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Diplomat meets William Hague

William_HagueFormer UK Ambassador Charles Crawford and Diplomat’s Editor Venetia van Kuffeler interview William Hague in the Foreign Secretary’s famous office overlooking St James’s Park.


Charles Crawford (CC): One theme in what you’ve been saying and doing is a return to building relationships. What’s the balance between bilateralism and multilateralism?
William Hague: (WH): Tip O’Neill once said that ‘all politics is local’ – it all comes down to the voter in the single district. All foreign relations are bilateral, because multilateral meetings are the playing out of bilateral alliances and friendships. And I think that has been neglected somewhat, and needs  re-accentuating .

For example, we blocked the European Commission’s proposed budget rise because we’ve established strong bilateral relations with French and German leaders over the last few months. We seconded staff to Mexico during their chairmanship [of the Cancun climate change summit]; this bilateral work with Mexico and other key players helped bring about the modest but important multilateral agreements at Cancun.

Last week I was in Australia and New Zealand – the first Foreign Secretary in over 17 years in Australia and the first bilateral visit to New Zealand for over 30 years. [British] ministers have, of course, met with visiting Australian ministers, but the relationship needs to be visible to  people in those countries and to other parts of the governments of those countries, not just foreign ministries. You don’t neglect old friends.

We’re making use of having more ministers– instead of the four in the Foreign Office under the last government, we [now] have six-and-a-half including Stephen Green. British ministers are getting to the Philippines, Guatemala and Angola, countries on different continents which haven’t seen a British minister in a long time.

CC: Does this make any difference?

The United Arab Emirates is our eleventh largest export market. Leaders there had not been happy for some years with our handling of the relationship , [whereas now] they say privately and publicly that it has been transformed since the election. That brings many benefits to this country in terms of security and prosperity. On this visit to Australia we created stronger co-operation on international security and cyber security with a country that really brings a lot to the table. These things bring dividends which mount up rapidly. Foreign policy can’t be reduced to themes and abstract concepts. It’s all about relationships between countries and between people: prime ministers, foreign ministers and so on. This is why we’re stressing the diplomatic skills necessary to conduct such relationships, rather than simply emphasising management, important though good management is.

Venetia van Kuffeler (VVK): What do you feel that you have achieved from this latest trip?

A visible demonstration to the people of Australia and New Zealand of the British connection with those countries, plus a strong reminder to businesses in those countries of the potential for increased commerce with the UK. One of the centrepieces of my Australia visit was a lunch with hundreds of business people of the British/Australia Chamber of Commerce. With New Zealand, I signed an agreement with their Foreign Minister, an agreement between the hosts of the Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympics next year about dealing with the legacies of those events by working more closely together. With Australia and New Zealand we also co-ordinated more closely our approaches on the Middle East peace process and the Iranian nuclear programme.

In Hong Kong, on the way to Australia, I spoke to the Asian Financial Forum, a massive gathering of the financial institutions of East Asia, about the strengths of the British economy in financing innovation [and] our reducing the corporate tax rate. They know that Britain is open for business. This shows the FCO’s  strengthened commercial focus: on every foreign visit and in every meeting with foreign representatives, ministers are armed with the business opportunities in those countries and a strong message  about the British economy. Our foreign policy supports our economic policy – the two haven’t always been connected.

CC: We hear chatter about the decline in ‘Western’ and the ascent of ‘Asian’ values. The weight of China and India is growing fast. What do you make of this alleged clash of values?

Well, it would be oversimplifying to say it is just a clash of simple opposites. Our power to impose our values has diminished, so we have to be very good examples of our values [instead]. On human rights, we have announced an inquiry into accusations against our own intelligence services, and put right a number of things left wrong under the previous government. One thing Western nations have to tackle in foreign policy in the next 20 or 30 years is to encourage nations with new-found power in foreign affairs to use that power to help keep the peace, prevent conflict and extend human rights. That’s a new concept for them.

CC: How do China and India respond when you make that point to them? Can you make that point to them?

We can make that point to them. In India, there’s a stronger basis of shared values as it’s the world’s most populous democracy. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of work to be done before India would take as active a role in the Iranian nuclear problem or the Middle East peace process as the UK – or the United States or France – would. I hope that will come over time; if it doesn’t, we really will have a ‘multi-polar’ world in which it will be much harder to keep order and stability.

VVK: Is the UK’s relationship with the US unbreakable?

Yes. It’s an unbreakable alliance, indispensable to us and to them. Anybody who comes to office in Britain or America can see within 24 hours or so that you would not want to do without that relationship. We are the biggest direct investors in each other’s economies, so we have a colossal economic relationship. The government-to-government relationship – military co-operation, sharing technologies, intelligence co-operation, the work we do together to stop terrorism – is indispensable to both countries. It would be massively disadvantageous if we didn’t have that.

CC: Foreign Secretaries like stability, but ‘stability’ can be a metaphor for stagnation. In the Arab world, are regimes vulnerable because they lack internal flexibility?

Well, by stability I really just mean the absence of violent disorder; I don’t mean things being ossified. Would Tunisia have been in a better situation had they had better economic performance and a more open, flexible political system? Yes, they would. That lesson should not be lost on other countries. Where we have to be cautious is in trying to lay down what form of democracy every nation should have. We have to respect different cultures and histories, and how radically countries differ from each other, including in the Arab world.

