Tom Tugendhat on Defending the Rules

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An address by Tom Tugendhat MBE MP, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, House of Commons. 

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In his address, Mr Tugendhat discussed Britain’s place in the world and his vision for the UK’s foreign policy priorities post-Brexit. Drawing on his time working for the Chief of the Defence Staff and his work on the committee, he argued that a rules-based approach to foreign policy not only plays to the UK’s reputation for honesty and fairness, but is in the country’s best interest at a time of mounting global instability.


The Speech


Today I’m going to offer a vision of our foreign policy.

One that calls upon us to remember: who we are, what we can offer and how we can deliver it.

That’s why I’m focusing on the nation state, the rule of law, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Like all truly Conservative speeches, this isn’t new. This is just an exercise in remembering what works and applying it for today.

Admittedly, that’s not what I had originally planned to speak about.

I was going to talk about the threats to the rules-based international order, about the shared commitment to abide by agreed rules and norms, most of which were set down in 1945, that we, the United Kingdom, were at the heart of writing.

That’s the topic getting a lot of attention at the moment, because the existing order is under threat.

From Russia undermining the United Nations and flouting of international law, to China’s growing assertiveness in international affairs, and questions arising from the growth of important powers like India.

But the most important challenge isn’t these, it’s our own disillusionment.

The West, that group of nations stretching from San Francisco in the West to Seoul in the East, who value the rule of law, economic liberty, and human rights, seem to be losing interest in the rules-based international order that has done so much to keep us safe since the end of the Second World War.

The rules that, as unfashionable as they are, have stood between us and the demons of our worst nature. There are many reasons we could suggest for this disillusionment, but most seem to be the symptom not the cause.

At root, there is, perhaps, something more human going on – a collective amnesia.

The terror and unrest of previous eras has drifted far from people’s minds, and the events that shaped the lives of past generations have become distant memories.

Today, too few have looked the devil in the face, too few have seen what can happen when the rules collapse and anarchy reigns.

Too many see peace as the ordinary state of affairs, when a cursory glance at history makes clear, peace is painstakingly constructed and easily lost.

Peace is the exception, not the rule.

But that’s a speech I have even given many times before.

I’m sure you’re all bored of it by now – I am too!

So, I’m going to talk instead about what we should do about it.

We have a diagnosis, now we need to search for a cure.

For some it’s obvious.

Since becoming chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee I’ve met many experts.

Their views vary but, in essence, their focus is the same: we must stay close to Europe, they say, we must work more with NATO, the UN, and the OSCE, they argue.

We must recognise that our strength is in leveraging others, we don’t stand alone.

In other words, rebuild the old equilibrium.

I understand where they’re coming from. I even agree with much of their diagnosis.

But it’s not enough. It ignores the tremors of the past decade. It pretends Putin, Trump, Brexit, China and many other events are just passing phases. It forgets the only truth in life – you can’t go back.

That’s why I’m looking to build on the past, not copy it.

That’s hardly surprising for a Conservative. But I am also a British internationalist.

I’m convinced we must find new ways of working with our allies. I’m looking to bring together ideas for a new Conservative internationalism, if you will.

This isn’t just because Brexit changed our foreign policy, but it did.

It isn’t just because the global order is being reshaped by others, but it is.

It’s because, for too long, we have stopped asking: What do we need? What does our country want? How do our people see their place in the world?

Instead we’ve hidden behind treaties and organisations.

That’s not how we started.

Those who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Charter, weren’t frightened of our laws or politics.

They weren’t choosing to put foreign authorities, over our own.

They were projecting power.

They knew, what we seem to have forgotten, the laws that built Britain, the rules that recognise human dignity, economic liberty and political empowerment shape our world towards justice and freedom.

That doesn’t make them perfect.

But judges, constrained by Parliament and independent, not just from government but from group think sets them apart.

They have helped shape our nation.

They help write the rules that are an element of what our foreign policy should be – an expression of our national identity projected into the world.

That is where foreign policy must start – at home. Because a foreign policy that works for the British people is one that builds on their values and promotes their interests.

It starts with the basic unit of legitimate authority: the nation state. Forgetting that is where the trouble has started for us.

While other countries have struggled to work together, we’ve forgotten what it means to be a nation alone.

That matters today because the rules set down in 1945 were never going to last forever. But many of the experts who come to see me are yet to come to terms with the fact that multilateralism itself is coming apart at the seams.

