This is the text of a speech in the House of Lords today in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, focusing on foreign policy and defence.

My Lords, I am grateful to follow the Noble Lord Campbell and for the Noble Lady the Minister’s comprehensive and ambitious speech introducing this debate. I welcomed the Government’s Integrated Review as a necessary attempt to hold together the diverse interests, challenges and opportunities facing the UK in the future.

One of the things I learned in my early career as a linguist at GCHQ was that words and assumptions need to be interrogated as they can be used to obscure reality. For example, in our context, an increased “cap” on nuclear weapons tells us nothing about numbers that might actually be intended or the rationale for them.

So, I think it was remarkable that reference in the Review to the European Union was almost completely missing. Now, this had been widely predicted as it seems that, for the Government, any such reference might be heard as an ideological Remainer capitulation. Yet, the rationale for a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific only makes sense to a point: it is not just what we are “tilting towards” that matters, but also what we are “tilting away from” that has to be considered.

Put the fractious and loaded politics of Brexit to one side for a moment: we are still going to need a strong common alliance with our European neighbours if, for example, China and Russia are to be rightly understood and handled by the democratic West. Pretending we can simply ignore the EU like a bad smell is ridiculous, and this ideological tilting at windmills needs to be challenged. To argue that we will engage with the EU by way of its member states – the Review singles out three: Germany, France and Ireland – is to impose our own understanding of how we think our European allies should organise themselves politically rather than engaging with them on their own terms. In so doing, we overlook the point that the EU is more than the sum of its parts and has agency in and of itself. To ignore this agency is to shrink the diplomatic networks that the Government has access to in support of its stated diplomatic objectives.

However, my Lords, as cuts to the Overseas Aid budget – and Yemen in particular – demonstrate, there is a potentially serious discrepancy between our rhetoric and our observed behaviour. We assert that we want to be a world leader in upholding the rule of law … having a number of times threatened in the last couple of years to abrogate our responsibilities under international law – not least in the recent Internal Market Bill and the Overseas Operations Bill. We might think we can simply move on, but that doesn’t mean that our damaged reputation and the obvious (to everyone else, that is) gap between our rhetoric and behaviour go unnoticed both internally and externally. It also reduces our credibility when we seek to hold other countries to the rule of law – and that impacts inevitably on global security in the longer term.

Ethical assumptions lie at the heart of our political and economic choices. Ethics matter.

My Lords, I come back to Russia. Chatham House published an immensely helpful paper this month addressing a number of myths and misconceptions about Russia. I commend it to the House. Basically, it urges a deep questioning of the assumptions that lie behind how we see, understand and strategise in relation to Russia. As we noted to our cost during the last five years negotiating our exit from the EU, any party to a relationship – especially a changing one – needs to develop an expertise in looking through the eyes of the other party, listening through their ears, hearing their language, and interpreting it in order to know where to begin in offering a language of proposition or proposal. Failure to learn the language of the other is both stupid and costly.

The Church has to do this work every day, not least because we have partnerships in parts of the world where the world looks very different and our behaviour is read very differently from our intention or expectation.

My Lords, my work as a Soviet specialist developed during the Cold War – for my children and grandchildren as remote as the English Civil War. But, for most of us here it has shaped our world and the way we see it. I am not convinced that the Integrated Review will lead us to a deeper understanding of why Russians see the world the way they do. Building back better demands looking more seriously at the foundations of history.

My Lords, the UK needs to see how we are seen and why. Can the Noble Lady the Minister assure us that the work of translation, interpretation and realism will be at the heart of implementation?

It is perhaps no coincidence that Parliament was gripped yesterday by the debate on whether the UK should join in bombing ISIS/Daesh in Syria and that today the House of Lords is debating the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. (I commented on this on its publication last week here.)The sharpest questions posed were not to do with numbers or hardware or whether such attacks constitute the UK “going to war in Syria”, but to what end these means are meant to lead. Strategy is the plumbing that leads to the achievement or fulfilment of a vision – the end.

And the haunting question behind yesterday's debates in both Houses was: if this is a strategic move, then what happens when the bombing has stopped?

I (somewhat notoriously) wrote to the Prime Minister in August 2014 to ask if there was a coherent strategy behind our responses to events in the Middle East and elsewhere – and, if so, what it was. As I observed at the time, simply repeating the mantra that “our strategy is clear” neither provides a strategy nor makes it clear. Clearly, the same concern still applies: is the UK response to terrorism and other international threats reactively tactical rather than strategically coherent?

