TOAs a minister in the Foreign Office in the mid-1990s, I saw dramatic changes after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But these could be surpassed in historical significance by the combination of Covid-19, climate change, and the rise of China. As a former chairman of the public accounts committee, I have no illusions about the cost of misusing public money, but I have also seen the price we pay when we do not invest in Britain’s global interests. And as Brexit secretary, I saw firsthand how developing countries value the UK’s role in international development.
Across Africa, the UK has let its natural advantage slip away. As we look the other way, China sprang into action. Britain’s bilateral trade has suffered and British influence is now compromised. In the shadow of Covid, people are fearful and anxious. Economies are fragile. The continent is ready to be exploited by foreign powers in the brutal pursuit of profit and control.
We have overlooked opportunities to translate the tremendous success of UK soft power into protecting our interests in Africa. And now, in the grip of the pandemic, the continent faces instability and fragility on an epic scale.
Soft power is where Britain, in recent history, has excelled. However, our status as an international development superpower, which took a decade to build, is rapidly dismantling. For Africa, this is already having deadly consequences. Clinics are closing, schools are being abandoned, economies are stagnating. Ethiopia is falling into a famine. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Of all the diplomatic tools at our disposal, soft power is possibly the most effective because it is constructive rather than destructive. As former US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the US Senate, if you compromise your soft power, you will inevitably pay a higher price when using hard power, which is a damaging price for everyone involved. Soft power, on the other hand, is inexpensive, transformative, and serves mutual interest.
The word mutual is key here. It is what sets Great Britain apart from the competition. For us, it is about values and partnership, while China seeks property and generate debt. Our soft power should be the basis for our positive influence. When we provide aid, it is not to make any country indebted to us: it is to give them a hand, not a gift. Aid is not a substitute for self-reliance. It is an investment, not a donation.
We want to create conditions in which people can thrive because their success is ours too. One of the goals of generating the building blocks of stability, education and health is to cultivate the space for the private sector and the opportunities for business and diplomatic success that flow from prosperity.
And yet we have overlooked the enormous potential of a continent like Africa, for whom we should have been the natural partner of choice. Not only have we missed vital infrastructure projects, but our influence has been heavily sapped by China’s economic entrenchment.
Forging Britain’s place in the world will now involve a twofold effort. At the international level, we must continue to lead efforts to achieve greater unity in the West. We need to strengthen and expand our alliances and restore faith in the rules-based system. This will mean helping to modernize and improve the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. And make sure that our G7 presidency is the venue for an action-oriented dialogue on the new D10, as a vital counterweight to China and Russia, for the rest of this year.
Second, we need to rejuvenate our soft power influence around the world. We have the immeasurable advantage of the English language, the Commonwealth, and our leadership position in the UN and NATO. The Biden presidency could help align these goals with Global Britain’s priorities. But this week’s Carbis Bay summit will only be a credible relaunch of multilateralism if the UK leads by example.
We must keep our promise of help. At Gleneagles and Lough Erne, Britain led the then G8 by committing to meeting the 0.7% aid target and then meeting that commitment. Taking a step back during a pandemic and at the dawn of a new era of multilateralism is an act of diplomatic self-harm, not to mention the deadly consequences for the poorest people in the most fragile nations on Earth. Having cut our aid this year, we must guarantee our return to 0.7% in a short time.
We live in an unstable world. Russia is increasingly unpredictable; China is increasingly assertive; and Africa will increase in geopolitical importance. The continent is destined to greatly influence the future of the world. Its population will increase by more than 1 billion by 2050, representing 60% of the world’s population growth. If we do not use aid to eradicate disease and hunger, educate girls, drive economic growth through trade, and help African leaders raise the living standards of their people, we are missing a great opportunity.
If we fail to restore foreign aid next year, China will come in as we will. It is already happening as African governments borrow from China, not just through state debt financing, but through infrastructure projects.
All I’ve said so far is the argument from realpolitik, from our polite self-interest. But powerful as it may be, it is in turn dwarfed by the moral case. While I disagree with how quickly the aid budget was increased, by a third in 2013 (due to the likelihood of great waste), I believe that this year’s equally sudden cut will have dire consequences.
Hundreds of thousands of children will suffer and many will die as a direct result. The cuts represent only 1% of what the chancellor is borrowing this year, but they will come at a deadly cost. That cost, measured in the lives of children, will live on in our consciences as long as the reckless wars of the past. We must correct it before true pride in our accomplishments turns to shame over our failure.
David Davis is former Brexit secretary and MP for Haltemprice and Howden
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism