Thursday 31 March 2022 / 3:38 PM David Lammy / Foreign Policy

David Lammy speech – ‘Foreign policy in an Age of Authoritarians’

David Lammy MP, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary

Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award Address

‘Foreign policy in an Age of Authoritarians’ 
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Thank you to the institute for Global Leadership and The Fletcher School at Tufts University for hosting me to speak about foreign policy at this extremely important moment.

In the late 1990s I had my first taste of Massachusetts when I studied just a short bus ride away…

…at Harvard Law School.

It was an inspiring time.

I will never forget my first big exposure to the American constitution.

The first lesson I learned was that democracy as proclaimed by America’s founding fathers is…

…always has been…

…and always will be…

…a work in progress.

I also learned that the great story of the 20th century is one of how different groups…

…the working class, people of colour, women, LGBT+…

…fought hard to secure rights long denied their forebears.

 Back in the late 90s, so much was changing.

We were living in the wake of two liberal revolutions.

The first was social and cultural…

…with its roots in the swinging 60s.

The second was economic…

…the free market revolution set alight by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The Soviet Union had collapsed not long before.

Communism and autocracy had capitulated to capitalism and democracy.

Francis Fukuyama suggested this marked the “end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution…

…and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Progressives were winning or about to win on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bill Clinton was in the White House.

Tony Blair had just won a Labour landslide in the UK.

The march towards a 21st century future was filled with hope.

But as we reached the global financial crisis of 2008…

…that hope had started to evaporate.

The twin liberal revolutions had come at a high price.

Creating a hyper-individualistic culture…

Where rights overtook responsibilities.

Where we could reach billions of others instantly on our smartphones…

…but had fewer meaningful connections.

Where the rich got richer…

…inequality accelerated.

…and the pursuit of profit was prioritised over democratic values.

The age of individualism was defined by another paradox.

The more atomised we became…

…the more we sought belonging in tribal identities.

From the relatively benign…

…to the outright destructive.

Islamist Extremism.

Far-Right terrorism.

Organised crime gangs.

Online, our opinions did not gain the nuance that results from sophisticated debate.

We gained access to infinite amounts of information, but we lost the guardrails that sorted fact from fabrication.

Algorithms designed by tech companies to grip eyeballs pushed many of us to new extremes.

The common ground upon which democracies depend began to crumble.

And malign actors…

…including governments like Vladimir Putin’s…

…turned to ethno-nationalist authoritarian politics…

…and exploited online spaces to interfere in our democracies…

…with disinformation and lies.

Abroad, Putin took advantage of unsuccessful Western interventions…

…the decline of American hegemony…

…and a newly multi-polar world.

He invaded and still occupies part of Georgia.

He annexed Crimea.

And sought to carve off parts of eastern Ukraine.

He used the strength of his armed forces to prop up the monstrous Bashar Al Assad who used chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

…and helped drive a refugee crisis that reached Europe…

Which was seized upon by hard right populists to inflame new divisions between Us and Them.

Meanwhile…

…authoritarians and their acolytes…

…from Nigel Farage, to Donald Trump, to Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen…

…publicly expressed sympathies with Vladimir Putin…

…as they rose to prominence in our own democracies.

Parading their illiberalism as patriotism.

Pretending to be protectors of their nations…

…while attacking the values of freedom, equality and democracy that they were founded upon.

At the same time, Putin saw we were in a cost-of-living crisis…

…A climate crisis…

…And a global pandemic.

After years of sowing disunity in our democracies…

…exploiting the vulnerabilities left by the two liberal revolutions…

…it is no coincidence Putin saw this as our moment of maximum weakness…

…and chose it as the moment to start his barbaric and illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Under the fog of disorder, he thought he could act with impunity.

But the strength and unity of the opposition Putin has faced shows he cannot.

Remarkable and courageous defence of their homeland by the Ukrainian people.

Tougher global sanctions than many thought possible.

Unity within an EU previously considered fractured.

