Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, UK

Moderator: Dr Robin Niblett
Director, Chatham House 

The London Conference, 1 June 2015

Robin Niblett

We have an opportunity here to have a bit of a conversation and then draw in some comments or questions from our guests and participants who are here. Let me just start right at the beginning – we've got very little time – we just had a debate principally about the decline of US leadership. That was contested: no, it hasn't; yes, it has. It's a multipolar world, leadership is more complex. But one thing that I hear consistently – we heard it here at Chatham House just ahead of the election; I heard it at dinner last night; I've heard it on travel – is the sense that if there's one country whose leadership role has declined, it's the UK. One could take a number of answers. There are things that are thrown out there. Where was Britain in Minsk? Personally, I don't subscribe to that particular critique, but it's one that's consistently made. The drift downwards of defence spending after the Wales commitments of 2 per cent. These are specific issues. Libya, Afghanistan, how involved the UK is in the anti-IS operations.

But maybe more structurally, there is a sense that if the US is debating what leadership is, and the UK's leadership has traditionally been linked to the US's leadership, maybe there is something structural about that loss of the UK's role. And if the UK is uncertain about its role in Europe and is in the process of debating whether Europe is even part of its fundamental, core position in the world, then how can one assess the UK's capacity to still be a contributor to world stability? And we don't have the choice in the UK, because we are members of the UN Security Council – we are a permanent member and therefore seen as having to play a role.

So Philip Hammond, a nice, easy question to start with: is the UK's role declining?

Philip Hammond

I think, if I may say so, a rather multipolar question.

Robin Niblett

We've got limited time.

Philip Hammond

First of all, you started with the question of the US. We should never underestimate US power. The US is a deeply resilient nation. It's wealthy, it's resource-rich. It's got a large, educated population as well as extraordinary military power and global reach. So we should never easily write off the US.

But there has been a change in public mood in both the US and the UK. Partly that's a weariness as a result of long engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think if we look back over the years, we will find that there is a bit of a cyclical pattern here: an engagement which invariably turns out to be more expensive in terms of life and dollars than people had anticipated, leads to a period when there is an understandable lower degree of willingness to engage. I think there's a little bit of that in the UK as well.

But on your challenge about the UK, I certainly reject the concept of any shrinkage of the UK's role in the world. We are determined to continue to play our full role in the world. But what happens is, somebody says it or an event occurs, others repeat it, and suddenly it generates a currency of its own. It is incumbent upon us, and it's one of the tasks of the new government, to break that cycle. I think we have to, not over the next few weeks but over the months and years ahead, take deliberate, measured steps to unpick the arguments of those who are saying we are not prepared to engage, we are not prepared to play our role in the world. Some of the arguments that have been put forward are fairly feeble really. The Minsk thing – the Russians would not have engaged in Minsk if we had been involved in Minsk. They see us as far too close to the US position. The German chancellor is clearly the right person to engage with Putin over Ukraine. That was our decision then. It is still our view now, that she is the right person to lead the European Union's engagement on Ukraine.

So I'm clear where we stand. We are determined to maintain our global role. The prime minister has made no secret of the fact that what he wants to do in Europe is negotiate a reform of the European Union, a reform of Britain's relationship with the European Union, and then settle this question once and for all that Britain is an active and leading member of the European Union – of a reformed European Union – going forward. That removes one more element of the argument of those who say that Britain is in retreat.

Robin Niblett

I think part of the sense of that changing perception of Britain's role in the world was this emphasis also on commercial diplomacy, that the UK was going to re-establish bilateral relationships principally with an economic drive behind it. We heard the perhaps unfortunate phrase from some unnamed US official of Britain's 'constant accommodation' policy toward China, which one suspected (on this side of the Atlantic) was connected somehow to the sense that Britain was putting its commercial relationships ahead of a role where foreign policy interests were balanced against economic interests. This was something that was seen as distinctively almost conservative: we need to get back to a role that is more connected with where Britain had its international linkages in the past. Do you think this is going to change this time around? Is commercial diplomacy, that phrase, going to be part of the Hammond reign?

