Ryan Henson, Chief Executive Officer at the Coalition for Global Prosperity.
Big Tent and the Coalition for Global Prosperity partnered on the event In Conversation with Jeremy Hunt on Wednesday 22 July.
What Britain does overseas matters. We may not be the biggest, but our history, diversity, and unique place in the world, captured in our membership of both the Commonwealth and the UN Security Council, means we have the privilege of being in a position to assert our values and our objectives in a way most other countries can only dream. From our Oscar winning actors and Grammy winning musicians, to the Premier League, our COVID-fighting international development experts, and above all, the best armed forces on the planet, we use our soft power every day to shape the world in our image.
But Britain’s soft power isn’t just about establishing our place in the world. It’s about standing up for the principles that have made us who we are today: democracy, respect for human rights and helping others to help themselves. Principles increasingly threatened by China and Russia with every passing day. It is about having the compassion to extend a hand of friendship to those in need, and the courage to confront injustice and wrongdoing particularly when it runs counter to vested interests. For all the Brexit strife at the time, Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s reaction to the Russian poisonings in Salisbury in 2018, leading a global coalition in response to the state-backed attack on UK soil, was British leadership at its finest.
Such decisiveness is now more important than ever, with threats from around the world becoming increasingly frequent and varied. Russian intelligence agencies are believed to have launched cyber attacks against organisations working to find a vaccine for COVID-19. The Chinese Communist Party is committing what many believe is genocide in Northern China. And the spread of coronavirus has reminded us that our health and wellbeing can be as reliant on the NHS as on hospitals anywhere on the planet, and therefore our responsibility to support developing nations with weaker healthcare systems, is more important than ever.
The Government is rightly on the front foot seeking to shape the world according to our values, rather than reacting to events and remaining passive as global alliances fracture. The world is changing too fast for us to sit back and, as President Obama used to say, ‘simply admire the problems’ without proposing anything concrete in response.
Offering Hong Kong residents the chance to live in the UK while suspending the extradition treaty are clear statements of intent that we will not remain idle as China imposes restrictions on those who live there. The introduction of our own Magnitsky law demonstrates that we will pursue and punish perpetrators of war crimes and human rights violations. But we can and should go further.
Over the coming months, the UK is set for an ‘Autumn of decision.’ The G7 meeting in September will be the first gathering of leaders from the major economies since last August, during which time the world has been turned on its head. The Prime Minister can put a commitment to helping the world’s poorest economies recover from the coronavirus crisis at the top of the agenda. He can also urge his fellow world leaders to put as much effort into holding China to account for its actions against the Uighur people, as previous leaders have into courting the Chinese Communist Party leadership over recent years. Britain should also urge all G7 states to back decisive action on climate change ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, however tough that might be for President Trump to stomach, and no matter what he tweets in response.
Closer to home, the Integrated Review of Foreign Policy, Defence, Security and International Development – due to be published in the Autumn – will establish how the government machine can support our global ambitions. One key pillar of this will be creating a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that is the envy of the world. If the new department really is to combine the best of diplomacy with the best of development then it needs to be a department to make both Castlereagh and Wilberforce proud – one man who charted Britain’s rise as a global power, the other who led the world in defeating the international slave trade. It should champion Britain and the British people, employing enough head to know that there are times when we need to promote the national interest, but engaging enough heart to also know that politics must continue to be more than just data and polling, and a place driven by conviction and values above all else.