A turning point in defence policy for Germany, Sweden, Finland and Poland.

NATO with more focus than ever since the cold war.

And 141 countries in the UN’s general assembly voting to condemn Putin’s war of aggression.

Despite the strong reaction we have seen…

…this is not a moment to be complacent.

It is time for a radical re-think in foreign policy…

…and a reboot of our diplomacy.

Mistakes of the west 

Putin’s invasion is shocking.

The images of tanks rolling across the borders of European nations reopens the deepest wounds of our continent’s history.

Many have said the world changed on February 24th.

It did.

The horrific war in Ukraine is solely of Putin’s making…

…but it also highlighted contradictions in the West’s relationship with Russia…

…as well as flaws in our broader foreign policy assumptions.

Many in Europe believed the era of wars between states was over.

We reshaped our security, defence, intelligence and diplomacy to tackle different threats – allowing core capabilities to dwindle.

Just months before Russia’s invasion, Boris Johnson said that the era of tank battles on European soil was over…

…Now we see tanks rolling across frontiers in Europe.

Borders changed by force.

Nuclear threats issued.

We must adjust our mindset and adapt our thinking.

For too long, Western governments…

…including Britain’s Conservatives…

…believed they could ignore domestic policies which undermined our

foreign policy.

We tolerated dependence on Russian oil and gas…

…funding Putin’s war chest…

…regardless of his  aggression and despite the urgent need to decarbonise.

Dirty Russian money…

…the loot of Putin’s dictatorship…

…was embraced…

From our football clubs to our politics…

…Oligarchs and kleptocrats used Britain’s capital as both the hiding place and service industry for their ill-gotten gains.

A spider’s web of dirty money spread across London.

Fuelling crime on our streets.

Making property unaffordable.

Laundering reputations.

Silencing critics.

And sustaining Putin’s authoritarian regime.

This disregard for the contradictions in our policy has been exposed by this crisis.

We must end the hypocrisy.

Too often we saw the world as we wanted it to be…

…not as it was.

Some believed Putin could be moderated and influenced by our engagement…

What the Germans called

…change through trade.

We have repeatedly been overly optimistic, even naïve…

…particularly when we stood to profit.

Even when Putin broke international law…

…and invaded his neighbours…

…our responses were weak.

The tame response to the seizure of Crimea in 2014 is one of the reasons we could not deter Putin this time around.

We must finally be realistic about the worldview in the Kremlin.

We’ve long known that Putin saw the collapse of the Soviet Union not as liberation but as humiliation…

…A catastrophe with consequences he told us – time and again – that he wanted to reverse.

Putin seeks a sphere of influence…

…a reconstituted Russian empire…

…whether we like it or not.

Putin believes that domestic survival depends on total dominance of the political sphere…

…the elimination of opponents…

…and the fanning of bigotry, nationalism and nostalgia.

He will ruthlessly pursue Russia’s interests as he sees them…

…in zero-sum terms.

And he has taken lessons from the Arab Spring.

Seeing democratic revolutions as contagious.

When he saw the 2014 democratic revolution in Ukraine, he feared that dangers of one in Russia as well.

It is time to understand Putin on his own terms.

But it is not only Britain’s Conservative government which made strategic mistakes on Russia.

Trump’s disastrous spell in the White House…

…Where he cosied up to dictators from Putin to Kim Jong Un…

…while distancing the US from its traditional allies in the EU…

…and institutions like NATO…

…shows the danger of turning against the institutions the West has created.

For too long parts of the left…

…even some members of my own party…

… falsely divided the world into two camps.

America and the West on one side…

…and their victims on the other.

This has never been right…

…but this view has now been exposed for all to see as a farce.

The rising aggression of countries including Russia, China and Iran…

…In particular Putin’s barbaric and illegal invasion of Ukraine…

…are definitive proof the world’s wrongs do not all stem from western actions.

We must confront our own historic mistakes…

…but if we fail to see beyond them…

…and falsely believe Western nations have nothing to contribute…

…we miss the value of making common cause for people fighting for democracy around the world.

