You are here: Interview: David Hannay on Britain’s quest for a role

Has Britain found a role? My conclusion is obviously a work in progress because British foreign policy evolves the whole time, as does Britain’s place in the world. I think in some respects it has. The way that Britain has handled its role in the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation – in these big multilateral institutions – has been quite effective and about right for a country of our size, which has both worldwide interests and worldwide responsibilities. It has been less successful in defining a stable and proper relationship with the United States, and it has fallen victim to political infighting and uncertainty of purpose where the absolutely key relationship for this country is concerned: the European Union.

The European dimension is fundamental – I do not think we will get a proper balance to our relationship with the US if we are not playing a full role in the EU. If the US perspective is that our influence at the European level is diminishing, then our ability to have an effective relationship with the US will diminish too. The same goes for the councils of the big multilateral institutions. If we are not able to influence the formation of European policy on the environment or development, or on pressing peace and security issues, such as Syria, our quest for a role will be undermined.

One area in which Britain has an opportunity to make an impact is through the Prime Minister’s role as co-chair of the UN panel that is working on what should follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It is, of course, early days yet. We are talking about the world after 2015. But there is a need, a really serious need, to make the MDGs a more effective tool for development policy than they have been in their first 15 years. For one, we need better monitoring of the commitments made by developing countries, some of which have been unable or unwilling to deliver on their promises, and of those made by donor countries.

But what’s really crucial in my view is that the MDGs after 2015 focus on what has been called the ‘bottom billion’, the people at the bottom of the heap in countries who, for various reasons – conflict, corrupt governments – are not making progress. We must achieve a much sharper focus on those countries. Other countries that have made huge progress during the first 15 years, countries like China, India and Brazil, have reached a point now where, one hopes, most of their development will be self-sustaining. Indeed, they are going to become one of the motors of the developed world, which is changing during this period and ceasing to be purely Western-dominated.

Should these emerging powers contribute more to aid? Well, I’m not sure we should be thinking in terms of money necessarily. These countries still have enormous demands on their budgets in terms of providing support for their own poor. The belief that somehow China or India no longer have any problems is fanciful. So we need to allow for the fact that they are not likely to become massive financial aid donors. But what they do have, and what I think they will become increasingly willing to put at the disposal of others, is experience and skill and people who know about what these countries have done to bring their people out of poverty.

Take Brazil. The family support measures that former president Lula introduced have been a great success, broadly speaking, and the Brazilians have acquired a huge amount of knowledge about how to make those programmes work and they’ve got a lot of educated people. So we shouldn’t be looking so much for money but for experience and how best UK and EU aid programmes can work together with these emerging countries.

We should also remember that Britain is in single figures in any league table of world power, in terms of its trade, wealth, military capability and also in what is often called ‘soft power’ – our universities, our expertise in various sectors. On any kind of computation we are still a country that counts and therefore a country that has responsibilities, that is to say, a country that can afford and be expected to help others. That is as true of Britain now during the height of austerity as it was when we were more comfortably placed. Our ability to do so may have been affected but that is recognised in the UN’s benchmark of committing 0.7% of GNP to aid. If our GNP doesn’t increase or shrinks, then the amount of aid we give will shrink too. To cut back in any aggressive way on the programmes we have would greatly reduce Britain’s influence in the world and would, I think, fall very short of what we should be seeking to achieve.

I must confess I am a little worried about developments at the moment. The economic crisis is resulting, as it did in the 1930s and, to a lesser extent, the 1970s, in countries turning away from their international responsibilities and looking inwards. The attitude seems to be that global issues will have to be dealt with later, they can’t afford to deal with them now. That, I think, is a disastrous conclusion. The world needs multilateral institutions even more during a period of financial turmoil.

When I went to the UN in 1990, we were in a remarkably benign period in which the five permanent members of the Security Council worked very closely together. At that time, there was a very brief opening for putting the UN closer to the centre of multilateral security. This opportunity was blown, mainly due to inadvertence. Everyone handed themselves huge peace dividends with the end of the Cold War instead of diverting a small portion of those funds towards making the UN a more effective operator. And now, the dynamics of the Council are very different. The handling of Syria has been lamentable and I do not believe that the Russian and Chinese vetoes were in any way justified. But we must not react by returning to the Cold War paradigm whereby one veto leads to another and another. That would be appalling.

This is, potentially, a period of great risk. The power relationships in the world are shifting quite fundamentally. The US has seen its (brief) status as the only superpower diminish. China, India and other developing countries are becoming much more influential and have greater regional, and perhaps global, significance. We need to think about how to incorporate them into a genuinely egalitarian and rules-based order.

It was precisely those sort of shifts in late 19th century Europe which led to the first and second world wars. I’m not saying that’s the direction we’re going in now, but I think anyone who fails to recognise what has been going on in the South China Sea as distant rolls of thunder which could presage much worse is deluding themselves. I find it aberrant that none of the players ever mention the desirability of referring these disputes to either the International Court of Justice or the tribunal set up under the Law of the Sea Treaty, both of which offer a way in which these disputes could be resolved peacefully. Instead, the Chinese are determined to negotiate bilaterally as they, of course, are stronger and more influential than the other countries involved. The Americans are giving the impression that they want to have a role in this, which simply upsets the Chinese. Far better if everyone would agree to settle this objectively and equitably. So I really think we must re-commit to making the UN more effective and more central to our actions.