Philip Hammond

Commercial diplomacy is a fact and it's with us, and all our competitors are doing it big-time, including some of the ones who are making these comments. (I have to say: no names, no pack-drill.) If we wanted to look for a nation that trades off diplomatic interests for commercial opportunity, I don't think the finger would point immediately at the UK.

Our diplomacy is complex. We have relationships with countries that have a commercial element, that have a security element, that have a values-based element – either where countries don't share all of our values and we're encouraging them to adopt or move closer to the value system that we espouse, or where countries do share our values and we align naturally with them because we have shared values. My view would be that where we are engaged commercially with a partner and we are building deeper commercial relationships, that gives us more opportunity to address other issues as well. If we take a theoretical country with whom we are building relationships, where we have neither deep commercial and trade links nor deeply shared values, nor obvious alignment of security interests, how do we make our voice heard? I think this idea that because we trade with somebody or because we are working hard to increase mutual investment flows, we are necessarily pulling our punches on something else. It's just not correct. Building those deep relationships allows us to speak in all areas.

Robin Niblett

The Foreign Office, as we look at the cuts that will be made and will have to be made over government in the coming years – there's been a big push-back on cuts on defence spending. It would be interesting to know whether you think those might even be cyclical and will pick up again in future. But there will be some pressure not to allow defence to fall much below the 2 per cent level. The international development aid is pegged at 0.7 per cent of GDP. One feels that diplomatic resources may take the hit. How are you going to prioritize what it is that the role of the Foreign Office will be within a government like Britain's, which again is a UN permanent Security Council member and therefore has global obligations but very limited resources?

Philip Hammond

First of all, the good news, I suppose, is that the Foreign Office budget is so relatively small in government terms that it doesn't really figure much on the Treasury's radar screen.

Robin Niblett

I shouldn't have mentioned it.

Philip Hammond

But you're right. We, of course, have to consider how we would deal with any reductions in budget that were imposed. I'm clear that the jewel in the crown is the bilateral and multilateral relationships, the network. That's the core of what the Foreign Office does. That's what gives it its leverage. That is what we have to protect in looking at how we would deal with any future budget challenges.

Robin Niblett

I know you're going to get questions on Europe, so I don't want to talk about the referendum part of this. Let me just look on the other side of it. People talk about, with referenda, it being important to have a positive message, a vision that one is sharing. So if you were to be trying to convince an audience the value of being in the EU from the international perspective, what is it that Britain wants to get out of an EU at an international level, that makes it worth being in?

Philip Hammond

There are several levels. First of all, it's clearly in our economic interest to be part of the European Union, provided the European Union is an outward-looking entity focused on being competitive and engaging in the globalization process of the economy, not turning its back on that globalization process. But we've also seen, in relation to the Ukraine crisis, that the EU is groping its way toward understanding just how powerful a strategic tool the sanctions weapon could be. I say regularly to my EU colleagues, it would be a disaster if before we've even deployed it and explored it fully its capabilities, the EU were to demonstrate, by not renewing sanctions, that it can't do this. I think that message is resonating, that there's much more than the Russia-Ukraine issue here; there is a question about whether the EU, which doesn't have and won't have a military capability, wants to develop a genuinely powerful alternative source of strategic power in the sanctions weapon.

Robin Niblett

So on that specific issue, as we head up towards the end of June and decisions on sanctions, sustaining the sanctions would be the British priority –

Philip Hammond

Absolutely.

Robin Niblett

– rather than necessarily increasing them if the Minsk II conditions are not being met.

Philip Hammond

We're very clear that the sanctions in place at the moment should be sustained until there is compliance with Minsk. If there is a further significant breach – for example, if there were a major assault on Mariupol – the EU is committed then to further sanctions, and that would be right. But my message to EU partners is: look beyond the Russia-Ukraine thing and think about the message you're sending about the sanctions tool as part of the EU's strategic diplomacy in the future.

Robin Niblett

One last question from me and then let me get some points from our guests here. There was quite a bit of discussion on this last panel on China-US tensions in the South China Sea, which is where the focus has moved now from, say, a year ago, on the East China Sea. Does the UK have a security outlook into this kind of tension? Obviously, we've got commitments in the Five Power Defence agreement. But is that part of where you think the UK should be playing an important role, a constructive role?

Philip Hammond

Five Power Defence Arrangements.

Robin Niblett

Arrangements, yes.

Philip Hammond

Yes, it's not an agreement. It is the only formal defence arrangement in the Asia-Pacific, in the Southeast Asia region. Of course, we have huge economic and trade equities in that region as well. So we do have a concern about tensions in the South China Sea and we have a very clear – we're not party to any of those disputes and we don't take the part of any of the protagonists in those disputes, but we do have a very clear view that they should be settled by peaceful means, according to the established principles of international law. We are always alarmed when any behaviour leads to a rise in tension, causes alarm among nations, in any region. That appears to be what's happening in the South China Sea at the moment. We are seeing tension rising and that is not good for any of us.

Robin Niblett

Let me get some points in. We'll take some questions.

Question 1

I had a question about the US National Intelligence Council's report mentioning that although economic power in China was growing, the US still had a leadership role in generating cooperation. So if there is to be a change in the nature of leadership and the different qualities of leadership sort of shifting around different nations, do you think – thinking positively – that that could be a new role for the US and Western powers, in being more of a sort of team player and negotiator rather than the previous leadership as a global policeman?

Philip Hammond

Yes, I think that's where the US's instinct has gone over the last few years, to be less inclined to unilateralism and more inclined to seek to use its very considerable muscle to act as the facilitator that pulls together coalitions of interest. We've seen it, for example, in the response to ISIL, but we see it in other places – a US which clearly prefers a multilateral approach or a coalition approach to a unilateral approach. This may be the political style of the current president, and we may see a change under the next administration. So I think it's too early, on any of these issues, to distinguish yet what is a change of national mood or approach to simply a reflection of the political incumbent at the time of the office of the president. 

Question 2

Foreign Secretary, you've told us that you reject the concept of UK shrinkage in the world, but that seems to be a concept embraced by the United States. Their defence secretary, Ash Carter, has told the BBC, in the context of the failure by Britain to commit to 2 per cent defence spending as a proportion of GDP – he's told us that Britain has always had an ability to express itself, to punch above its weight – 'I'd hate to see that go away, because I think it's a great loss to the world when a country of that much history and standing takes actions which seem to indicate disengagement. We need an engaged United Kingdom'. Is he speaking nonsense or are you ready to make [indiscernible]?

Philip Hammond

No, I think I agree with everything he said there. It's the unspoken undertone that perhaps I would disagree with. Look, we are about to have a Strategic Defence and Security Review and a Comprehensive Spending Review. I suppose we should be flattered that the US cares about what we do in this defence review and spending review. They are lobbying, increasingly openly, for an outcome. They are a very important partner to us and therefore a very legitimate commentator on our process. They will be engaged in our Strategic Defence and Security Review. We will ask for their input into that process and we will discuss all of these issues with them. But I think he would be getting ahead of himself if he were to assume an outcome from a process that hasn't yet started. 

Question 3

As an Australian, I'm always happy to see England on the back foot at Lord's, but I'm not so happy to see Britain on the back foot in the world. Let me pile on and just say I think there's a few more examples perhaps than you allow. The 2013 House of Commons vote on Syria felt to a lot of us like a clashing cymbal denoting the end of an era. The declining budgets that Robin mentioned. The fact that foreign policy was the love that dare not speak its name in the general election. The fact that Britain will spend a lot of the next couple of years talking about whether it should leave Europe rather than the role it should play in the world. I think this is concerning to a lot of us in the West. Let me ask you a specific question that relates to Britain's role in the wider world. You mentioned Britain's equities in Southeast Asia and in the South China Sea in particular, the amount of trade that passes through the South China Sea. Would Britain consider conducting freedom of navigation exercises near the artificial islands that China is constructing in the South China Sea, as the US armed forces have done? There's some talk overnight that the Royal Australian Navy or the Royal Australian Air Force may do the same thing. Would Britain consider such exercises?

