Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Question 38-59)




  38. Secretary of State, may I welcome you and your colleagues to your first meeting with the newly constituted Foreign Affairs Committee in this Parliament? Before we move to the substantive parts today, British/US relations and the fight against terrorism, may I say that you have just returned, I believe, from discussions on Gibraltar. Can you tell the Committee whether you intend to make a statement to the House or, since we are meeting the Minister of State next week, can we have a full memorandum on the subject in time before that meeting next week?

  (Mr Straw) Thank you very much for that welcome. May I introduce the officials who are with me? Dick Wilkinson is director, Americas. Stephen Wright is deputy secretary, defence and intelligence. Peter Ricketts is the political director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. As for Gibraltar, I have indeed just returned from Barcelona where we had discussions within the Brussels process and when impromptu I met a small delegation of Gibraltarians representing a slightly larger number of Gibraltarians who were outside articulating their concerns about the process. That was a very useful conversation. I shall be formally placing the communique on the record of the House. Next Tuesday, we have oral questions in the House and there are two on Gibraltar which are bound to be reached. I am taking both of them so there is an opportunity for me to be asked about it. On Wednesday, Peter Hain is coming before your Committee and we will of course let you have a memorandum at the beginning of next week, if that is acceptable[3].

  39. I am obliged. We have about two hours. I propose to probably devote an hour and a quarter or so to the first part on British/US relations and then move onto the battle against terrorism. The Committee, as you know, visited New York and Washington. We had excellent support from the diplomatic staff there, both the UK Mission in New York, the Consulate General in New York and our embassy in Washington. We would be most grateful if you would convey our thanks, as indeed I have in written form, to the missions in those two posts.
  (Mr Straw) I will. I was in Washington just before your visit but I was in New York last week after your visit and I know that officials in the Consulate-General and in the United Nations Mission were appreciative of the visit. I think it does say something for their skill and dedication that they were, for example, able to arrange for you to have a full meeting with Kofi Annan, whose time is hardly unlimited at the moment. On top of that the staff in New York have given more than could be expected of any human being in the weeks since 11 September. One of the nicest things that happened last week was that we organised a reception for all the staff from the Consulate General Office, from UKMIS and from the Joint Management Office, which is a neglected part of that operation which manages both sides. I was able to say thank you to all the staff and meet about 200 of them personally.

  40. We found it was a good time to be British in the US, both in New York and in Washington. Do you understand the critics who will say that the applause is fine but where is the beef? Where is the influence? How would you seek to respond to those who ask whether this enthusiasm translates into real influence for Britain and real help to our interests in the US?
  (Mr Straw) First of all, let us be in no doubt of the depth and breadth of the relationship and, as you witnessed and I personally witnessed walking down the street, I had more people in New York come up to me to say thank you than I have had in London. It is not because people are not thankful but people take it for granted here. There is not the least doubt that across America and across every interest, people have an extraordinary sense of gratitude to the United Kingdom, particularly to our Prime Minister, but to everybody else in this country for our reaction on 11 September and since. That has now reflected in a resolution of the Senate of the United States which was passed a couple of days ago, a copy of which I have just had.

  41. Senator Jesse Helms?
  (Mr Straw) By Jesse Helms, Mr Miller and reported by Jo Biden. When I was in the States, I went to the Foreign Relations Committee, whose chair is now Jo Biden. He expressed deep felt thanks. I said, "Yes, thank you very much for saying that but it was first of all our duty because twice in the space of 25 years the United States came to our rescue when we were in far more parlous circumstances. We would not be enjoying the freedoms which we have enjoyed since the Second World War without that assistance." Second, I said, "Our reaction in any event was instinctive; we would not think about it, from the Prime Minister to everybody else. We just felt we had to be in there with the United States."

