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A new internationalism

We can't make the world perfect but Labour can make a difference, argues Peter Hain.

In the last year I have made well over 50 trips abroad and travelled over 170,000 miles to countries as far apart as Namibia, India and the USA.

Pretty well everywhere I find Britain's foreign policy under Labour is widely admired as progressive, modern and on the side of justice and freedom - in stark contrast to the Tories.

Yet that doesn't seem to be the perception at home. So what are our foreign policy objectives? There are four key ones:

  • building respect for our values by supporting human rights, democracy and freedom;
  • promoting British prosperity through free trade and international partnerships;
  • ensuring the security of the UK;
  • enhancing the quality of life through global diplomacy on the environment, drugs trade and cross border crime.

Our policy can be summed up in 20 words: to promote British interests and pursue British values by supporting democracy and human rights, wherever we can, however we can.

Our active involvement across the world becomes more and more important as the phenomenon of globalisation shrinks the world, increasing the impact on us of events and decisions taken many miles away.

Globalisation and new technology has had another impact on good governance. Regimes which govern by fear and repression will not achieve the creativity and innovation essential for successful knowledge-based economies. Respect for human rights is therefore not a luxury of growth, but the condition of that growth. So the message that Labour Ministers like me carry abroad is that human rights make humans rich. Also that trade and investment require competition, transparency and the rule of law. Good governance wins international investor confidence.

Critical engagement in the world's affairs - the pursuit of political dialogue wherever it can produce benefits - is the business we are in. With some regimes (such as Iraq and Burma), this may require sanctions. With others (such as China), involvement without illusions: boycotting these may leave us with clean hands, but is unlikely to provide their people with better rights.

Labour's policy of diplomacy for democracy is in the best British tradition of standing for democracy, free speech and the rule of law. We support human rights and democracy for other people because these are the values we demand for ourselves.

And we reject the cynical view that, because we cannot make the world perfect, we should stop trying to make it better. We cannot put everything right, but we can make a difference. Because we cannot do everything, does not mean we should do nothing. Credit for our military intervention to protect freedom in Sierra Leone should not be withdrawn because we were unable to prevent atrocities in Chechnya.

The global interest is becoming the national interest. In the global age it is in Britain's national interest to promote British values of freedom, democracy and economic modernisation. Indeed, promoting our values enhances our prosperity and reinforces our security.

Britain is uniquely able to pursue our national interests through our global interests. As the only state that is a member of the G8, the EU, NATO and the Commonwealth and with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, we play a pivotal role.

We are internationalists, not nationalists. That is why we support the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, NATO, and the European Union. We are multi-lateralists not unilateralists. That is why we support international treaties on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and press all other countries to do the same. Promoting the international rule of law protects us. That is why we support the establishment of an International Criminal Court. We cannot protect Britain's environmental interests without backing global action and international environmental treaties. It is through global engagement, not isolation, that we stand up for Britain.

Globalisation requires greater humanitarian intervention: we believe that when faced with an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe the global community should act. It is our duty to do what we can to deter aggression and defend our values, by whatever means will make a difference, whether that is by constructive engagement, or by creative diplomacy or indeed by military muscle.

But this is not a perfect world. It is not a safe world. Nations have the right to protect their people and sometimes they choose to do that by buying British defence equipment. The British defence industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, many thousands of them in Wales. These are real people in real jobs in real places in Newcastle, Plymouth, Cardiff and Glasgow. We are not about to put them out of work by closing their industry down.

But there are too many arms in the world and this Labour Government has made our arms exports more accountable and transparent than almost any other country. We have established for the first time:

  • a tough code blocking exports of arms for either internal repression or external aggression
  • a European Union arms code doing the same thing
  • annual reports with 300 pages detailing the licences we have agreed - one of the most open exercises of its kind in the world. We have nothing to hide.

Under this Government Britain is leading the way on arms control by:

  • banning landmines across the world
  • banning the sale of torture equipment
  • promoting a ban on small arms to conflict zones
  • ratifying the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and seeking to strengthen the Non Proliferation Treaty
  • promoting new international controls on chemical and biological weapons.

As NGOs have readily acknowledged, at the Non Proliferation Treaty conference in New York in May we played the key role in achieving an unprecedented agreement between the five declared nuclear states and the non-nuclear ones to get a commitment to the global elimination of nuclear weapons. We are also a leading force pressing for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and for effective implementation of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Treaties.

And on Europe, it is our continent. The stronger Britain's standing in our continent, the greater the leverage we will have in the other six. If Britain is stronger in Europe, we are stronger in the world. There is no point in being half-in, half out. A half-hearted Britain would deliver only half our interests in Europe.

The European Union enables us to cope with an age in which nations are more interdependent than they are independent, more successfully than any alternative. That reality of interdependence is what underpins Objective One funding: the richer regions of Europe recognise their responsibilities to the poorer regions. With their isolationist, anti-European stance the previous Conservative Government would never have secured the billions of pounds of European funding that could breathe new life and hope into Wales, into South Yorkshire, Merseyside and Cornwall.

Britain also has a unique, pivotal role as a bridge between Europe and America. Under this government, Britain is shaping not shunning Europe. Our attitude to Europe is wholehearted, not half-hearted, committed, not carping.

Constructive engagement in Europe, as elsewhere, is best for Britain. Eurosceptics undermine our national interests. As we showed over Objective One, Britain has more influence at the heart of Europe than at the edge of Europe.

A successful Europe means success for Britain. Pulling out of Europe would pull the plug on millions of jobs all over the Britain. Europe is good for British jobs. Out of Europe could mean out of work. Britain is better off in Europe than out.

Traditionally our foreign policy has been shaped by the fact that we need a stable world, for our security and to provide reliable markets for trade and investment. But accelerating environmental stresses - climate change, deforestation, competition for water and other increasingly scarce resources - also threaten world stability.

So strong international environmental agreements protect our interests. This does not mean imposing first world environmental standards on third world countries. It means working with our partners to find sustainable solutions. It means that we put environmentalism at the heart of our foreign policy. Wealth today must not be at the expense of welfare tomorrow.

Nor is it in Britain's interests to have a world divided between rich and poor. That is why Labour has massively increased our overseas aid and development budget where the Tories cut it savagely. Why we have led the way on providing 100 per cent debt relief for the poorest countries. And why we are working with developing countries to achieve a new round of trade agreements which protect rather than exploit them.

For the first time under Labour the Foreign Office has an open door policy to NGOs from Amnesty to CND to Greenpeace. They are positively encouraged to put their views which we value. And we have secondees from a range of NGOs advising Ministers.

This all amounts to a foreign policy which may not be perfect because there are always tough choices and compromises in government. But it is more progressive than any previous British Government and reflects the socialist values at the heart of our Party. We ought to be proud of it.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and Minister of State at the Foreign Office