Why is it failing?

There are many causes but two that really affect us.

Firstly, in Europe, the EU’s centralising, supranational instinct is out of kilter with the temper of our times.

As a prime minister of one of the founding member states said to me recently, “it’s a real shame about the European Commission. If we’d just been a group of nation states in Europe, we could have made this work.”

Secondly, looking further afield, the UN is struggling to keep up with a changing international order.

The credibility of the Security Council is draining away as the veto has lost much of its moral authority.

How can it keep it when it’s used to shield brutal dictators? How can international law be defended when all that is needed to violate it is a member of the Security Council ready to veto criticism? So, we find ourselves in the situation where two key institutions are failing to protect the very system they were created to uphold.

I believe we are living through a sea-change, not a passing storm.

We would face many of these challenges regardless of Brexit but when we leave the EU the change will be greater than many expect.

Italy, about which we’re hearing so much today, will be the third most powerful member of the European Council. Other states, which have been recipients will become contributors. And the EU’s political centre of gravity will shift south.

The EU 27 will not be the same as the EU 28 minus the UK. And that will have implications across the field.

The UN too is changing more fundamentally than often recognised through a more assertive General Assembly and the recognition that countries like India have a legitimate claim to greater influence.

Even the Commonwealth, whose GDP now rivals the eurozone, is evolving. It’s not the post-imperial club it once was but is searching for a new role. That’s why when people come to me, insistent that we should do more of the same, I disagree.

Britain’s history should not make us curators of a crumbling international order. Instead, it should place us, like our predecessors – at the creation of a new one. That asks an urgent question of British foreign policy: how can we help design what is needed – an international system for today’s world?

First, it means remembering who we are. In this uncertain world we need to remember that the rock breaching the choppy waters is the state.

At the end of the Cold War, there were some who said that the nation state would soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Call this the Davos view – that ever greater economic interconnectedness would melt borders away and make old national frontiers disappear.

You might assume that someone like me of British, French, Irish and Austrian descent would sign up eagerly to that view.

But while I am proud of my ancestry I know who I am.

I could only ever serve one country, the one I served on operations around the world. This United Kingdom.

That’s why it’s clear to me the Davos view is wrong.

The nation state is back, if indeed it ever really went away.

We see it in Russia, which is masking a declining population and a shrinking share of global GDP with swift, and decisive state power.

We see it in China, whose belt and road initiative is state-led, designed to advance the interests of the state.

In the US too, we have been seeing for years an increasing assertion of American national interest.

Even here at home, it was the state that we turned to in the financial crisis to bail out the forces of globalisation.

Whatever you think of these actions, each of these shows the essential point – a the state is back.

It is the primary vehicle of global influence and power. It comes before multilateralism. And it’s time we acknowledged it.

The good news is that Britain is starting from a strong position.

When it comes to foreign policy, we are one of the heavyweights.

Our diplomatic and intelligence networks provide us with penetrating insight.

Our soft power from our trusted media, to our generous aid programme helps us project influence,

And our political stability, financial markets, and reputation attract investment and enable trade.

And, of course, our membership of the many global clubs create alliances that give us reach.

Finally, and as a last resort, we can still project power through the convincing threat of force.

Insight, influence, trade, alliances and force.

Five assets. Five fingers, if you like, of a foreign policy.

A hand of friendship which can, if necessary, be clenched into a fist

But if those five fingers are to work effectively together, they need strategic direction.

And that in turn demands a revolution at the heart of government.


Because that coordination is currently missing. Because the Foreign Office, once one of the four great offices of state, is a shadow of its former self.

Its role directing foreign policy has been gradually hollowed out.

It has lost control of essential aspects of overseas influence like Europe, trade and development.

And it is obliged to take part in a tug-of-war with the Cabinet Office which subscribes to a more limited idea of “national security”.

This has created silos in our foreign policy and a culture in which different departments fight each other for resources at home and abroad.

The consequence of all this is that successive, talented foreign secretaries– including this one – have been hobbled.

They’ve had the title, but they haven’t had the power.

Diplomacy can only go so far with decisions about trade, aid and defence taken elsewhere.

A new strategy matters now, more than ever.

Because the success, orfailure, of our foreign policy is now more important to the future health and prosperity of our nation than it has been at any time since the end of the Second World War.