  42. To those who ask what effect will it have—?
  (Mr Straw) If I can finish this part of the story, Senator Biden said, "Yes, we understand all that but you do not realise how important it was for us on the day of the atrocity for the whole of America to receive such unqualified support and empathy from the United Kingdom." It was reflected around the world but it was more graphic and more instinctive from us. In your Committee proceedings last time, I think it was two of those who you interviewed who pointed to the fact that the depth of the relationship now, which everybody is celebrating, could not have occurred but for the fact that the foundations of this relationship go back over centuries. Influence is an intangible thing but it is my belief—and it is reflected in the expert evidence that you have had—that the relationship of trust which exists between ourselves and the United States, which is reflected at every level but particularly in the relationships between the administration and officials and ministers here, means not that every time we get our way—that is not the nature of the relationship—but that we can persuade the United States sometimes of things which we would not otherwise be able to persuade them.

  43. Can you give examples?
  (Mr Straw) In the course of this campaign against terrorism, there have been plenty of examples, but I will not go into detail now, where the final decisions which were made by the coalition have been the consequence of discussions within the coalition. It is for the historians to write that up. One of the reasons why I think the relationship works is precisely because it is based on trust, not on grandstanding. Neither side feels any need to go into detail about the nature of the relationship and the relationship could not operate unless there was that trust. As for other tangible examples of the relationship, there is trade. We sell the United States £27 billion-worth of goods. We provide them with services of £29 billion-worth[4]. They are our biggest trading partner by far. We are the biggest investor in the United States. They are the biggest single investor in this country.

  44. We know the figures.
  (Mr Straw) The figures are hugely important, in my view. You would not have that kind of tangible relationship without the wider and deeper political, social and intellectual relationship which has been there for a very long time. You could point to loads of examples where the result of one particular set of representations led to one change by the US administration but I am not going to get drawn into detail on the recent past because that would be to break the confidence of the relationship, particularly which exists in the defence and intelligence level. If you look at the now emerging warmth of the relationship with Russia, for example, I would suggest that maybe one of the factors in that has been the degree to which the Prime Minister here and other ministers have been able to help to lay the ground. The decisions which the United States have made are decisions which they have made themselves.

  45. What about more tangible matters like the long standing dispute with the US over the Air Services Agreement? Do you think that 11 September and this new, warm relationship will assist in the resolution of such disputes?
  (Mr Straw) I would hope so. It is a dispute which should have been sorted out some time ago. I was going to go on to say that it cannot follow that, because there is a close relationship, we can agree about everything. There are a number of areas—no doubt you will wish to explore them—which are well known, which include Kyoto, the protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention and a number of other issues, where we take either an opposite view to the United States or a different view. That is in the nature of a healthy relationship. Coming back to the Air Services Agreement, we would wish to see a resolution to that. We hope that it can be resolved quite quickly, not least because, as you may know, there is a European Court of Justice pending judgment. If that rules against future bilateral agreements that would be to the disadvantage of the United Kingdom airline industry, so there is a lot of pressure on us and therefore, we hope, on the United States to pursue this.

Mr Olner

  46. It is very obvious that both you and I are of the same age group and I very much subscribe to your view that it is our duty to react exactly the way we did on 11 September. Could I ask how you think the government will be able to exercise its influence, now we have a special relationship, with America's foreign policy?
  (Mr Straw) I do not think there is any question that we have always been influential in terms of foreign policy. It does not mean we follow the same foreign policy. That needs to be made very clear because our starting point on quite a number of issues is often different. On some issues, it is the same. During the Cold War, our broad approach to relations with the Soviet Bloc was the same as that of the United States. I guess the best example here is the Middle East. The starting point of the United Kingdom in terms of our relations with the countries of the Middle East historically has been a different one from the United States. That is particularly true in respect of the creation of the state of Israel where our attitude was much more ambiguous than was that of the United States and that in turn has led to historic differences in how Israel perceives its relationships with the US and with the United Kingdom. On a range of issues, active discussion at my level with Secretary Powell, with Condoleeza Rice, with President Bush, by my officials and by our embassy in Washington means that, one issue after another, there is what amounts to collective discussion and things then start to move. If you are asking me about recent examples, I am reluctant to give too many of those because that can create difficulties for those one is seeking to influence. There are plenty of them. I was trying to look up just before I came in, in one of the books written by Henry Kissinger, a quite interesting essay which he provides, which I will look up and copy to you afterwards, where he discusses the nature of the relationship and how, because the relationship is very much deeper, we are able to influence the policy preparation process of the US administration at an earlier stage and they to influence ours.

  47. Were any tensions created between our special relationship with the US and our relationships within the EU?
  (Mr Straw) You mean following 11 September?

  48. Yes.
  (Mr Straw) No. It has been striking, having been on the General Affairs Council since 7 June and being involved as a member of another EU Council for the previous years, that relations were always very warm with other colleagues.

  49. It was reported in the press that some European Union countries were a little upset that we got to the table first.
  (Mr Straw) Relations were very warm. What has been striking since then is the degree to which our other European colleagues have looked to us and to whichever minister has been taking the lead for the United Kingdom for a lead as to what has been happening in Afghanistan during the period of intense military conflict and to offer views about the position of the United States as well. There have been some reports of some comments by one or two people on the General Affairs Council which I have seen reported, but in terms of speaking as I find I have not been the recipient of the kind of irritation which you describe. Generally, I think people have nothing but admiration for the role of the Prime Minister and the role of the United Kingdom government in being so ahead in terms of supporting, in a tangible way, the United States.

  50. Do you think President Bush shares Prime Minister Blair's vision of a global society and the possibility of a new international order which is going to be so relevant in the future to stopping terrorism and being seized of it in the first instance?
  (Mr Straw) I cannot say for certain whether he has used those words. President Bush can speak for himself. What I can say is that I have heard the words that he has used and I heard them most recently when he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday a week ago and made a speech which was replete with reference and respect for the United Nations and the need for any movement in the international order to be based upon the United Nations; the degree to which what President Bush and other colleagues in the United States administration have been saying has been strengthened in relation to the United Nations since 11 September has been something others have remarked on as well as something which I have noticed.

Mr Illsley

  51. How would you react to the suggestion that perhaps the relationship as it is now is simply as a result of 11 September and that, prior to 11 September, the relationship was probably going the other way? I give you an example of why that came into my head. John Bolton, who is the US Secretary of State for arms control in the US State Department, when we visited him, had a cartoon on his office wall which showed President Bush screwing up treaties such as Kyoto, the antiballistic missile treaty, and throwing them over his shoulder to a waiting Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, which tended to suggest to us that the pride of place he gave to it meant he set a lot of store by it.
  (Mr Straw) Mr Bolton brings a particular skill, knowledge and perspective to his job in the State Department, but he is not one of the principals. I had an interesting lunch time conversation with him when I visited the State Department, very shortly after my appointment in June. What you have to judge people by, frankly, is not by the cartoons on their walls but by their actions. It happens that on the protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention we have a different view from the United States. That is well known and I have gone into great detail with colleagues in the United States to ascertain the strength of their concerns about this—I am very happy to take questions on it—and to take them through our arguments against the position which they have adopted. It does illustrate the nature of the relationship that, notwithstanding the fact that there is this obvious difference of view about the protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention, we continue the discussions in a cooperative way and we hope to see some movement on this by the United States. Mr Rubin, when he gave evidence to you on 30 October, I think made some interesting observations. He said: "What we have seen in these last two months is that the special relationship is not about personalities it is about policy, and that regardless of who the Prime Minister would have preferred won the election or who is his better friend, the policies of our governments go down so deeply and are in such consonance at deep levels that personalities at the top are really not that relevant." If I can add my own gloss to that, I think personalities do make a significant difference in diplomacy and there is no doubt at all about the fact that the Prime Minister's initiatives with President Bush so shortly after he was elected to ensure that the relationship which he had with President Clinton continued but with a different framework because President Bush won the election have helped, but James Rubin is right to say that none of this could have been achieved since 11 September without the foundations of the relationship being there in the first place.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  52. Foreign Secretary, thank you for what you have been doing and good wishes in all you are continuing to do. You are building upon a long tradition laid by Foreign Secretaries of different political parties, as you will readily agree. I wanted to ask you something practical. As a great believer in the special relationship and one who was very greatly encouraged by the wonderful reception we had a fortnight ago, I remain concerned about the isolationist tendency not of the American administration but of the American people in the wake of 11 September. I wonder what you can do in nurturing the special relationship to encourage the American people to come back to this country in greater numbers. As you know, first of all with the foot and mouth epidemic at the beginning of the year and now, following 11 September, there are many people in this country who consider that the special relationship is marvellous but it is not exactly helpful to their future livelihood. What are you doing on that front?
  (Mr Straw) To encourage tourism?

