diplomacy are urgently called for.

4.The complexity of this new environment was described in authoritative terms by many of those who shared their view with us. Lord Hague of Richmond, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2010 to 2014, said that “the speed of change in the way international relations are conducted and the way events can happen in a way that could not have happened 10 or 20 years before has picked up and increased”.1

5.Sir Mark Lyall Grant KCMG, former National Security Adviser, said the Westphalian system of nation states was under considerable pressure. Governments were “losing the monopoly of things that are fundamental to a state”. He gave a number of examples including: the size of multinational companies; the internet; terrorism; migration; the growing role of non-state actors, including militias in some parts of the world; and cryptocurrencies, which were “a rival to states printing money”.2

6.The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) described “an increasingly complex, interconnected and volatile world, where information and influence are dispersed and contested amongst many more actors, and where major foreign policy actors are pursuing their interests even more assertively.”3 Lord Ricketts GCMG GCVO, former Permanent Under-Secretary, FCO and former UK National Security Adviser, described several “underlying shifts” that had resulted in a “major strategic change in the landscape” for the UK. He listed “the shift of global economic power towards the rising economies of Asia”, major powers becoming “impatient with the rules that they inherited from the post-war settlement”, “great power competition” and the “US pulling back from multilateralism”. In addition to these changes, “everyone can add their voice to foreign policy, and Governments have to take account of that.”4

7.This greater interconnectedness has been accompanied by a rise in nationalism. Dr Robin Niblett CMG, Director, Chatham House, described this as the “disaggregated effects” of globalisation: “emotion, identity and tribalism”.5 Professor Gareth Evans, Former Foreign Minister of Australia, said “economic anxieties, security anxieties and cultural anxieties from immigration and so on” were “creating, in many parts of the world, a visible sense of national identity which … will be a significant and compelling dynamic for the indefinite future.”6 Bronwen Maddox, Director, Institute for Government, said that changes to domestic political attitudes—”a lot of grievances and … detachment from those who have been leading them”—also spilled over into international affairs.7 Foreign policy-makers needed “to look much more closely at the base from which they [were] operating, at the mood and satisfaction level of that base, and the insecurities of that base.”8

8.These changes are reshaping the international order. The foundations of British foreign policy—the construction and maintenance of a rules-based international order, the relationship with the US and EU membership—are being challenged as a direct consequence of political and social waves caused by people’s access to information, boosted by instant connectivity on an unprecedented scale and speed. Governments are responding to short-term demands of their citizens, who have been empowered by their access to information and opinion.

Box 1: The rules-based international order

The rules-based international order developed after the end of Second World War. It involves “a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols, and cultural arrangements.”9 It also involves a set of behavioural norms and customs, and the acceptance of restraints by states.

James Rogers, Director, Global Britain Programme, Henry Jackson Society, said the rules-based international order was “predicated on three different but interwoven components”:

(1)“politically, it is comprised of liberal–democratic nation-states;”

(2)“economically, it involves globalisation, whereby the world is progressively linked together in a more integrated economic system; and”

(3)“diplomatically, it is founded on expectations of peaceful change, where its members structure their relations through a plethora of international laws and organisations.”

It is “an attempt by a community of like-minded democratic states to ‘domesticate’ the international system in such a way that it becomes more like an international society, based on a clear set of rules, to try and prevent revisionist behaviour.”

This system “is not ‘natural’ or permanent; its continued existence depends ultimately on the willingness of its members to uphold it and its principles, particularly when confronted by authoritarian states that seek to revise the rules or challenge the liberal assumptions on which it is based”.10

Sir Mark Lyall Grant said there had been a “golden era” of the rules-based international order from 1989 to 2009. During this period:

“We suddenly saw the UN Security Council unblocked, a number of new UN peacekeeping missions … the International Criminal Court, the Human Rights Council, a flourishing of women’s rights and LGBT rights, a whole series of new institutions and new normative developments, particularly at the United Nations. What is striking about those developments is that they all went in a liberal direction.”11

