Foreign Affairs - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:33 pm ar 5 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench 4:33, 5 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, and to benefit from her considerable personal experience. In recent years, the Government have undertaken two detailed analyses of foreign policy: the 2021 integrated review and the 2023 refresh. It was, and is, difficult to argue with any of the individual propositions made in either document.

The problem, though, is that it can be difficult to discern how the analyses can or should be translated into a strategy for action—into an appropriate balance between ends, ways and means. As the most reverend Primate has observed, the reviews are strong on ends and, to some degree, ways, but weak on balancing these with means.

In such a complex and challenging world, it is inevitable that the UK will need to pursue many objectives and respond to many challenges. For example, it is clear that China represents a major threat to the liberal world order from which we have benefited so much since 1945. It is clear that the stability of the Middle East is as important to us, and as fragile, as it has been over recent decades. It is clear that climate change and the scramble for scarce resources are transforming the Arctic from an area of co-operation to one of contest, as pointed out in a recent report from your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Committee.

But, for us, the issue of overwhelming significance is the threat posed by Russia. The 2023 refresh was, it seems, inspired largely by a perceived change in circumstance resulting from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022—but Putin’s war of aggression began in 2014, not 2022. The fact that many people woke up to the implications only two years ago does not make this a new challenge. The 2023 document did, however, make clear at last that

“The most pressing national security and foreign policy priority in the short-to-medium term is to address the threat posed by Russia to European security”.

That is quite right. Protecting this nation must be the UK’s top strategic objective, and Russia is the clear and present danger.

The 2023 refresh also points to the main ways through which we should work towards such an end: deterrence and, if necessary, defence through NATO. But what about means? Here I am afraid the review abandons analysis in favour of soundbites, and this weakness is reinforced by a fundamental misunderstanding in the supporting arguments. The review says:

“In addition to reinforcing the UK’s ability to deter and defend, we must also address the risk that misunderstanding and miscalculation could lead to large-scale military conflict”.

This treats deterrence and miscalculation as separate issues. In reality, they are very closely linked. If deterrence is to be effective, it must leave no doubt in the mind of a potential aggressor about the unacceptable costs of launching any attack. They must be crystal clear about the ability and will of the defender—in this case NATO—to absorb an initial attack and to strike back overwhelmingly. It is a question not of fine balances and narrow margins but of undoubtedly superior capacity.

We should keep this in mind when we consider what the 2023 refresh has to say about means. It talks about recent increases in UK defence expenditure in cash terms, but we all know how little meaning that has in the face of inflation, let alone when set against previous large reductions. On future increases, the Government have said that they aspire to increase defence expenditure to 2.5% of GDP over time and as fiscal and economic circumstances allow. This is like someone muttering about one day taking out adequate insurance while their house burns down around their ears.

If the Foreign Secretary thinks this is somewhat extreme, let me quote his own wise words. He said that

“the lights are absolutely flashing red” on the global dashboard. He added that

“it is hard to think of a time when there has been so much danger and insecurity and instability in the world”.

That is spot on. But does he really think that a vague aspiration to increase defence expenditure to a level still far below where it stood as recently as 2010 is an adequate response to such a dire, but undoubtedly accurate, analysis?

The Economist recently said that European leaders, including in the UK, need to raise defence spending to

“a level not seen in decades, restructuring … arms industries and preparing for a possible war”.

It concluded that this work had “barely begun”. I look to both sides of the Chamber when I say that we had better get on with it before it is too late.