This isn't a dig; it is a genuine question.

The debate about Syria was shadowed by lessons learned (or not) from interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Given that we can't later decide to un-bomb the ruins, where is the strategy to win the peace? And how realistic is the vagueness about timescales, given that the time needed for changing minds, establishing some sort of peaceful and achievable settlement, creating robust institutions and security for the people, is likely to run into decades and not months? I seem to remember that George W Bush celebrated 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq after about three weeks.

Today's debate on The United Kingdom's role in supporting international security and stability in the light of the Strategic Defence and Security Review is haunted by the same area of questioning. Put simply, is the Government's plan a proactive step in building a flexible and adaptable security force … or a reactive response to the challenges of today that might not be those of ten years time when the hardware will be in place?

This is not to diminish or understate the complexity of predicting the unpredictable in an increasingly uncertain world. But, it is to bang the drum for greater joined-upness between arms of government (DfID, FCO, Home Office, MoD), a more clearly worked out strategic plan for achieving a clearly articulated and attainable vision, and a realistic timescale to which we must – if we decide to act – commit ourselves.

So, what are the short-, medium- and long-term plans for Syria and Iraq? And who are the key players who will need to coalesce in some way to enable this to happen? And how is the SDSR to integrate with wider military, diplomatic and politico-economic initiatives/realities in order to avoid largely reactive tactical engagement?

These are the questions that will not go away.

 

Yesterday in the House of Commons the Prime Minister made a statement about the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. It was later repeated in the House of Lords, where I was present.

This work takes seriously the needs of the country in a challenging and changing world. It faces up to the demands of a world in which asymmetric warfare and cyberwarfare have changed the game for all players. The last review in 2010 was not a review based on security or military need; it was Treasury led and financially driven – purely to save money in the wake of the global financial collapse of 2008 and its aftermath. It satisfied no one, but means that the 2015 review starts much further back from where it should do. (The inadequacies have been noted in many other places, so I won't bang on about them here.)

The 2015 review can be read here and the Prime Minister's statement here.

In the short question session following the reading of the statement in the House of Lords it was noticeable that speakers were preoccupied with hardware and numbers rather than principle or strategy. This is not a bad thing in any sense – and probably inevitable given the experience, expertise and interests of members in the House to hear the statement.

However, my concern lay elsewhere, and I rose to put a different question (in Hansard and, therefore in context, here):

My Lords, would the Minister agree with me that some of the language we are using in this debate reflects an assumption that the world is binary and divided into allies and enemies? The reality is that allies become enemies, and enemies become allies. In any strategic approach to the future, could we be assured that that possibility will be taken into account? I worked on elements to do with Iraq in the 1980s, and we can see what happened in the 2000s.

Arms and resources that we sell to people who are rebels in Syria can then be used against us. Is that sort of strategic thinking about a non-binary, more eclectic world being taken into consideration?

The response by Earl Howe was sympathetic:

The right reverend Prelate reminds us of a very important point of principle. As I hope he will find when he reads this document, running through it is a thread or theme that makes clear that government has to be joined up in all of this—much more joined up than it ever has been in the past. The way in which countries abroad are assessed as friendly, non-friendly or something in between is absolutely essential in our long-term planning. Having said that, we are very clear that we have our prime allies with whom we wish to collaborate, specifically when it comes to defence—not least the United States, France and, increasingly, Germany. However, it is possible for countries around the world to unite around a common objective, as we saw recently with the United Nations Security Council resolution, where all the members of the Security Council voted in one direction. That was a remarkable event in itself, and we should take our cue from that in deciding how to proceed further in the context of the Middle East conflict.

The point of my concise question was to recognise that conflicts are no longer simply between static states, but more eclectic – as are alliances and enmities. We fed Iraq in the 1980s because our enemy's enemy was deemed to be our friend at that point; but things changed. We have a similar problem today with, for example, Saudi Arabia: are we prepared for the implications of an eventual change of regime in Saudi and the legacy of having ignored human rights abuse there in the interests of commercial and economic trade? We are now to have more frigates in order to add capacity to the UK's anti-submarine capability, and it is clear that this relates to an increased threat by an increasingly belligerent Russia. Yet, we will also need to ally with Russia in relation to resolving conflicts in places such as Syria and Iraq.

Therefore, we need to draw into any strategic thinking the impact and implications of a non-binary world and a rapidly changing set of international relationships and interdependencies.