Lord Howell’s speech to the Wilton Park International Council 2012

31 May, 2012

Lord Howell, Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, spoke at the meeting highlighting the value the high commissions and embassies, play in sharing their knowledge, time and support to ensure Wilton Park’s conferences are relevant.

Wilton Park’s International Council (WPIC) met on 28 May in Lancaster House. The Council’s membership comprises of Ambassadors and their representatives from EU, G20 and other High Commissions and Embassies in London.

Lord Howell’s speech

“Thank you for inviting me here today. I have been a regular visitor to Wilton Park for 40 years, and I regard it as a real powerhouse of thinking. I especially value its ability to look at the long-term issues, but the difficulty is what was the long-term is now next week. But the processes of Wilton Park are now more valuable than ever.

We and Wilton Park both value the integral role that the high commissions and embassies in London play in sharing their knowledge, time and financial support to ensure their conferences are relevant, wide reaching and an enriching experience for participants.

The work of Wilton Park is closely linked to the over-arching foreign policy priorities of the Government. These were set out clearly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary recently: first, to respond to urgent challenges and crises in a way that promotes Britain’s national interest and our democratic values; and, secondly, to equip our country to be a safe, prosperous and influential nation in the long term, in the service of poverty reduction and conflict prevention, and in the upholding of human rights, religious freedom and environmental safeguards. As a responsible nation we have no choice but to do our bit.

The world is changing. A redistribution of wealth and power – indeed a redistribution in the nature of power – is shifting globally, so we have to look beyond our traditional twentieth century partners, and look to the new players, the emerging, growth economies of Asia, Latin America and now Africa. The world’s pattern of energy and mineral resources is being transformed by new discoveries of gas and oil, by changes in technology and manufacturing processes, and by the rise of new and energy-hungry consumers en masse. The old picture of financial flows has changed.  We have to reflect these changes, and to react by refocusing our policy priorities and our network. Wilton Park has done a great deal to shape this debate.

We are expanding our diplomatic network, so that British diplomacy is in more places with greater force and effectiveness than for many years past. By 2015, we will have opened up eleven new Embassies and eight new Consulates or Trade Offices, and will deployed 300 extra staff to fast growing cities and regions in more than twenty countries.

Of course that does not mean forgetting old friends. Our relations with our European partners will remain an essential part of our foreign policy, and the United States of America will still be a key ally.  We will need to work closely with our traditional friends, and new allies, to face the global challenges that currently exist, and that will arise in the future.

We must also not forget the growing importance of the Commonwealth. I have called it the necessary network of the 21st century. It is evolving into one of the most relevant networks in today’s changing world, and it is one of the key gateways to some of the most dynamic economies.  So far us, Europe is our region, America our ally, and the Commonwealth our family.

We are all aware of the large number of complex challenges which we are currently facing. The Arab Spring has already brought huge changes to the Middle East and North Africa, but the region now needs to consolidate and build on its progress. We are not as pessimistic as some – Libya is set to hold its first democratic election in more than 40 years, and Egypt’s voters went to the polls last week to choose their next President. Peaceful reform is also underway in Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. We are continuing to support the reform process, and last February we launched the Arab Partnership Initiative. We have so far funded more than 50 projects in 11 countries in the region.

But problems remain. The terrorist infection remains. The situation in Syria remains totally unacceptable, and we welcome Kofi Annan’s six point plan. Iran continues to concern us greatly, and we have yet to see the concrete steps to address concerns about its nuclear programme. We will continue to maintain pressure through sanctions and the current EU embargo.

There are still substantial challenges in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example the rise in tensions between Sudan and South Sudan, terrorism in northern Nigeria, Somalia and piracy, and drought and famine in the Sahel. But overall the picture is much more positive, and the trend is increasing economic growth and a greater willingness to take their place on the international stage. South Africa is playing an increasingly active role, and Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania are all unlocking their potential as growing economies and potential stars in the African and global firmament.

We are raising our game in the emerging and already advanced economies of Asia and Latin America. For some years the UK has not given Latin America the attention that it deserves, but this is changing. We are opening new Embassies, and increasing our efforts to promote trade in these markets. We see Latin America as a key region for the future, and look forward to working with them, especially on such questions as climate change, energy and development.

In Europe, we face two major economic challenges: resolving the eurozone crisis, if that is possible which remains a major obstacle to our economic recovery, and responding to the relative shift of economic power to the east and south. It is for each individual eurozone member to decide how to handle the crisis, but we believe that control of public finances and structural reform are the right way forward for the UK. We share common values and interests with our EU partners, and work with them to bring our collective weight to bear to increase our impact. Europe remains a cultural and creative powerhouse of great diversity. But the European Union must also reform, and we will play a strong role in that. We also believe that the EU must support peace and stability in the western Balkans.

In Afghanistan, the process of passing over security control to the Afghan forces is on track, and we expect the Afghanistan National Security Forces to be in a position to take a lead on security responsibilities across the countries by mid-2013. This will enable ISAF to take a supporting role.

There is a common theme running through all of these issues: the importance of networks in the modern world. There are few states which are not a member of one group or another. As the Prime Minister said last year, we are in a world of networks, not blocs. I would like to pay tribute to one of the greatest networks, the Commonwealth. This Government are committed to making more out of the Commonwealth, which is a fascinating organisation uniquely placed to advance our foreign policy and trade objectives. The Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed in Perth last year to some of the most significant reforms in the organisation’s history. I am particularly pleased that Wilton Park convened two conferences which were directly relevant to this process, and fed into the work of the Eminent Persons Group.

The world is moving away from the exercise of hard power, although as a final resort against hard and violent challenges and regimes it remains essential. But in today’s world, full of e-enabled non-state threats, dispersed power and social media, we need new instruments and techniques of influence and persuasion to underpin the security of the UK and its citizens and interests. We need to attract the respect and trust of other countries and peoples. We need to rely on the full range of soft power links and partners at our fingertips: not only institutions such as the BBC World Service and the British Council, but also educational links, cultural links, common judicial practices, civil society networks, and most importantly the enduring the power of ideas, innovation and our values. Alongside all this, we have become what Sir John Major has described as a “development superpower”. This is a proud label to bear. But a key part of soft power is listening to others, respecting their points of view, and understanding them in such a way to promote engagement.

It is here that Wilton Park has an important part to play. As you have heard, Wilton Park has used its international reputation and reach to enhance Britain’s role in policy making by forging new relationships and strengthening links abroad. A front line resource for the FCO, it engages closely with Whitehall to support Britain’s international policy priorities and convene strategic discussions that serve to enrich Britain’s foreign policy, and shape the wider international debate. Wilton Park has held 54 events over the past year, not only in the UK but also in a number of other countries, including China, Turkey and South Africa. I am also pleased that President Gul was able to give the inaugural Wilton Park Annual Address in November 2011 as part of his State Visit.  I remember the stimulating debate on Turkey’s foreign policy that I attended in Istanbul earlier in the year.

Wilton Park is well placed to look at issues that others do not, to reach the thinking point s others cannot reach. For example, I am pleased to hear that they plan to convene a conference with the Grenadian government on small islands economies – a topic which feeds into the work we are doing on our relations with the UK’s Overseas Territories. Both face major challenges for example from climate change and rising energy costs.

A key issue is perhaps to deepen our understanding of what we mean by democracy, and to move from facile views, long discredited, that all democracy needs is parties and elections. Free societies need much more, and they need time to evolve.  Everyone holding power must use it responsibly.

Wilton Park will continue to be at the forefront; engaging policy makers and enhancing international diplomacy in the new global milieu. It will look to the future; adapting, evolving and responding to the ever changing global dynamics to help those who are charged with making the world a safer, fairer place achieve their goals.

Wilton Park values its relationship with the high commissions and embassies here in London; and its long-term partnerships with international organisations and with governments who have provided valuable sponsorship and guidance.  Without these links it would not be the same organisation it is today. Thank you for your partnership and support.”

The council also heard about the highlights from Wilton Park the previous year including:

  • the inaugural Wilton Park Annual Address with President Abdullah Gül of the Republic of Turkey during his state visit.
  • 8 conferences held oversees including in China, a new partnership with the Central Party School, South Africa on weapons of mass destruction and Thailand on reducing the risk from disasters. 

The Council also discussed potential conference themes for the coming year.  Please see the Wilton Park calendar which will be updated regularly as conferences are developed.

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