UK foreign policy in a shifting world order Contents

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

Disruption and change to the global balance of power

1.The US Administration has taken a number of high-profile unilateral foreign policy decisions that are contrary to the interests of the United Kingdom. In particular, US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and the UN Human Rights Council, and the imposition of trade tariffs on its allies, undermine efforts to tackle pressing global challenges of critical importance to the UK. The Government’s response of maintaining its commitment to these agreements and institutions has been the right one. (Paragraph 37)

2.Below the political level, our witnesses asserted, the UK and US are deeply entwined through defence and intelligence links, and connections between officials, which should withstand political decisions by the Administration. The Government should reach out to those parts of American society which share our views and values; and the Government should increase support for the Marshall Scholarship scheme. (Paragraph 38)

3.However, the difficulty the UK and its allies have faced in trying to influence the US demonstrates the challenge of working with the Administration. How damaging this will be to what has hitherto been the UK’s most important international relationship will depend on whether the current approach is an enduring trend. Should President Trump win a second term, or a similar Administration succeed him, the damage to UK–US relations will be longer lasting; and the Government will need to place less reliance on reaching a common US/UK approach to the main issues of the day than has often been the case in the past. (Paragraph 39)

4.Some of the foreign policy decisions of the US Administration do not stem solely from the election of President Trump—they represent a broader shift towards a more inward-looking US, which is less focused on the transatlantic alliance and multilateralism, and the sense of the US losing power to other sources. In its diplomatic relations with the Administration, the UK should distinguish between those aspects of current US foreign policy which are driven by the current President, and those which are part of longer-term trends of divergence from the UK. (Paragraph 40)

5.The Government’s response to US foreign policy decisions needs now more than ever to be closely co-ordinated with like-minded countries throughout the world. (Paragraph 41)

6.China’s growing economic and political power gives it global influence, and it has become increasingly regionally assertive. We welcome the Government’s now long-standing openness to China: it is not in the UK’s interest to treat China systematically as an adversary. But the Government must ensure that this relationship does not damage the UK’s relations with the US or Japan nor efforts to forge a stronger relationship with countries like India. (Paragraph 67)

7.While there are continuing concerns including China’s human rights record and its behaviour in cyberspace, the Government should aim to work closely with China in finding responses to the main international challenges we face, such as climate change and freer and fairer world trade. But it should do so in a manner which is consistent with the rules-based international order, in particular international humanitarian law. (Paragraph 68)

8.In the longer term, the Government will need to weigh up the strategic challenge posed by China’s approach to its international role, and its impact on the rules-based international order, against China’s growing economic significance. (Paragraph 69)

9.Russia is a declining power that is increasingly willing and able to use both traditional and new capabilities—such as cyber capabilities—to act as a disrupter in international relations. It is no longer a role model for idealist focus as it was during the Soviet era. We commend the Government for successfully co-ordinating a strong international response to the chemical weapons attack in Salisbury. The UK should continue to work closely with its allies to counter Russian disinformation campaigns and deter its hybrid warfare tactics. (Paragraph 84)

10.The UK must also, nonetheless, remain open to dialogue with Russia on issues of common concern, such as counter-terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation. And it should not allow the inevitable increase in tension following the Salisbury attack to prevent a better understanding of developments in a country which remains important for our foreign policy. (Paragraph 85)

11.The UK has prioritised economic and trade links with India, but the potential security relationship has been under-developed. The Government should seek to reset and elevate its relationship with India by focussing on strategic priorities such as cybersecurity and maritime issues in the Indo-Pacific. (Paragraph 96)

12.The Government must recognise the negative impact of the restrictive UK regime for visas and migration on the UK-India relationship and soft power links between the two countries; and in the forthcoming White Paper and legislation on the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy should reshape policy with the objective of addressing India’s concerns. (Paragraph 97)

13.The Government should recognise the increasing regional influence of middle ranking emerging powers in Africa, Asia and Latin America and should work more closely with them in addressing problems and disputes arising in their regions. We welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to this objective in his evidence to us. (Paragraph 98)

14.In the context of a strained transatlantic relationship, an increasingly assertive China, a disruptive Russia and broad shifts to the global balance of power, it remains firmly in the UK’s national interest to maintain the strongest possible partnership on foreign and security policy with its likeminded European partners, both bilaterally and at an EU level, after Brexit. (Paragraph 103)

15.The Government should place a renewed emphasis on building alliances across the world and engaging with networks of likeminded partners. (Paragraph 104)

