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The new wobbly world order

How Britain can make itself relevant in an age of uncertainty and intensifying great power rivalry.

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Shortly after I became foreign ­secretary in 2018, I met Madeleine ­Albright, the US secretary of state ­during Bill Clinton’s administration. Albright was the first woman ever to hold the role, and she told me never to forget what an honour it is to represent your country. So it is – but with that privilege, right now, comes an unprecedented responsibility: to chart Britain’s place in the world when the ­international order we helped to build is on the point of collapse.

I visited 29 countries during my year at the Foreign Office, and I was often struck by how much more respect other countries had for Britain than we had for ourselves. At school we study maps of the world turned pink, alongside the battles of Agincourt and Trafalgar, and the Second World War. But while our frequent ­victories may engender a certain schoolboy pride, they also make us conscious of our much diminished status at the start of the 21st century.

But the respect – and it is genuine ­respect – that other countries show us is not ­because of any historical glories. Modern ­diplomacy is far too hard-headed for that. It exists because the international order that we set up with the US after the Second World War has delivered unprecedented peace and prosperity. Those who support the progress in democratic values that it made possible are looking to us – or indeed anyone – for leadership in protecting what has been achieved.

Many of the foundations of that world order were established by the Attlee government of 1945, so it is as much a Labour as a Conservative creation, something I discovered on the day I became foreign secretary.

Halfway up the Grand Staircase in the Foreign Office sits a bust of Ernest Bevin, the great Labour foreign secretary, about whom Andrew Adonis has just written an excellent biography. Bevin’s unique place on that staircase was well-earned: coming from a humble background he used sharp tactics to square up to Stalin and ensure the creation of the Federal Republic of West Germany.

Bevin also persuaded Attlee to invest in a nuclear deterrent – he was no Corbynite – and became the driving force behind the formation of Nato, the alliance that ­ultimately defeated the Soviet Union.

Bevin also played a big role in setting up the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and what became the World Trade Organisation. Those, often imperfect, global institutions settled a consensus that larger countries should not achieve their objectives by force, and international law should be respected. If Churchill won the war, Bevin was one of the key figures who can lay claim to winning the peace.

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the world order Bevin helped to ­construct has been the most successful in the history of humanity.

Take poverty. When I was born in 1966, nearly half the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (defined then as an income of less than $1 a day, and now $1.90) Today, an estimated 10 per cent live at that appalling low level of income – although the ­Covid-19 crisis may see this number increase.

At the same time, the number of people killed in conflict – despite wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – has fallen by more than three quarters over the past 70 years. According to the University of Gothenburg, since 1945 the number of democracies has risen from 12 to 99, while the number of autocracies has fallen from 137 to 80. Not quite the end of history, but a glorious period for ­people who support open societies.

However, in the past decade or so things have been going backwards.

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China is now quite open in its rejection of the Western model of development, and feels confident enough to tear up the “one country, two systems” agreement that guaranteed freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Russia has invaded parts of both Georgia and Ukraine, and is conducting ­aggressive cyberwarfare to destabilise ­the democracies that it borders. Even the US is acquiescing in the planned ­annexation of West Bank territory by Israel, a clear ­violation of international law.

As the big powers flex their muscles, smaller countries are turning away from democracy. The US think tank Freedom House is trying to quantify such trends. The think tank attaches values to different “democratic traits”, such as freedom of the press, election access and freedom of speech. According to Freedom House, from 2017-18 three of the ­seven G7 countries went backwards in their freedom score and two – including the UK – showed no improvement. Last year, 64 ­countries ­experienced a decline in ­political rights and civil liberties – around one third of all the countries represented in the ­United Nations.

These changes have coincided with a loss of self-confidence. Many have argued that the Brexit vote was partly about forgotten or ignored voters finally having their say, but the changes are not just a British phenomenon. According to Pew Research, 55 per cent of the UK is dissatisfied with the way democracy is working – but so are 58 per cent of Americans, 51 per cent of France and 56 per cent of Japan.

The result is what the Economist ­recently described as a “wobbly” world order, with a vacuum existing where the world would normally look for American leadership. “America First” may have worked ­initially as a campaigning slogan for Donald Trump, but it sends a disturbing signal about unilateralism and isolationism from the world’s most powerful democracy.

In that context, some will say that there is little Britain can do as a medium-sized ­European power beset with its own ­challenges. But while we should not overstate our strength and influence, it would be equally wrong to understate it. The UK is no longer the global power we were in 1945. But we have maintained our position as a leading power more successfully than most would have predicted.