So, we need to make the Foreign Office the strategic engine of our foreign policy again as it was in 1945. To give it the authority to manipulate those five levers, just as the brain controls the fingers of the hand.

To give it strategic oversight of a budget of up to five per cent of GDP to cover the needs of all the related departments.

And let elected ministers make judgements on how to balance our strategic priorities.

We need to do something you might not expect me to say. We need to give Boris Johnson more power.

So far, I’ve talked about the challenges we face, and the danger of just carrying on as before.

I’ve made the case for an adjustment in the way we think about the world and the urgent need to give the Foreign Office strategic direction of our country’s foreign policy.

We need a reordering of priorities: Diplomacy, Defence, Trade and Aid.

We need to coordinate our strengths.

There’s a lot I could say about other aspects of our foreign policy but I want to finish by emphasising one important theme – the rule of law.

This goes right to the heart of who we are.

Because these islands, by accidents of geography, history and war have a long, unbroken tradition of justice.

Through that, we have played our part in keeping the flame of liberty alive elsewhere.

That is something we can be deeply proud of.

Together with a hard-won reputation in commerce I think this helps explain why  English law and British justice are prized as the gold standard around the world.

If you don’t believe me look at China, where the Common Law isstill used in Hong Kong.

And if you think that is just some vestige of empire, look at Dubai, which has opened Common Law courts to any business that wants them. 

You want more?

Look at Astana, where the Kazakh president promised two years ago that its new financial centre would also be governed by English law.

And if none of these examples convinces you, then look at Russia.

Vladimir Putin, the man who is doing his utmost to break the international order, is using UK jurisdictions to protect his assets.

And then tell me that British laws are not something people value.

This is where a coordinated approach, under an empowered Foreign Office, could make a huge difference.

Imagine if we turned this gift to our advantage. Consider how we might use our legal tradition to help other countries that already have strong legal connections to our own?

By lending them judges, foreign investors could be reassured, and our own companies could receive a powerful, competitive advantage.

Could we combine this with another strength – higher education? Offering scholarships to talented foreign students, to study English law here in Britain? 

Could we devise a joined-up strategy that links justice to diplomacy, defence, trade and aid?

Could we use it to encourage anti-corruption efforts?

To make trade deals a model of transparency?

To link aid, security and infrastructure projects to a long-term mission to promote the rule of law?

Could we be more ambitious still?

Could we do more to unite financial markets around the world that already rely on English law, and create a true Commonwealth of commonlaw?

Countries which are at once sovereign but enjoy growing business and investment opportunities by building on shared legal understandings?

As I draw to a close, I will just emphasise a few points.

I have spoken of the nation state. I have also spoken of that very traditional British strength – the rule of law

I have spoken of the place of our lawyers, and diplomats in crafting the international rule of law.

It is a unique offering to the world. 

But please don’t infer that I mean we should act alone.

We should not. I think we should act together, but more imaginatively and creatively than we have in recent years.

The British national interest is asserted, strengthened, amplified by alliances and multilateral institutions and reviving them is essential to our world.

We have a crucial, even essential, role to play to do that.

But multilateralism should never be seen as an end in itself – or a comforting return to a reassuring status quo.

For too long we have used the structures built by our ancestors as shields.

The institutions they built weren’t defensive ramparts, but forward operating bases. Not places to hide, but from which to project ideals, to fight for our values, and to ensure our national interest in security and the rule of law was upheld around the world.

By empowering the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and coordinating across government we can rediscover our unique role in the world and help write the rules again.


About the Speaker

Tom Tugendhat MBE MP was elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Tonbridge and Malling in 2015 and was re-elected in 2017. On his return to Parliament, he was elected to be Chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He ran for office after leaving the British Army in July 2013.  As a Reservist, he served on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and, most recently, as the military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff. He also worked for the Foreign Office and helped set up the National Security Council of Afghanistan and the government in Helmand Province. Tom read Theology at Bristol University and studied Islamics at Cambridge University for a Master’s.  His study included learning Arabic in Yemen. After graduating, Tom was a journalist based in Beirut, writing about the conflict as well as regional politics and economics. Politically, Tom has been campaigning for transparency in financial institutions, including in pensions and asset management companies.  He has served on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and writes regularly on a wide range of issues for outlets including the Spectator, Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Financial Times.

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