The transformative nature of new technologies

16.The relatively low cost of some cyber capabilities is one more technological factor that has created an asymmetrical shift in the balance of power. Russia, for example, is able to disrupt international affairs despite its declining economic position. (Paragraph 143)

17.Increased connectivity increases the vulnerability of critical national infrastructure to attack. (Paragraph 144)

18.Major developments in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, by China and other rising powers could further alter the balance of power. (Paragraph 145)

19.Digital communications tools have intensified public and lobbying pressure on governments, increased the number of actors involved, and resulted in a much wider audience for foreign policy making. This connectivity has increased the pace at which some events take place and information is disseminated, such as during the Arab Spring, as well as governments’ ability to understand events, and the speed at which they have to respond. (Paragraph 154)

20.It will be important for the FCO and the UK’s diplomatic missions abroad to capitalise on the usefulness of digital communications and to be proficient in their use. But care will be needed to avoid crossing the line into interference in their host country’s internal politics. (Paragraph 155)

21.Cyber security is an increasingly important global challenge. The UK has strong capabilities in this area; this presents the UK with an opportunity to be a world leader on a critical global issue. (Paragraph 167)

22.A problem facing any international agreement on cyber security is that attribution is uncertain and the involvement of private actors extensive. Any new rules pose the question of to whom they should be applied, and whether the source can be located. (Paragraph 168)

23.It is unlikely that there would be agreement on a comprehensive, binding international treaty on cyber security. Instead the Government should convene like-minded countries into a ‘coalition of the willing’ to establish ‘rules of the road’ in cyberspace, using Lord Hague of Richmond’s seven principles for an international agreement on cyberspace as the starting point. These ‘rules of the road’ would lay the groundwork for a more binding international agreement in the future. (Paragraph 169)

24.We welcome the Government’s work within NATO to develop the Alliance’s thinking on cyber issues. It should seek to play a leading role in establishing cyber norms, increasing the Alliance’s cyber resilience, and developing a common understanding of the potential impact on security and warfare of emerging technologies such as increased automation. (Paragraph 170)

25.The active engagement of technology companies in establishing behavioural norms in cyberspace, and in any potential enforcement of those norms, will be crucial. The Government should seek better to engage technology companies and international partners in developing rules on cyber security and governance, and solving the challenge of attribution. (Paragraph 171)

Multilateralism and the rules-based international order

26.The Foreign Secretary’s view is that the Trump Administration’s objective is to reform rather than disrupt and damage the UN. We are more sceptical, having heard evidence of actions it has taken which could undermine the UN. The Government should continue to resist US challenges to the UN and should work with other like-minded countries to compensate any resulting shortfalls in resources for the UN and its agencies. (Paragraph 204)

27.Reform to the UN Security Council is necessary but difficult to achieve. We regret that efforts by the UK and France to reform the Security Council by expanding its membership have not progressed. The Government should focus on advocating reforms to the UN to overcome fragmentation and incoherence, as set out in our report The United Nations General Assembly 2018. (Paragraph 205)

28.The Government should support efforts by the UN to engage with other groups, such as NGOs, to make it a more responsive and modern organisation, more than 70 years after it was founded. (Paragraph 206)

29.We commend the UK’s efforts to encourage European Allies to meet their agreed 2% NATO commitment. This is important both to ensure that NATO has the requisite capabilities and to sustain US support for the Alliance. (Paragraph 223)

30.Quality of spending is also important: NATO Allies should spend a substantial proportion of their 2% defence expenditure on major equipment including research and development. (Paragraph 224)

31.The strategic ambiguity of NATO’s Article 5 in the context of cyber-attacks provides Allies a degree of flexibility and guards against unwanted escalation. We conclude that amending Article 5 is unnecessary; the Government should oppose any proposals to revise it. (Paragraph 225)

32.Maintaining the World Trade Organisation and the Bretton Woods institutions, and developing the rules of international trade and finance, will become even more important to the UK after it leaves the EU. This will be necessary to prevent trade anarchy, leading to worse things—as was the hideous story of the 1930s. (Paragraph 238)

33.The US Administration’s unilateral approach to trade is a major concern. The Government must do all it can to uphold the functioning of the WTO. It should consider with like-minded countries ways of circumventing the US blockage on appointments to the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanisms. (Paragraph 239)