We are still the world’s sixth largest economy despite having less than 1 per cent of the world’s population. We are on our way to becoming the tech centre of Europe. The City of ­London remains the global centre for ­trading ­foreign currencies. The UK has three of the world’s top ten universities and a strong ­science base. Our armed forces are the largest in Europe and, as I found as ­foreign secretary, we have a ­superb ­diplomatic network bolstered with our ­position as one of the five permanent ­members of the UN Security Council.

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We also have a unique set of global alliances including Nato and the Commonwealth, warm relations with like-minded countries such as Australia, Canada and Japan, and a close partnership with our EU neighbours despite frosty relations with Brussels for obvious reasons.

But while we have many friends we should also heed the words of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore, when he said, “Friendship in international relations is not a function of goodwill or personal ­affection. We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity.”

How do we make ourselves relevant to others? By doing what we have been doing for the past century: binding together our many alliances in defence of the values we, and other democratic countries, believe in. Just as Churchill and Bevin recognised, such a task cannot be done without the US – and that will require as much persuasion today as it took back then. But Britain is one of the few countries that can walk into the White House and not be treated as “foreign”. We still have a special relationship – and it is time to use it.

The most pressing reason to rebuild the Western family of democracies is the rise of China. No one should want to stop that rise – or believe they can. Indeed, it is a ­remarkable achievement for humanity that the extreme poverty rate in China has fallen. But when you look at the erosion of liberties in Hong Kong, the treatment of the Uighur Muslims and the aggressive way China acts on human rights issues in ­international forums, it is hard to remain confident that China’s rise will be benign.


Culture clash: modern architecture surrounds a Uighur mosque in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in north-west China. Credit: Carolyn Drake/Magnum Photos

None of us can change that direction of travel acting alone – but working together as democracies we greatly increase our chance of safeguarding our democratic values in a world where China is much more powerful.

If Britain uses its influence to help build such alliances, we make ourselves relevant to others and give them a stake in our ­success. Indeed, the best of British foreign policy has always understood that – such as Tony Blair’s support for Millennium ­Development Goals, William Hague’s ­initiative to combat the evil of sexual ­violence in conflict, or the work I did on media freedom and religious persecution. Dominic Raab has recently underlined that commitment to universal human rights by ­introducing Magnitsky sanctions.

But there are consequences for many ­areas of our national life if we wish to play such a role on the world stage.

First, we will have to give total ­support to our diplomatic and development effort. Many have expressed concerns about the merger between the Department for ­International Development and the ­Foreign ­Office, but what matters most is ­maintaining our commitment to 0.7 per cent of GDP for international development. That ­generosity – and we are one of only five G20 countries to do it – speaks volumes about the values we hope to promote.

We also need to be better in supporting what diplomats call our “soft” power.

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Britain has long been lucky to be home to the English language, spoken now by around 20 per cent of the world’s population. This gives many millions of ­people a link to our country they would not otherwise have. On top of that, the UK boasts powerful British brands – such as the Premier League – music and entertainment ­industries, and our monarchy. But, perhaps, one underexploited soft power asset is the BBC. Unusual though it may be for a Conservative to say, the BBC is probably the world’s most ­respected source of impartial and independent news. However, as a country we never seem to find the relatively small amounts of money necessary to turn BBC World News into the global television giant it could be. For a small investment it could do far more to support democratic values than any ­politician’s speech.

But soft power needs to be backed with hard power, however unfashionable it may be to say so. We have learned a great deal from Iraq and Syria about the risks of regime change. But even without any neoconservative agenda, if we want to prevent a world order based on “might is right”, democracies need to be able to enforce international norms. It would be unwise to assume that US taxpayers will be prepared to do this if we are not. Britain and our EU neighbours need to play our part if there is to be any meaningful balance in the Western alliance – or indeed any alliance at all.

There is one last ingredient if we really want to walk tall as a powerful defender of democratic values: we need to fix our ­problems at home. That means tackling the entrenched inequalities that have become so visible with the higher BAME fatality rate from Covid-19. It means “levelling up” the north of the country to the levels of ­prosperity in London and the south-east. And it means giving young people a stake in the future, not least the ability to get on to the housing ladder. If your system isn’t working at home how can you possibly advertise it abroad? 

Jeremy Hunt is Conservative MP for South West Surrey and former foreign secretary

This article appears in the 17 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine