Global leaders: William Hague

Lord Hague was UK Foreign Secretary from 2010 to 2014 – a period that took in historic moments, including the announcement of the Brexit referendum and Parliament’s vote against intervention in Syria. Here he speaks candidly with the IBA’s Director of Content James Lewis about the Trump Presidency, Russia, China and the state of the world today.

James Lewis: We live in interesting times: we have a very unpredictable American president; a subversive Russia; an increasingly powerful and outward-looking China; a fragmenting Europe; and, of course, there’s the Middle East and Africa. So the question is: what should the foreign policy of a responsible liberal democratic state be?

William Hague: Well, it should certainly try to promote unity with other liberal democratic states and that is, as you suggest in your question, in short supply at the moment. It has become much more difficult. There are serious ruptures in the Western alliance as President Trump’s decision about the Iran deal has just shown. But there are many other policy areas where the West has still shown strong unity in recent years, such as tackling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There, militarily, the West has acted together very well. When it came to the showdown with Russia over the attempted murder in Wiltshire recently, nearly 30 countries joined in expelling undeclared intelligence officers or Russian diplomats from their countries. So we’re still capable of quite a lot of unity and cohesive action and I think a responsible country tries to enlarge that, but of course that is an uphill struggle at the moment. There is a fragmentation of the West going on and I describe it as the most alarming single fact about world affairs at the moment. So each country has to do its best to promote unity and to find the subjects in which it can do so.

JL: It sounds as if you feel it’s counterintuitive to be leaving the European Union, which was intended to be an expanding group of liberal democratic countries that would achieve exactly what you’re talking about.


On the European Union:

“Even though I’m not an enthusiast for many aspects of the EU, I thought it was more pragmatic, and better for the unity of the Western world, to stay in


WH: This is, in my view, the biggest problem with leaving the EU. Economically, it can turn out either way. There is definitely a short-term cost to leaving the EU. What it means in the long term we can debate, and it depends what we do in this country. But definitely it is an additional fragmentation of the Western world that reduces our influence over European foreign policy overall; I think that’s one of the biggest disadvantages of it and it’s the main reason I was against leaving the EU, even though I’m not an enthusiast for many aspects of the EU. I thought it was more pragmatic, and better for the unity of the Western world, to stay in.

JL: How disruptive is the Trump presidency, in your view?

WH: Well it is disruptive, you know, to end up with the foreign ministers of Europe sitting down with Iran to work out how to save a deal in opposition to the United States. It’s a pretty bad situation. On that and on some aspects of trade, it is disruptive. Like many things in the political and diplomatic world, however, it is a mixed picture. At this stage, we should give credit to the US for helping to bring that summit about. There is a deal to be done with North Korea, and President Trump has been successful in creating some of the conditions for that. It is quite rare in foreign policy for a policy to be just universally good or bad. And, if Trump produces a greater willingness by America’s allies to contribute to their defence, which is a theme that will become more important in the next few months with the NATO summit coming up – and he will visit Europe in July – this will no doubt be one of the things he says. That would be a good development too because it’s certainly true that many countries have relied excessively on the US for their defence since the end of the Cold War. So there are still positive things that can happen in the Western alliance but overall the trend is depressing to say the least.

JL: So the answer to ‘how disruptive?’ is: ‘extremely disruptive’?

WH: Well, pretty disruptive.

JL: You’ve looked to the silver lining with North Korea, which is still unfolding and as yet uncertain. In the Middle East generally, on Syria, [the Trump presidency is] very unpredictable, and some might describe it as a devastating move re Israel and Palestine, with the moving of the embassy and what’s been triggered there. Do you have a position on that?

WH: It’s a big mistake of the US to move the embassy to Jerusalem. It’s another big rupture with other countries that doesn’t help solve issues of the Middle East; quite the contrary. So I think that is a retrograde step. It’s very hard to see a viable Middle East peace process at all. And that will be a problem in the next ten, 20 years that will only produce even greater problems in the Middle East. It would be alarming if the US pulled all remaining forces out of Syria now that ISIS has been, for now, militarily defeated, because it’s important to try to shape the future of Syria. We don’t have much leverage to do that. So again it does fit the general theme that we’re talking about, unfortunately, which is a fragmentation in the West. We are, of course, to add a rider to this, seeing a realignment in the Middle East in which some leading Arab states and Israel move much closer together; their strategic and economic interests are converging on a kind of anti-Iranian axis. So it is a more complex shift going on. The rapid pace of social and political change in Saudi Arabia could be a positive thing in world affairs, and certainly economically as well, so again it is not a universally catastrophic picture, but it is a picture going backwards more than forwards, unfortunately.


On the fragmentation of the West:

“I describe it as the most alarming single fact about world affairs at the moment


JL: You touched on trade... I just want to get your thoughts on global business in particular, as you’ve talked about Brexit and that, economically, it could go either way. When you’re looking at an increasingly inward-looking, protectionist America, these things seem to come together.

WH: For business, the key point is that there is more geopolitical risk than for the last 20 years. Really, the geopolitical risk to business is the highest in this century so far. Although we are only 18 years into the century. And that can be reflected in developments like Brexit or the US renegotiating NAFTA, or putting tariffs on steel and aluminium, or some radical change of government as in Italy to a combination of parties not seen before. And that could happen in any European country. So all of these things can have an impact on particular business sectors, and mean that the economic policy of a country is no longer the same as the neighbouring country, which is not a situation we’ve been used to in Europe and the West in general. So heightened political risk requires more local knowledge and understanding and businesses to have more resilience to unpredictable developments. But I would say, although I’m not an economist, that many of the old risks are there too. I think there’s a slight tendency now to say ‘well, the world economy is doing fine, but we’ve got these political risks’. Actually, we’ve got a lot of economic risks as well, from interest rates so low for so long that debts are very high, corporate debts, government debts in emerging economies, and household debts in economies like the United Kingdom and the US. And we’re almost certainly closer to the next recession than we are to the last one, although we can never predict...


On Trump and the Middle East:

“It’s a big mistake of the US to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Another big rupture with other countries that doesn’t help solve issues of the Middle East


JL: The Putin presidency has presented huge challenges: Ukraine, Syria, meddling in US elections, Salisbury. As Lenin put it over a century ago, ‘What is to be done?’


Pics: James Lewis and William Hague

WH: The only thing that can be done is a painstaking effort to keep improving relations. And, where Russia behaves unacceptably, to have a united approach. As I mentioned, over some recent events there has been a united approach. We always have to work with Russia. They are a permanent member of the Security Council. So are we. And we can’t solve any of the world’s political issues without working on a daily basis in New York with Russia. So everybody always has to bear that in mind. But it has made it very difficult that Russia behaves in a way in Syria or Ukraine that we don’t regard as acceptable in international affairs, and really carries on as if the Cold War was still going on, in espionage, murders on foreign soil. Our authorities have recently said that Russia has cyber-operations, has positioned itself and tried to infiltrate electricity and infrastructure in order to be able to make things difficult for this country. So that has to mean there are difficult relations and we need the maximum degree of Western unity about it.

JL: And yet, as we’ve said, that Western unity is fragmenting.

WH: It has been more united than divided, I think, so far, over Russia. So we shouldn’t despair of that. And remember that NATO is strengthening in response to Russia’s military buildup. We don’t want an arms race but more European countries are spending more on defence. NATO is modernising itself in many ways. So, unfortunately, it is necessary to do these things for the moment and we all look forward to the day when there will be a better state of relations with Russia. But we’ve all worked on that over the years, and those of us who’ve been in foreign ministries have always been disappointed.


On business in an era of heightened risk:

“For business, the key point is that there is more geopolitical risk than for the last 20 years… that requires more local knowledge and more resilience to unpredictable developments


JL: The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee published its latest report yesterday: ‘Moscow’s gold: Russian corruption in the UK’. The City of London’s complicity in all of this needs to be ended as soon as possible, doesn’t it?

WH: Well, we can’t have that suspicion about London. I haven’t yet read all of that report and I know the government thought that some things are being advocated that aren’t compatible with EU law. While we’re in the EU, a lot of these things have to be settled on an EU basis.

JL: A lot of it focuses on money laundering and the offshore jurisdictions, and that is in the UK’s gift isn’t it? That can be dealt with straight away.

WH: We have strong laws on anti-money laundering. We’ve got to enforce those. Absolutely. So that is definitely part of this picture.

JL: Is there an obligation on big City law firms? One was mentioned in the report but it is wider than that. The City of London works a lot on Russian matters. Is there something that needs to be said about a new position that needs to be adopted by the City of London?

WH: I don’t know. I think I would have to study the report about that. But of course, in general, yes, the UK needs to take a tough line, and can’t have a suspicion hanging over the City of London.

JL: Going back to Syria, I want to quote what you said in 2012: ‘We must show we won’t abandon the Syrian people in their darkest hour.’ The question really is: what’s your assessment now? I wonder what the other missteps are, because you’ve identified the Russia position was a misstep. What needs to happen now?

WH: Unfortunately, we did abandon them in some ways, because our parliament refused to take any action over the use of chemical weapons in 2013. This was a great mistake and really showed that the West was not prepared to back up... things we thought of as very important for decades: that we uphold the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. More recently, of course, we have taken that action – another thing that President Trump has done right, with the support of the UK and France. But it was a great error in 2013 because it sent such a strong signal that really there was nothing that the Assad regime could do that would cause the West to intervene. It was extremely demoralising for people opposing the regime and reduced our own leverage and our ability to shape events in Syria. So, in many ways, we did abandon people, unfortunately. That was the worst episode of my time as Foreign Secretary.

JL: China’s become a very different actor on the international stage in this century. What’s your view of how China is going to shape the rest of the 21st century?

WH: It will shape it enormously. The economic transformation of China is the main event in our lifetimes so far, and this looks likely to continue, but now with more of a military and political weight developing to go with the economic weight. Of course, this means there is a danger of a return to great power rivalry in world affairs. Therefore, the relationship between China and the US is the single most important foreign policy relationship in the world and we should all hope that, while it will necessarily be a mixture of cooperation and rivalry, the areas of cooperation can be enlarged. So our policies towards China should be directed towards enlarging those areas of cooperation, you know, particularly on climate change and on a rules-based international system. We’re trying to work with China on these sorts of issues.

JL: Coming back to my initial question, what should be the approach of a responsible liberal democratic state with regard to China? I’m thinking here of the human rights record, the record in the United Nations Security Council, vetoes et cetera, and yet post-Brexit for the UK, you’d imagine China would only ever become more important.


On Putin’s Russia:

“They are a permanent member of the Security Council. So are we. And we can’t solve any of the world’s political issues without working on a daily basis in New York with Russia


WH: It will become economically more important, but that should not stop us raising human rights cases and it shouldn’t mean that we abandon longstanding positions in foreign policy. It’s important to have a balanced approach in the Asia Pacific area. There are disputes between China on the one hand and other countries like Japan, the Philippines, with whom we have close relations. So it’s important to maintain the balanced approach that we’ve had and not become just China-centric. These other Asian Pacific countries are important as well. So I think there is bound to be, for that reason, some areas of rivalry between China and the West, but provided we can have good political cooperation in addressing global problems and stronger economic links, there is a way forward.

JL: What’s your view of the future of the EU? How significantly will its place in the world be diminished by Brexit?

WH: Well, it is diminished by Brexit unfortunately. It loses 12 per cent of its population, the biggest financial centre in the world, its biggest military budget, its biggest development budget and so on. There is a long list. But it’s not its biggest problem. There are bigger threats to the unity of Europe than Brexit, and I think you can see that in the new Italian government – we don’t know how long that particular government will last or what it will do.


On Syria:

“It was a great error [not to act] in 2013 because it sent such a strong signal that really there was nothing that the Assad regime could do that would cause the West to intervene


I think migration is the greatest challenge of the EU because that’s what’s changing the politics in many countries. Therefore, I think being able to secure its borders and pursue an enlightened approach to Africa and the Middle East, encouraging development and intervening sensibly where necessary, as we have done in Somalia, with a mixture of military, economic, development and political measures. This is the way forward. Otherwise, the strain on European unity from migration is going to become overwhelming. So the EU has a very difficult future. Brexit is only one part of a possibly slow disintegration.

JL: It’s a significant part though, isn’t it?

WH: It’s a very significant part. But the schism between Poland and Hungary and Western European states and the great dissatisfaction of Italy are also very important parts. So it’s really important that the EU gets on top of that problem, and talking of resilience, builds resilience into the Eurozone, because the next economic downturn in prices will uncover again the weaknesses in the Eurozone, and not enough has been done to address that.

JL: It’s a pertinent point. I just wanted to talk about the serious concerns about campaign finance and the use of data around the Brexit referendum and differences between US and UK approaches. It’s very striking that there’s a former FBI Director, Robert Mueller, conducting an investigation in America. Should there not be the same thing in this country with powers to issue search warrants, offer plea bargaining, and so on, given the very serious concerns about that historic referendum vote?

WH: Well, [Mueller’s] investigating specific things, although an investigation grows wider when it finds other things, [ie,] to do with the Trump campaign and Russia...

JL: There are very similar concerns about the Leave campaign and funding, potential breaches of electoral law...

WH: Well I don’t know, I haven’t looked at that closely enough, but certainly I think it would be amazing if Russia hadn’t played some role, some supportive role, in elections and referenda across Europe, in a direction that promoted a fragmentation of Europe, including in the Brexit referendum and the Italian referendum later that year, and various elections across Europe. But it’s impossible to say – certainly it’s impossible for me to say – how much that involves any collusion with participants in those events, or Russian operations on social media and so on. So we’ve got the problem of ‘has anybody broken any electoral laws?’ but we’ve also got the wider problem of social media, political advertising. And that does need a new body of law and regulation. I think, for instance, political advertising on social media should be banned. Because we ban it on TV in this country, it should be banned on social media and somehow the source of opinion has to be more clearly established on social media.


On China:

“The economic transformation of China is the main event in our lifetimes so far, and this looks likely to continue but now with more of a military and political weight developing


JL: Given the population appears to be split down the middle, what needs to happen to reunite the UK?

WH: Well, you do need Brexit on reasonable terms and so on, but people won’t be united about this until that’s happened, of course.

JL: Do you think they’ll ever be united? Because the referendum vote was a split pretty much down the middle.

WH: People move on. It depends what happens in the next ten years. My view is that our tax system, our infrastructure, our education system are really what determines our success, or not, in terms of prosperity as a country. If we have those things right in the next ten years, the UK still has a lot going for it. It has a faster growing population than any other major country in Europe, it has a critical mass in many skills and services that it will retain, and it has some of the best universities in the world. So I don’t think in ten years’ time the decision to leave the EU will be seen as the defining decision in what’s happening in the UK. These other things will, over time, prove more important. I do think that the EU will be in much bigger trouble in ten years’ time. I don’t say that with any pleasure because I think that throws up many additional problems. So it’s hard to say, really, since we couldn’t even predict the referendum on the day it was held, we can’t predict what people will think about it in five or ten years’ time.


On values and human rights in foreign affairs:

“We mustn’t get too downcast because positive things do happen: look at political change recently in Malaysia or South Africa or Colombia establishing a successful peace…


JL: Talking predictions, people are suggesting that a no-deal Brexit looks not unlikely, shall we say. Would you agree with that? If so, what would the consequences be of a no-deal Brexit?

WH: I don’t agree with that as a probability. It is, of course, a possibility that businesses have to prepare for still.

JL: What should they be doing?

WH: Well, they have to prepare for that contingency, that even the transition period is not decided until everything is decided. But I think we can see from the negotiations so far that both sides want a deal, and that it is almost essential for both sides to have a deal. If you’re Ireland, if you’re the UK, there has to be some deal. There’s a lot of argument about the terms of it. But having no deal at all is a pretty disastrous scenario. So I think there is likely to be a deal, it’s just that the UK inevitably makes most of the concessions in arriving at that deal. That would be my assessment at the moment. But, yes, if you’re a board of directors of a company, you can’t 100 per cent bank on the transition happening. So you have to prepare for all eventualities at this stage for another few months at least.

JL: I want to take you back to 2010 when you became Foreign Secretary and you were setting out your stall really, and a values-based foreign policy. You said ‘human rights are not the only issue that informs the making of foreign policy but they are indivisible from it, not least because the consequences of foreign policy failure are human’. So, eight years on, and given the foreign policy failures we’ve been discussing, what place do you feel values and human rights have in international affairs now?

WH: I think they must always have a very important role. And you know I did a lot of work for instance on preventing sexual violence in conflict when I was Foreign Secretary, which tried to put a whole new area of human rights at the centre of foreign policy. I think this might get harder over the coming decades because of all the trends that we have discussed, and increased fragmentation of the Western world.

JL: And less respect for values-based approaches to foreign affairs?


On Brexit:

“I think there is likely to be a deal, it’s just that the UK inevitably makes most of the concessions in arriving at that deal


WH: Yes, that’s probably true. But, on the whole, while there are a lot of negative trends, we mustn’t get too downcast because positive things do happen: look at political change recently in Malaysia or South Africa or Colombia establishing a successful peace, or the change we’ve been talking about in Saudi Arabia. There is a lot of positive change alongside the negative trends and a lot of that change does more successfully establish rights or fight against corruption and so on. So we should not give up on these things.

JL: So you don’t feel there’s a crisis in democracy and the rule of law?

WH: Well, I think liberal democracy is in trouble and a rules-based international system is under challenge. Whether it’s yet a crisis I don’t know, but it’s heading that way. But I’m saying it’s not hopeless, there are hundreds of millions of people, as shown in many countries recently, who are prepared to stand up for transparency, law, reason, democracy. As long as there is that, all is not lost.