And we forget the value of the international institutions that arose to protect us all.

Lessons from the Cold War    

Many people have drawn historical analogies with our current situation.

Some have suggested we are entering a new Cold War.

The Cold War analogy has limitations.

The world today is far more interdependent and economically interconnected than it was in the days of the Iron Curtain.

Unlike China, Russia is not a serious economic competitor to the West.

It does not represent a coherent ideology like Communism.

It is a nuclear superpower but it is a middling and unbalanced economy in freefall…

…with a leader clinging to a blood and soil nationalism of the past.

But there are some reflections we can draw from the Cold War that may be useful for the months and years ahead.

We need a patient, long-term strategy.

To equip ourselves for the task of a sustained confrontation…

…not just with Putin but with Putinism and its imitators.

Dictatorships are no longer controlled by one bad actor in isolation.

But by interlinked networks of illicit finance, security services and peddlers of misinformation.

Not only inside one country, or even one region.

But across the world.

They aren’t unified by one particular political ideology.

But the shared desire to hold power at any cost to their people – and enrich themselves.

To counter this network of Putinists, we must show that we can ditch the short-termism.

…On energy, on economics, on politics and on security…

…that for too long has dogged our approach.

The first step to signalling this change should be to ban all foreign campaign contributions from our politics…

…saying a clear no to malign interference in our democracies.

And we must properly regulate big tech…

…so that it is forced to quickly remove disinformation campaigns…

…or face punishing fines.

We must also double down on unity.

Our strength comes from our alliances…

…rooted in common values…

…not the transactional marriages of convenience or coercion, which characterise Russia’s alliances.

We must capitalise on the united economic front that has been formed against Putin.

In the Cold War, there were mechanisms like COCOM…

…the Coordinating Committee for Common Export Controls…

…to sustain common approaches to export controls.

We should consider whether we need new structures to ensure the UK, US, Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada and others partners can maintain a common approach.

And we should seek to build the widest possible diplomatic coalition in opposition to this war.

This neo-imperialism is not just a challenge to the West.

If one sovereign UN member-state can be carved up on a whim, all states are threatened.

The Cold War also teaches us the imperative to manage the risks of escalation.

Both lessons to learn and mistakes to avoid.

Preventing a catastrophic conflict took strategy and resolve, diplomacy and deterrence.

Even before this crisis we had already lost too much of the architecture of arms control built in the Cold War and post-Cold War period…

…such as the INF and Open Skies Treaties.

We should maximise pressure on Putin, and support the Ukrainians in their fight, including with arms…

…but also keep open channels of communication, maintain military transparency and seek to avoid miscalculation.

NATO was right to rule out a No-Fly Zone, which would bring Russia and NATO into direct conflict.

But Russia must know our absolute commitment to the principle that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack…

…each and every other member of the Alliance will respond.

And we need to be ready for modern acts of aggression…

…with accelerating and enhancing joint cyber defences among NATO member states.

Finally the Cold War teaches us that we must remain open to the Russian people.

Ordinary Russians did not start this war.

Many have courageously protested against it.

It takes real courage to challenge your government if you live in an authoritarian state.

We must always distinguish between Putin and the Russian people.

And reach as many as we can with objective news.

Allies should coordinate to get credible information to the Russian public through whatever means available…

… with direct financial and diplomatic support to civil society and independent journalism.

We must think creatively about how to strengthen the voices of moderation and reform.

And we must be a safe haven to Russians fleeing political persecution.

Labour’s Foreign Policy 

Living in an age of authoritarians means re-assessing our strategic priorities.

This must mark a turning point for Britain, and for our allies.

After years of distraction and insularity, Britain can carve a new leading position on the world stage.

First, we must strengthen our defences and lead the debate about the future of European security.

Britain has left the EU. The task now is to make Brexit work. On both sides of the channel.

It is time to leave behind the petty diplomatic spats with our neighbours pursued by this UK government…

…designed only to serve short term domestic political interests.