Philip Hammond

Let me first of all just respond to some of your opening remarks. We inherited an economic and fiscal situation that was sufficiently serious to be a strategic threat to Britain. We have had to deal with that. Not dealing with it, ignoring it, hoping it would go away, would have definitely condemned Britain to longterm strategic decline. Dealing with it has meant some very difficult short-term choices but we're clear they are short-term. We've gapped some capabilities in our defence area quite deliberately, recognizing that we had to take cost out somewhere in order to rebalance the defence budget. Foreign affairs didn't figure much in the general election – I challenge you to find a UK general election, probably since Suez, when foreign affairs has played a significant role.

As for the EU, we have to lance this boil. There is a real thinning of democratic legitimacy and democratic consent for Britain's membership of the EU. We have to deal with this issue. We have to get the best deal we can from renegotiation with our partners in Europe and then we have to put it to the British people. The prime minister has been very clear: we're not neutral observers in this. If we can get a decent package, we will be selling hard the advantages not just of staying in the EU, but of stepping up. The Brits have spent far too long, in my view, thinking of the EU as something that's done to them by people over there who are big and powerful, and we're really insignificant. We're the second-biggest economy in the EU. On all the current trends, we're set to become the biggest economy in the EU during the 2030s. We should be thinking of the EU as an organization that we can shape in an image that we find attractive: outwardlooking, focused on global engagement, doing the things that Europe needs to do to be successful in the future. That's the prize here, to get the British people thinking positively about our engagement in Europe again.

South China Sea, freedom of navigation – look, our naval assets are heavily committed and it's rare that we make a naval deployment into the Pacific. We do it periodically. We've made commitments, including to our Australian partners, that we will try to do it more regularly in the future. But it will always be a relatively small presence because we've got big commitments in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Gulf. But I wouldn't rule out us taking part in a concerted allied operation on freedom of navigation, and certainly airspace, freedom of airspace.

Question 4

I have two quick questions. The first is about something that wasn't an inheritance, and that's Libya. I wanted to know what you in Britain have learned from the chaos in Libya. The second question is, could you describe to us what victory against ISIL looks like, please?

Question 5

My question is perhaps a follow-up to that, but more specifically: tomorrow, in your meeting in Paris, will you be assessing the anti-ISIL coalition? Will you say it is a failure? Is there a strategy for Syria? If there is one in Iraq only for now, we do not have anything here about Syria. Will you advocate for a clearer strategy for Syria and what that could be?

Question 6

If Britain is going to be a much more reduced military power, not being able to pull its weight as it has done in the past, why don't you indulge more in mediation? There is not a single major conflict in the world today where Britain is the lead mediator. Mediating conflict today is the answer which everyone is crying out for, whether it's the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan and anywhere else. Why don't you become another Norway, which has no military signature but has done amazing work in mediation and bringing antagonist forces together?

Question 7

I'm curious: Ukraine sanctions, EU, Russian money pouring into the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, even Greece. How much of a strategic concern is this for you? Do you think it's going to have an impact on the sanctions vote?

Philip Hammond

What have we learned from Libya? We've learned that difficult situations are not easily and neatly resolved. I think one of the problems that I've got is that our timescales these days – and actually this relates to several of these questions – are terribly conflated. Libya blew up in 2011. It's now 2015 and we're saying, went wrong here? It takes years. It can take decades to rebuild a society after a cataclysmic event.

What does victory against ISIL look like? I think we've got to be very realistic. It's a very good question. We've got to be very realistic about this. It clearly does not mean that there is no person left in the world adherent to an extremist vision of Islam. What it does mean is that we've broken up this territorycontrolling bloc and fragmented it. I have no doubt – the prime minister said this will be a generational struggle – I have no doubt that we will see organizations collapsing, weakening, declining and others growing. This will take a long, long time to challenge and overcome the underlying ideology that supports ISIL. Fragmenting the organization should be much easier than destroying the underlying ideology.

