In the four days since I was made the Minister for International Development, I must have been asked a dozen times whether International Affairs isn’t simply a waste of time. It’s not a bad question. It’s right to be suspicious of governments who exaggerate their international importance; and there are too many recent examples of money wasted, and lives lost, in foreign adventures, with little benefit for people abroad, let alone at home. But the solution isn’t to retreat. As we have learnt again and again, through terrorism, World Wars, and economic crises, what happens abroad can have a devastating impact on our lives at home. And our international reputation is particularly important, a month after we have chosen to leave the European Union. So, what should our foreign policy be? The answer is two-fold: we should reassure the world, and we should surprise it.
Reassurance comes first. We cannot allow ourselves to be perceived by others as though we are the victims of a Brexit-error. One of the most informed electorates in the most mature democracy on earth chose to leave the European Union. The government must embrace that decision: act as though we meant what we did, and remind the world that our nation is still what it was a month – or indeed a century – ago: a wealthy state, with a great central bank, and an exceptional legal system, predictable and reliable in an unreliable world.
This is why we needed to play a key role in the NATO conference two weeks ago; and why it was essential that our new Prime Minister made the visit to Germany and to France this week. That is why our Embassies have to push British business harder than ever, focusing on new initiatives, for example, with the two billion people of the commonwealth – a third of the world’s population – from water engineering expertise in Nigeria, to air quality experts in Delhi. And that is why we must continue to play a diligent and responsible role in international organisations, proving even in more specialised places (the forthcoming negotiations on endangered species in September and the UN conference on bio-diversity in December, for example) our value as a permanent member of the Security Council.
But reassurance is not enough, we also need to show that Britain can reinvent itself. Brussels took responsibility for many things which we now need to do for ourselves. It controlled our environmental and agricultural policy, it removed our capacity to conduct trade negotiations, and took us out of the habit of justifying our laws and actions on first principles. We need to rebuild those skills and principles, and the confidence that goes with them.
If we can get our structures right, we can recapture the initiative. We can deepen our relationship with the US (how about increasing the number of UK officers in US staff colleges, or pairing each of our National Parks with a US park, or backing the new joint venture between the Smithsonian and the Victoria and Albert museum in London?) We could lead the fight against human trafficking and wildlife poaching. We should use the opportunity provided by a new British, Commonwealth Secretary-General and a forthcoming summit in London to strengthen our relations with the Commonwealth. We could consider bringing other countries behind a new major environment project (something like finally tackling the third of the Brazilian rainforest that has been felled, and abandoned – a project that has the potential to be the most cost effective way of protecting species and addressing climate change). There is enormous untapped potential in the BBC World Service. And we can continue to support the world’s poorest people: providing nutrition, immunisation and education to millions of children; supporting victims of war and natural disasters; and helping develop the political, trade and economic structures to prevent future catastrophes.
All this can feel a very long way from Cumbria and the arguments around Europe. But our last seventy years of prosperity were only possible because of a context of international peace. As one of the most open, international economies in the world, Britain is very dependent on our international ‘brand’. Showing the world that we are active overseas helps to foster the confidence, on which our economy depends. Which is why this is exactly the time to lean outwards, not inwards – to show that Brexit was a vote to expand, not retreat. And to remind ourselves that playing a responsible international role, is not just a moral obligation, it is also in our own long-term interest. The route to peace at home lies in seriousness and energy abroad.