34.We welcome the UK’s engagement with new international institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The UK should use its membership to seek to shape the lending terms and governance of these bodies. (Paragraph 256)

35.The Government should also follow closely the development of other regional groupings—such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. We echo Lord Hague’s view that participation in new organisations could be very valuable, and we highlight the potential of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the Pacific Alliance. (Paragraph 257)

36.The Government should be willing to develop and work with appropriate networks (such as the UN Global Compact, which supports the global business community in advancing UN goals and values through responsible corporate practices) and groups of countries to find solutions to international challenges. (Paragraph 265)

37.Contacts and engagement between civil society groups and individuals have the ability to generate enduring connections and activities across borders. The Commonwealth network, based on increasingly close links at all levels of society, may prove remarkably well adapted to the modern age of connectivity. (Paragraph 266)

38.The rules-based international order in all its manifestations—which is critical to the UK’s national interest—is under serious threat from multiple directions. (Paragraph 282)

39.The policies of major powers—Russia, China and increasingly the United States—present considerable challenges to the multilateral institutions that underpin this order. Yet many of the problems facing states, such as climate change, terrorism and migration, are increasingly complex and trans-national. The Government should make the defence of the rules-based international order a central theme of all its bilateral relationships. This is particularly important in the UK’s engagement with the US, China, Russia and emerging powers such as India. (Paragraph 283)

40.Pressures on the rules-based international order also come from beyond the state, in the form of technology and protests. The roots of this instability are many, but one is the enormous access to information and spread of opinion caused by communications and connectivity. (Paragraph 284)

41.The Government must not lose sight of its core values—particularly the rule of law and respect for international commitments—which are fundamental to the good functioning of a rules-based system for international trade, economics and security. Tension between the UK’s commercial interests and its values is likely to occur more frequently in its relationships with authoritarian countries and its pursuit of new trade deals across the world. (Paragraph 285)

42.In the context of the US Administration’s hostility to multilateralism, the UK will need to work with like-minded nations to move ahead on some global issues without US participation or support, or a changed nature of engagement. But it should always leave the door fully open for the US to join at a later stage. (Paragraph 286)

43.The UK should be a vocal champion of reform to international institutions. It should support reforms both to make these institutions more efficient, and to give a greater voice to emerging powers—particularly China and India—to build their support for the rules-based international order. (Paragraph 287)

UK foreign policy—future capabilities

44.The Government’s branding of Global Britain lacks clarity, and needs more definition to be an effective tool in the practical promotion of the UK’s interests overseas. (Paragraph 311)

45.The establishment of the National Security Council has had a beneficial effect on the coordination of Britain’s external policies. But in the modern world economic issues are inextricably linked to those of national security and international relations. We therefore recommend that the Government should amend the remit of the NSC to include international economic issues. (Paragraph 312)

46.We welcome efforts by the Government to coordinate better the UK’s internationally focused departments and break down siloes. The establishment of the Department for International Trade—and in particular the appointment of nine HM Trade Commissioners—has run counter to this initiative: it has further fragmented international policy and undermined the role of the FCO. We are concerned that this restructure may have undermined the support available to UK businesses seeking to trade internationally. A similar concern applies to the Department for International Development and the Home Office both of which need to take account of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s priorities in their work. (Paragraph 313)

47.In particular, the Government should consider the concerns of its international partners when developing its new immigration policy, and take account of the impact of its approach to visas on the pursuit of its foreign policy goals. (Paragraph 314)

48.The UK should step up its engagement with international organisations of all sizes. It should seek to exercise its membership (and observer status) of global and regional institutions, to demonstrate and reinforce the value of multilateral co-operation between states. This means putting more effort and resources into both existing and new organisations. (Paragraph 321)

49.To maintain its influence and leadership on global issues, the UK needs a more agile, creative and entrepreneurial approach to foreign policy. It has an opportunity to demonstrate its value to old allies—such as the US—and other partners—such as India—by harnessing niche areas of UK expertise, such as cyber security and business and human rights. (Paragraph 322)

50.Witnesses urged, and we agree, that the UK needs to be more active diplomatically to maintain its relevance in a world where power is becoming more diffuse, challenges are increasingly transnational and its longstanding ally—the US—is less aligned with its priorities. (Paragraph 330)

51.The Government must invest more in the UK’s global diplomatic presence. To fulfil its responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK should have a presence in every country. We therefore welcome the Foreign Secretary’s recent commitment to open additional UK missions. (Paragraph 331)