9.Robert Hannigan CMG, former Director, GCHQ, said there had been “a trend of states behaving in a way that suggests that they simply do not care about things they cared about 10 or 15 years ago”. While “the past century was perhaps not a golden age”, there had been “a degree of predictability about it, and there were certain red lines which most states stuck to in their own interests. That has been eroded.”. Although “we are not necessarily at some great tipping point … there is fragmentation and fraying of that system”.12

10.Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said “the world order is changing very dramatically.” In the “30 years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989”, there had been “a general assumption that the march of democratic values was unstoppable,” accompanied by a “general optimism”. He said that “we are once again moving into a period in which we cannot have that complacency at all.”13

11.Supporting the rules-based international order “has been a central narrative for the way in which Britain has understood its actions in the world”.14 According to the FCO, the rules-based international order

“works for UK interests in multiple ways: promoting peace and prosperity through security and economic integration; encouraging predictable behaviour by states; and supporting peaceful settlement of disputes. It also encourages states, and a wide range of non-state actors, to create the conditions for open markets, the rule of law, democratic participation and accountability.”15

Ms Maddox said the UK now found itself with the challenge of “trying to argue in its foreign policy for a rules-based international order, an argument that it thought it had won”.16 This was “undoubtedly a worrying trend for a country such as the United Kingdom which depends so heavily on” it.17

12.The multiple, intersecting changes explored in this report—the changing global balance of power, the transformative effects of new technologies and the impact on multilateralism—present a challenge for the UK, a medium-sized power with global interests.

This report

13.In Chapter 2 we consider the changes to the global balance of power and their causes, including changes since the election of President Trump, the increasing influence of China, Russia’s approach to international relations and the role of other regional powers. In Chapter 3 we consider the proliferation of new technologies, from behavioural and social change to the changing nature of defence and security threats, the impact of technology on international relations and the balance of power, and the challenge of global cyber governance and regulation.

14.In Chapter 4 we explore the challenges facing multilateralism, and examine the impact on the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Bretton Woods institutions, the growing importance of networks of states, and new non-Western organisations. In Chapter 5 we explore the UK’s foreign policy capabilities, and how the foreign policy establishment should adjust and adapt its mindset, structures and diplomatic understanding to the totally changed world outlined in Chapters 2–4.

15.While the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has significant foreign policy implications, it was not in itself the motivation for this inquiry. The wider geopolitical shifts taking place around the world would be present regardless of Brexit, and the case for a rethink of British foreign policy predated the referendum. In this inquiry we focused on the transformative nature of new technologies as an important and relatively unexplored factor in international relations. We were not in a position to consider many of the other important changes and challenges to the international system, many of them having roots in the information revolution, leading to the rise of populism, nationalism, and major “problems without passports”18 such as migration, climate change and resource scarcity. We were also not able to consider in detail the challenges facing the global nuclear order (which will be the focus of our next inquiry), or the threats caused by the development of chemical and biological weapons.

16.We took evidence on this inquiry from January to November 2018. Five committee members visited Washington DC as part of the inquiry; the summary of that visit and a transcript of evidence sessions at the Atlantic Council are online. We also held a roundtable with early-career experts, under the Chatham House Rule, the record of which is online. We thank all our witnesses, along with those who facilitated our visit to Washington DC.

2 Q 213 (Sir Mark Lyall Grant)

3 Written evidence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FPW0027)

5 Q 198

6 Q 124 (Professor Gareth Evans) Henry Wilkinson also drew attention to the role of the financial crisis in the decline of faith in liberal democracy and capitalism. Q 34.

8 Q 198 (Dr Niblett)

9 The United Nations Association of Australia, The United Nations and the rules-based international order (2017): [accessed 4 December 2018]

10 Written evidence from Mr James Rogers, Director, Global Britain Programme, Henry Jackson Society (FPW0026)

12 Ibid.

14 Written evidence from Dr Tara McCormack, Lecturer in International Politics, University of Leicester (FPW0025)

15 FCO, ‘Rules-based international system 2016 to 2017’: [accessed 4 December 2018]

17 207 (Sir Mark Lyall Grant)

18 Q 124 (Professor Gareth Evans). Professor Evans attributed this name for transnational issues to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

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