In 2004, the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, of which I was a member, proposed a range of reforms intended to do just that. Of these, the ‘responsibility to protect’ was perhaps the most far-reaching, although I believe the Human Rights Council has, on balance, done better than its admittedly utterly discredited predecessor, and I hope that over time the Peacebuilding Commission will be put to better use. The problem with R2P is not about finding new verbal formuli for expressing it but rather its implementation – applying it in certain circumstances.

I happen to think that in Libya the intervention was broadly correctly carried out. It was justified, proportionate and it brought results which have been, on balance, beneficial to Libyan citizens. This should tell us that it can be done. Just as the intervention in Côte d’Ivoire, also a case for R2P, resulted in an elected government being put in place. Now, we are witnessing a situation in Syria where things are not being done. R2P would not have been adopted unanimously at the World Summit in 2005 had the massacres of Srebrenica and Rwanda not taken place – they must not be allowed to happen again.

I’m very clear in my mind that over Rwanda, over Somalia and Bosnia we collectively – the Security Council, the UN Secretariat – bear an extremely heavy responsibility, and for me it was a terrible experience to be involved in such far-ranging failures. Could they have been avoided? Some could. I’m not sure all of them could, though they could have been mitigated perhaps. We need to learn from that. We need to find a way of ‘operationalising’ R2P, to use that terrible phrase. This cannot be simply a ticket to military intervention. We must do more in conflict prevention too.

What about the Security Council? I’m afraid that reform of the Council, of its membership in particular, is a little bit like a mirage: it is always out there, you can see what it ought to be, but it seems very difficult to get there. And like mirages, I think it is unwise to become too narrowly focused on just achieving that, to the detriment of things that could be done here and now. I think it is quite right that Britain has said it supports enlargement, but we should not kid ourselves that this would solve all the problems. A larger Council with more developing country members and other permanent members would not have found it easier to find a solution to the Syria crisis. If you believe that would have been the case, I’m afraid it is an illusion.

Security Council reform is not some magic bullet to be pursued at the expense of everything else. Nor should we think that if it does not happen the Council has no legitimacy. The Council has very great legitimacy. It’s set out in the UN Charter. It’s in the 2000-plus resolutions the Council has adopted. It’s reflected in the enormous successes in peacekeeping in places like Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique, El Salvador, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Yes, we must work for a better Council but we should not undermine that legitimacy.

In the meantime, it is really important that the P5 cooperate and find ways of reconciling their differences. We also need to find ways of improving the ‘command and control’ of UN peacekeeping operations. That is to say, the crucial link between the Council which gives the mandate, the Secretary-General and Secretariat which carry it out, and those in the field who often get the impression that neither their bosses in the Secretariat nor their masters on the Council have a clue as to what life on the ground is actually like.

And we, especially those of us who are members of UNA-UK, should seek to explain to the public that the Security Council is not the only part of the UN which matters. Every day of every week of every year, huge amounts of absolutely invaluable work is being done by the Refugee Agency, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the International Atomic Energy Agency and so on. All this represents a massive shift from the pre- 1945 period when there were practically no activities of this sort, as well as a collective assumption of responsibility by the international community.

I also think UNA-UK has a role to play where the UK Parliament is concerned. For MPs, their work in Parliament is about domestic issues and politics, and who should criticise them for that? Not me, certainly. That is their job, to be stuck into health, education, welfare and so on. But Britain is a country that matters in the world and our politicians need to pay attention to that too. We need to get more interest in, knowledge of and involvement with UN issues in Parliament. I think there is great potential for Parliament to provide real input into the shaping of British foreign policy.

“What next for David Hannay?” Well, I’ve just celebrated my 77th birthday so I shan’t, in all likelihood, be quite as active as I have been in the last 15 years since I notionally retired! But I’ll still be a member of the House of Lords, I shall still follow UN and EU issues very closely. And when issues come up, such as the ban on cluster munitions or loopholes in our genocide legislation, I shall work hard on them. I will, for example, continue to raise the weaknesses, in my view, of the government’s immigration policy in its impact on student visas, which is putting at risk not only one of our key invisible exports but also a crucial part of our ‘soft power’. I’m sure I will not lack for things to do.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick joined the British diplomatic service in 1959. Dispatched to Tehran – where he met his wife – and Kabul to learn Persian, he later became the ‘goto’ man for multilateral postings. He was involved in the negotiations that led to the UK’s entry into the European Communities and served as British Ambassador to the UN from 1990 and 1995, a period encompassing the first Gulf War, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica. His retirement upon leaving New York was short-lived. He spent the next seven years as UK Special Representative for Cyprus and then served on the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which proposed far-reaching reforms to the Organisation in 2004. From 2006–11 he was Chairman of UNA-UK. Now, he is Chair of the UN All-Party Parliamentary Group, co-chair of the APPG on global security and non-proliferation, and a member of the EU Select Committee and of the Top Level Group of Parliamentarians for Multilateral Disarmament & Non-proliferation.

(Photo:from Britain’s Quest for a Role: David Hannay with George H W Bush, whom he describes as the US President with the greatest sympathy for and knowledge of the UN. “The US wore its unipolar mantle with grace”)

His latest book, Britain’s Quest for a Role, provides fascinating insights into British, European and international politics over five decades, peppered with anecdotes about the people and places that have shaped this story.