Open, flexible political systems able to evolve will be more secure and more responsive to people than those ossified around dictatorial rule. We know that from our own history: here we are with several centuries without revolution or invasion, without the sharp discontinuities that our neighbours have experienced. We should be proud advocates of that.

CC: So, what has happened in Tunisia is a good thing, in that it sends a ‘market signal’ to other dictatorships that they should be more flexible?

Well, let’s see how it plays out. If it moves on to genuinely free and fair elections, then it will have been an advance.

CC: Regardless of who wins?

Yes. That does not mean that the same will happen or should happen necessarily in other countries. With Arab leaders I often advance the famous Disraelian dictum: ‘No Government can be long secure without a formidable Opposition’, and that they need to show it’s possible for governments peacefully to change.

We should be optimistic about this. Think of Latin America now compared to 20, 30 years ago. Look at the reaction in Africa of the ECOWAS to what’s happened in Côte d’Ivoire, the determination of neighbouring states that Côte d’Ivoire should have peaceful, democratic change. The UK should be in favour of that, but without hectoring people – without being arrogant and trying to impose our own model.

VVK: What is the British view of the role of the Commonwealth today?

It could have a bigger role, even if the Commonwealth is not going to become something like the EU or UN. We’re looking forward to the report of the Eminent Persons Group ahead of the Heads of Government Meeting in Perth later this year. I hope that will point to a reinvigoration of the Commonwealth.

I gave a speech in Australia last week pointing out that Commonwealth members do a larger proportion of their trade with each other and account for a larger percentage of global GDP than they did 10 or 20 years ago. They can work together on advancing free trade and a values agenda, [since] in the Commonwealth we see basic agreement on values across all continents and societies.

CC: It strikes various conservative commentators that whereas in some ways we’re in quite a good position within Europe because of the EU’s own difficulties, it’s not clear that we’re articulating a new vision of how the EU might work. Is that because we don’t have one, or because we choose not to have one, or is it because we are articulating one but I haven’t noticed?

Maybe not everybody has noticed it! Every other continent in the world is growing more quickly now, so the top priority is competitiveness. We are concentrating on pushing single-market and free-trade agreements around the world, removing barriers to growth inside Europe and  its tariff treatment of other nations. We’ve been especially active with the EU/South Korea free trade agreement in the face of  considerable opposition from one or two other countries. Getting lower tariffs on Pakistan after their devastating floods again required heavy British lifting.

To answer your point specifically, we aren’t trying to change the way decisions are made – the EU has had enough institutional change. But we are trying to make sure that the right decisions are made, including on climate change. It is also a tri-partisan position in Britain to  enlarge the EU to the Western Balkans and Turkey. We regard those as major strategic priorities.

Within the EU, although the relationships with France and Germany are very important, we’re building networks of alliances beyond that. Last week the Prime Minister hosted the Nordic Baltic Summit with eight nations that overlap with part of the EU.

CC: Have we reached the high-water mark of EU institutional integration?

I very much hope so. Our EU bill before the Commons this week is a powerful aid. I explain to EU Foreign Ministers that if they want us to agree to anything that uses the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty to achieve greater integration or imposes any significant new obligation on the UK, then there has to be a referendum of the British people.

CC: Do they believe you? Isn’t there wiggle room?

They had better do so, because it will soon be on the statute book. Of the 13 criteria set out in the bill to judge whether a referendum is required, only two have so-called ‘wiggle room’, for things so small that it would not be credible to hold a referendum without damaging the concept of having a referendum. All the treaties of recent years – Nice, Amsterdam, Maastricht, Lisbon – would have been caught on several counts by this bill, with no discretion whatsoever as to holding a referendum. That strengthens the negotiating position of British ministers.

VVK: What is the UK’s greatest diplomatic challenge?

Hmm, where shall we start? Playing the maximum possible role in bringing peace to Afghanistan; stopping the Iranian nuclear programme; getting the Middle East peace process rolling again. Issues in that part of the world take up an enormous part of our energy every day.

But I also want to elevate entire new relationships with emerging economies and shift the network of British diplomacy, trade and friendships eastwards and southwards. That is where jobs and opportunities for British people are going to come from, and this will be crucial to our long-term security.

CC: Within the FCO, there’s new emphasis on technique and excellence. What problems are you trying to fix?

It’s marvellous to come into a department stuffed with terrifically talented people. But in recent years we haven’t placed enough emphasis on diplomatic skills – on knowing countries and individuals in great detail. The ethos tilted too much towards management and internal change. It needs tilting back, emphasising hard language skills and deep geographic knowledge. I tell incoming graduates that to get to the top of the Foreign Office in 20 or 30 years’ time, they’ll need to have served in a difficult place, to know some hard languages, to be an expert in a particular region of the world. You won’t  just work your way up within the system.

I’m giving the FCO the attributes of a strong institution, back at the centre of government. The close political and personal connection between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary helps enormously – something that we haven’t always had in recent times. Foreign Office diplomats need to rise to that opportunity and show the rest of [our] government and other governments their creativity and analysis.

CC: The FCO’s responsiveness to the diplomatic community in London went down under the previous administration. Bilateral relationships start with the embassies here in London.

I place great emphasis on that, and on standards of speaking and writing as well as diplomacy. I hope that that is communicating itself through the entire organisation.


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