The dinner took place at the Army and Navy Club in London on 3 April 2023.
First of all, thank you very much for having me here to speak to you this evening.
I’ve been asked to give a tour de force of what is going on in the world this evening so there is a fair bit I want to get through. And it’s a delight, a genuine delight, to be in such expert company this evening.
For almost 200 years, RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) has hosted many of the world’s most influential thinkers on defence and security. And today you are helping us better understand the radically changing international security environment and perhaps more importantly, what we need to do to respond to it.
So, this evening, I’d like to share with you my thinking on how the government is responding to a more contested and more volatile world. And, in particular, I’d like to run through our plans to revive old friendships and to build new ones.
The essence of the international security threat that we face today is familiar and indeed would have been familiar to your founder, the first Duke of Wellington. Wellington faced a single, albeit significant empire building autocrat. And now, 200 years later, we face a number of actively hostile states keen on expansion that wish to do us and our allies no good, and beyond the threat that hostile states pose to us and indeed the wider world, we are once again taking part in a global contest.
Between different systems, different belief systems. And that will sound familiar to many of us here tonight who grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War.
But historical and historical analogy in this instance, falls short because our political systems may be radically different, but this time our economic models are substantially the same.
Few of us wanted to buy a Trabant or a Skoda in the 1980s. But the same cannot be said for the well-designed and technologically advanced Chinese electric cars that have recently arrived in UK showrooms. The free market approach, which brings goods to market that consumers actually want to buy, has triumphed over the dead hand of the planned economy.
But the advances in democracy and freedom have not kept pace. So that brings you back to hostile state actors. They have become more sophisticated. They have become more ruthless in resorting to brazen acts of terrorism. And potentially, they have become more disruptive and more menacing and more deadly.
Everyone in this room should be familiar with the strategy the government set out in response to a changing world, when we released an integrated review in 2021. But with your indulgence, I’d let you understand a little of the thinking behind it.
Our starting point then was based on the importance of leverage, because the experience of this government over the past 13 years has been that diplomacy without leverage is just words. So the UK relies on leverage, and our leverage lies in our international capabilities:
Militarily through our capacity for power projection and our significant contribution to NAITO.
Diplomatically through our global network of 270 posts around the world and indeed our international development program, consisting of £11 billion this year, which is the third largest in the G7.
Institutionally as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and through the weight of our influence in multilateral organisations and the international financial institutions.
Economically as a G7 economy and a global financial hub, which in turn makes British sanctions an essential element in any coalition package.
Most states do not have these kind of capabilities and so, to some, our position may appear enviable. But the reality is that we should be humble. Because our resources are far from limitless. And whilst we may be among a handful of countries in the International First Division, our position is an exposed one.
And this means we have to be judicious in every decision we make and husband our resources carefully, because every move, every choice carries opportunity costs. And this was the thinking behind the integrated review.
Having said what I’ve just said – that we mustn’t succumb to grandiosity or hubris – we should we should also be wary of false modesty. Because, as we’ve seen over the past couple of years, the leverage that we possess can – and indeed has – tipped the scales.
We spoke about the situation in Ukraine. And we should recognise that the thousands of NLAW missile systems that we provided to the Ukrainians in the weeks before Russia’s full-scale invasion certainly changed the course of events. And, indeed, we may also discover that it changed the course of history.
Because we should be clear about the lessons we’ve learnt from this. Our decision to arm Ukraine gave others encouragement and perhaps even political cover that they needed to follow our example. And today, now no fewer than 31 countries are supplying Ukraine with weapons that they need to beat Putin’s invasion.
This is the power of leverage, the strength and the agility to take a bold first step where others cannot. And this government has maximised all leverage by joining it up with our capabilities. Now that has been a consistent strategic spine that runs through all our activities across the full spectrum of our international and domestic work.
And of course, it is my job as Foreign Secretary to ensure that other countries recognise what we bring to the table. Because we want other countries to work with us in partnership.
This is a chance for me to let you peek behind the Wizard of Oz curtain for a minute. Over Christmas, the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and I sat down. And discussed what the credible options were regarding Ukraine’s fight for freedom. We unanimously agreed that a Russian victory would be completely unacceptable to us, as well as to our allies.
It would demonstrate the triumph of tyranny over democracy and would likely embolden other adversaries around the world and encourage them to act more aggressively and illegally. Be no doubt our highest priority is for Ukraine to prevail. And the best way to ensure the outcome is for Ukraine’s victory to occur quickly.
So during that conversation, we predicted how Putin would react to our increased involvement in Ukraine and our increased support to the Ukrainians. We knew that he would ramp up the rhetoric. We knew he would dial up the dramatics. And we knew once again he would turn to the irresponsible threat of nuclear weapons.
What we are seeing Putin do now in his aggressive rhetoric and behaviour is not a surprise. We anticipated this. We predicted this. And in fact. Putin was so easy to predict. That it is now evident that his self-promoted 3D chess playing reputation was not one that should be believed.