52.Increased resources for diplomacy are urgently needed. The Government should reverse cuts to the FCO’s budget, in recognition that a relatively modest uplift in funding would help to ensure the UK is able to deal with a more fluid and unstable geopolitical environment. The Government’s formal spending commitments for development and defence are public statements of the UK’s willingness to be present in capability, not just in name, and they should be matched with a commitment on funding for the new and far more intensive type of diplomacy needed worldwide to fulfil the UK’s duties. (Paragraph 345)

53.We support the Government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas development—which sustains and amplifies the UK’s influence in many international organisations, including the UN—and ongoing fulfilment of its commitment to spend 2% of Gross Domestic Product on defence. (Paragraph 346)

54.But it is not just quantity that is important: the quality of development and defence spending also matters. The focus of the UK’s development spending should now take account of the UK’s old friends and new partners. In considering the defence budget, the size of the military does not necessarily determine the effectiveness of its foreign policy. (Paragraph 347)

55.Language skills are essential for the effective conduct of diplomacy and export growth. We welcome the Government’s commitment to increasing the number of languages taught at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Language School, but regret that it is unwilling to carry out an audit of language skills across Whitehall, and urge it to reconsider. Moreover, given the importance and interconnectedness of language skills and policy across so many government departments, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Trade, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education, we recommend that the Government act more effectively to co-ordinate language strategy across government. (Paragraph 354)

56.The Government should do more to encourage universities to restore modern foreign language degree courses, in order to ensure that the UK is producing a sufficient number of linguists to meet the country’s foreign and trade policy needs. (Paragraph 355)

57.UK universities are a national industry of global importance, and a significant source of soft power. The Government’s inclusion of students in its immigration target is wrong and deleterious both to the UK’s international image and its ability to build a relationship with future leaders. We urge the Government to remove international students from its migration target, and to cease treating full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students as economic migrants for public policy purposes. (Paragraph 369)

58.The UK has strong soft-power assets, but the Government must support and invest in them. This means not only the British Council, the BBC World Service and scholarship programmes but also training, skills, the professions, culture, legal activity and the creative industries. In this regard we welcome the Government’s decision to develop a UK soft power strategy and the creation of a clearly identified soft power strategy team in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. (Paragraph 370)

59.We believe the Government should further expand the main overseas scholarship programmes (Chevening, Commonwealth and Marshall) and also the British Council’s Future Leaders Connect programme. (Paragraph 371)

60.The best way for the UK to deter cyber-attacks is to develop its own offensive cyber capabilities, and make clear its ability and willingness to respond. We welcome the Government’s relative openness in this area, and encourage it further to clarify its thinking in this respect. (Paragraph 387)

61.We recommend that the Government should designate a Minister with responsibility for cyber issues across government, who would attend the National Security Council. (Paragraph 388)

62.Countering propaganda is an increasingly important, but challenging, task in an increasingly digital environment where misinformation can be spread widely and instantaneously. In the new digital environment, disinformation campaigns and propaganda have become major instruments of international disruption. The UK has played a leading role in countering these false narratives, but the Government must also accept that there is more to be done to counter these threats. (Paragraph 389)

63.Digital tools, such as social media, necessitate a constant upgrading of the techniques of diplomacy, well beyond traditional skills. We are pleased with the FCO’s efforts to harness new technologies in its work. (Paragraph 390)

64.It is critical to ensure that the public understands and is supportive of the UK’s foreign policy objectives. A strong domestic foreign policy narrative is needed to deliver this. This narrative needs to be led by Ministers, in particular by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and propagated through all departments and agencies. We recommend that the National Security Council should add to its tasks the co-ordination of the Government in shaping this domestic narrative. (Paragraph 394)


65.In a world where the UK’s influence can no longer be taken for granted and where the shifts in economic and political power relationships are not working to our advantage, our inquiry has brought home to us that we will need a more agile, active and flexible diplomacy to handle our international relationships to ensure that we are in a stronger position to protect and promote our interests. (Paragraph 395)

66.We believe that this agenda cannot just be manufactured. It has to be built up layer by layer. There will always be critics of aspects of UK foreign policy. But agreement on broad aims, and on the facts of what is actually happening in a rapidly changing world, is achievable. This should be a sound basis for a constructive debate about which new paths the UK should take, and what assets and experience it should build in a new epoch. We hope our inquiry, with its conclusions, will help in that endeavour. (Paragraph 396)

© Parliamentary copyright 2018