Do I think the coalition is a failure? Absolutely not. I think the coalition has stopped the advance of ISIL in Iraq. Ramadi is a setback but it's not a major strategic setback. The liberation of Tikrit is more important than what happened in Ramadi. But the most important point is that there was a momentum to ISIL until the coalition started its airstrikes, which has now been stopped dead. So now we've got an ebb and flow but we've no longer got that relentless forward momentum that ISIL had. Again, we've always said this is going to take time. It took from Dunkirk to the fall of Berlin, five years. These things are not done overnight. You've got to build forces from scratch, you've got to deploy them, you've got to push back and weaken the enemy before you can overcome.

Mediation – you give me the gas and I'll become another Norway. I'm not sure how much space there is for another player. I'm pretty sure that Ash Carter isn't going to jump up and down for joy and say: that's fixed it, the Brits are going to become mediators. We do – I don't really recognize this portrayal of Britain as not involved in mediation. We do work, perhaps more behind the scenes, but we do work routinely to try to bring people with different opinions together, to support discreet dialogue behind the scenes, and to do things where we think we can add value. So discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the trilateral dialogue that the prime minister pursued during the last parliament, we did because we felt we could bring something to the party that couldn't easily be delivered by others. That's what we try to do all the time, look for the niche area where we can deliver something which has serious added value.

Finally, on the question of Russian money: yes, of course we are concerned about what is clearly a Kremlin strategy of trying to pick off, shall we say, the brethren who may be less committed or more vulnerable in the run-up to the June decision. It will not have escaped the Kremlin's notice that this is a unanimity process and they only need one. But key to this, because the way the EU works is very much like this, is that the Germans, and the German chancellor in particular, have been very robust on this agenda. If countries like some of the ones you mentioned were to spot prevarication in Berlin, then there might be a real danger. So long as they see a very clear message coming from Berlin on this issue, it would be a very high-risk strategy for any of them to decide to defy the will of the other 26 or 27 members of the European Union.

Robin Niblett

I would love to take more questions, so many people have been waiting, but I've been told –

Philip Hammond

One last?

Question 8

For me, the elephant in the room is – I'm looking at the map behind you and I'm thinking it's not even logical that Britain would remain a hard power in the world in the future. Having said that, given the continued dominance of the English language across the world, our potential as a soft power can only grow. Could you tell me what your soft power strategy is, and could you make it distinct, please, from commercial diplomacy, which is not the same thing.

Question 9

I make the observation that we are seeing China and the US are the two powers – in actual fact, the secretary has well said, the UK and the EU form the largest strong economic power. In talking about the global public goods, it should be the architecture for all concerned. AIIB is a typical example of having the UK and the European powers take part to strike a balance of power.

Philip Hammond

I completely agree that soft power, particularly for the UK, is very important. We think and all objective analysis suggests that we leverage our soft power very effectively. But soft power only works if it also has hard power behind it. Given our scale, the scale of the UK, we have to – we've made the decision to focus what we do and to try to maintain serious capabilities in key areas. We're maintaining our nuclear deterrent, for example. So long as we remain one of the P-5 nuclear powers, we will have a hard power backing to the soft power agenda.

In terms of how we manage that soft power, you asked me to distinguish it from commercial. It is inevitably the case that many of the drivers of our soft power – for example, London's dominant position in many areas of global commerce – do deliver soft power as a secondary effect. I think disentangling commercial power from other elements of soft power is really quite difficult, but we will continue to leverage all tools of soft power that we have available to us.

Robin Niblett

On the – well, I think you talked earlier about –

Philip Hammond

I think that was a statement rather than a question.

Robin Niblett

Exactly, and I think one that you agreed with in your earlier comments.

Philip Hammond

Right.

Robin Niblett

Thank you very much, Foreign Secretary, for taking the time – I think one of your first forays out since the government was formed. We are very grateful you would come and share your thoughts with our colleagues here.

Philip Hammond

Thank you very much.

Related documents

Transcript: Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP
pdf | 118.67 KB