The British government must stop putting peace on the island of Ireland at risk…

…with its reckless threats to the Good Friday Agreement.

We need a government that can rebuild relations of trust and mutual respect with our closest neighbours on the continent…

…based on our shared values and common interests.

We need to end more than a decade of cuts to the army and rethink the assumptions in the Integrated Review.

The Government has pursued an Indo-Pacific tilt…

…but it must not do so at the cost of our commitments to European security.

As war ravages parts of our continent…

…we need to put past Brexit divisions behind us.

Stop seeking rows with European partners…

…and use this moment to explore new ways to rebuild relations with European allies through a new UK-EU security pact.

Second, we must sprint towards decarbonisation and end our dependency on dirty fossil fuels.

Much of the funding for Putin’s war machine has come from us and our partners…

…running our industries…

…heating our homes…

….and filling our cars with oil and gas from Russia…

…$700m per day from Europe…

We can revolutionise that if we have the will.

The UK Government has said that the UK will end Russian oil imports to the UK by the end of 2022.

We support this.

But on its own this move will not shield us from rocketing energy prices.

Our Prime Minister’s moves to fill the gap of Russian energy have so far been to look for new authoritarians from which to buy oil.

Whether Iran, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere….

Short-termist.

Ill-judged.

And not learning the lessons of Putin.

Fossil fuels empower the worst sorts of dictators

The only true form of energy independence is through clean energy.

This is why a Labour government in Britain would quadruple investment in a Green recovery…

…£225bn over the next 8 years.

Third, we must finally end our role as a facilitator of illicit finance and cleanse our society from dirty money…

…not just from Russia…

…but from corrupt elites across the world who have used Britain and our overseas territories to hide their ill-gotten wealth under our noses.

Fourth, we must restore our soft power

Because it is not only tyrants’ actions we must change…

…but the minds of their publics.

The United States and the UK together do so much good through the development we lead across the world.

But Britain has stepped back from its former leadership, cutting billions in aid, and mismanaging the merger of our development and foreign ministries, leaving them less than the sum of their parts.

Facing the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War…

…the importance of humanitarian aid and long-term development could not be greater.

One of the UK’s greatest exports is the BBC World Service…

…which plays a unique role…

…both in delivering information to populations living in authoritarian regimes…

…and embodying the free speech and independent media that are cornerstones of our democracies…

…reaching nearly 400m people per week.

In the first weeks of Putin’s invasion…

…the BBC’s Russian language service audience tripled, and has now been subject to new restrictions in Russia.

But the fact that just 13% of Russians see Russia as the aggressor in Putin’s illegal war shows the scale of the task.

A Labour government would truly value the BBC World Service.

…alongside a refreshed British Council

And be a beacon for our values around the world.

Conclusion

I started this speech by saying my time in the US taught me the great story of the 20th century is one of how minority groups gained rights through liberal democracy.

If this is true, the story of the 21st century is so far a story of the reverse.

Every year freedom house releases a report of the state of global democracy.

This year’s was titled: ‘The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule’

These times are dark…

…but they are not without promise.

We should take encouragement from Vladimir Putin’s current failure to achieve his objectives in Ukraine.

Russia’s huge, poorly organised army being out fought by Ukraine’s smaller but more skilful and determined troops…

…Because unlike the Russians, they actually know what they’re fighting for.

It’s the same thing that generations of British and American troops, diplomats, activists, and ordinary people have struggled for…

…the hope that our democracies are supposed to represent.

Ukraine’s formidable and courageous leader…

…Volodymyr Zelenskyy…

…has called upon our collective conscience…

…he has shown what it means to fight for a democratic nation state.

Using Ukraine’s heroics as inspiration…

…Together Britain, the United States, the EU and the rest of our allies and partners around the world have the chance to move past the age of authoritarians.

Reaffirming our commitment to the values we share…

…freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

Restoring the international institutions that spread them.

And giving hope to our nations once again.

ENDS