Now I want to come back to the critical importance of strengthening our relationships with key regional and global actors. And I will do that in a moment. But before I do, I’d like to return briefly to the integrated review refresh that the Government published last month.
To underline our approach is as much about rediscovering and updating old doctrines as it is about writing new ones. It’s about having the wisdom to understand that deterrence and the pursuit of strategic stability are often the best and indeed the bravest courses of action.
And we will achieve strategic stability through the effective management of systemic competition. Put simply, we need to talk to our competitors and do so often. Our 21st century approach to strategic stability needs a 21st century approach to arms control. The Cold War era treaties and conventions that ban or severely limit chemical, biological and nuclear weapons have served us well.
But the new arms control frontier is in cyberspace and in actual space. And alongside our partners, we must establish the global norms in these areas. Effective deterrence requires a new approach, perhaps new doctrines, even on the use, for example, of sanctions, an approach that will see sanctions used to dissuade actions and not just punish.
And deterrence also requires us to build our own, and our allies, resilience to cyber threats, resilience to manipulation of information, resilience to economic instability and resilience to energy shocks.
But again, strategic stability and deterrence alone are not enough. We also need to be directly involved in shaping the international context because information statecraft is as much about sowing the seed of truth as it is about uprooting conspiracy theories planted by hostile states.
And if we focus simply on countering disinformation, we’re getting off on the wrong foot, because ultimately we prevail over darkness by providing light. Through facts, through reason, and through principles. We need to set out our stall. We need to listen, engage, and effectively get our points across.
And we need to show the UK is here to help, as we are doing with the Ukrainians today alongside Ukraine’s other international friends. And we’re doing that effectively in the world’s poorest countries as well through our approach to international development, which brings together trade, investment and security partnerships alongside our official development assistance.
And I saw this philosophy play out in Sierra Leone last month, when I visited.
Defence, deterrence, strategic stability. And increasing the UK’s influence. The government has put its money where its mouth is.
We’ve increased defence spending by more than £25 billion over the past three years. Together with the U.S., we will deliver a multi-billion pound conventionally armed but nuclear powered submarine fleet to the Royal Australian Navy, whilst simultaneously setting the highest of operations standards.
We are providing the light of impartial, evidence-based, reporting to countries that need it the most. Through our £20 million uplift to the BBC World Service, protecting all 42 World Service Language services, a new directorate at the FCDO will lead our efforts to build UK influence as well as to confront the actions of others.
Because the most effective way of combating lies is the spread of truth. Our new £1 billion Integrated Security Fund will lead the charge on economic and cyber security, counter-terrorism and the battle to uphold human rights.
Our new National Protective Security Authority will provide UK businesses and other organisations with immediate access to expert security advice. And our new £50 million economic development initiative will strengthen sanctions enforcements and impacts giving us new tools to respond to hostile acts. We are intensifying our diplomatic, political and commercial links across the world with a pragmatic willingness to work alongside key regional and global actors who do not seek to undermine our way of life.
And the support of a wider range of international partners, including those carefully navigating their own way through this new age of strategic competition, sometimes referred to as the global middle ground, is an essential part of the UK’s strategic objectives.
That’s why I travelled to India and Kazakhstan last month.
It’s why I’ll be travelling to Brazil and Chile next month and it’s why it’s been so important for us to partner with Egypt as our successor COP president.
These countries and others like them will define the international order in the 21st century just as much as, or perhaps even more than, the global competition between the United States and China.
And we need to use our leverage and convening power, working in partnership with them and others to strengthen engagement between the world’s multilateral forums.
We, of course, will not agree on everything. But as I said in my speech in December, our job is to make our case and earn their respect and their support. Investing in long term relationships based on patient diplomacy.
Because it is not about dictating or telling others what they should do. We want a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship based on shared interests and common principles. And our success will be measured not in months. Or years. But decades.
And I’ll say more about these things in a series of speeches over the coming months, which I cordially invite you to attend.
And those speeches will be backed up by the comments I make in multilateral fora. And in those speeches, I will make comments on the need for multilateral reform on policy towards China and working with the EU as well as European allies on foreign policy issues.
But I don’t pretend to have all the answers. No one in my department does. That’s why I’m very keen to hear from you. And I understand we will have the opportunity to do so in the Q&A session a little bit later on this evening.
But if you will allow me, I have just one more thing to say before getting into the meat of the speech. That was a joke, by the way…
When RUSI’s founder, the Duke of Wellington, led his army to victory on the rolling plains of Waterloo, he did so at the head of a coalition of six powers. The United Kingdom was just one partner amongst many. And he prevailed. He prevailed against a nominally far stronger opponent because he had more allies and he had better allies than Napoleon.
This, too, was the approach of Winston Churchill, in whose memory we dine this evening. And I can assure you that whilst I and the PM have a say in the matter, that will always remain the policy of this government. Thank you.
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