  53. Yes.
  (Mr Straw) A great deal which is intangible and then tangible. In terms of the intangibles, the fact that, as someone has commented recently, the Prime Minister has been able to get inside the psyche of the American people frankly—the only other Prime Ministers to achieve that were Margaret Thatcher and before that Sir Winston Churchill—is in itself a major achievement. It moves people's instinctive feelings in the United States up a gear to a much more proactive sense of affection for this country. If we are trying to persuade people to make millions of separate decisions about wanting to come here and taking steps to come here rather than go anywhere else, feeling warm about this country and interested about what happens in this country, interested in its leaders, this is a very important part of that. This continuing, close relationship at every level is very important. What are we doing about it tangibly? First of all, it is a whole programme of public diplomacy which we have in the United States run by our officers there, not least in respect of trade promotion and trade initiatives. I was able, when I was in New York, to talk at great length to people at this reception who were involved in trade initiatives. You will be familiar with the work of some of our other offices around the United States which, apart from their consular work, are predominantly devoted to encouragement of trade. We had planned before 11 September—I think Tom Harris, the Consul General in New York may have told you this—a United Kingdom with New York programme to celebrate the relationship. There was then an issue about whether it was cancelled. I think Tom Harris spoke to the mayor's office; he may have spoken to Giuliani himself. Anyway, it went ahead and it was by all accounts an enormous success. That too helps. I know that New York is not America, as anybody else in America will be the first to tell you, but New York helps form opinion in the United States. There is all the other work we are having to do to support the British airline industry which is extremely important.

  54. I am glad to hear what you have to say. Perhaps you will also bear in mind that in the past, whilst it has been relatively easy for Americans to invest in this country and participate in British ventures, it has not been as easy for us to sell into America and this is something I hope our American friends will reassess. Do you think they will?
  (Mr Straw) I hope they will and I think you are right to suggest that we need to make use of the relationship in a very active way, to ensure that trade at every level is seen as a two way street. That applies in many areas, not least including defence sales.

Sir John Stanley

  55. In an earlier reply, Foreign Secretary, you skipped in my view rather too lightly over the quite marked difference of view in a number of arms control multilateral agreement areas between the United Kingdom and the United States. It was certainly brought home to us in the discussions we had in the State Department that there is a markedly different approach and a markedly more pronounced scepticism amongst the present US administration towards multilateral arms control agreements than has existed, for example, under the Clinton administration. You have already referred to the fact that the present US administration is absolutely clear that it is not going to accept the verification protocol of the Biological Weapons Convention which has taken some six to seven years to negotiate. We were told quite clearly that the US administration reserves the right to exercise the provision which is in the ABM Treaty to unilaterally renounce the Treaty. We were told quite interestingly, I thought, by the particular official we had this discussion with—I will leave you to guess because these discussions were in private; I do not think you will have too much difficulty in guessing—that he was positively proud of the lone US vote that had taken place in the General Assembly of the United Nations that week, a vote of 140 versus one, the one being the United States, in which the General Assembly had voted for an early coming into effect of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He went on to confirm that the US administration would not be putting the ratification of the CTBT to the Senate. In the non-weapons of mass destruction area, he made it quite clear that the United States present administration would not be ratifying the Anti-personnel Land Mines Convention and, somewhat remarkably to my mind, when we got on to the UN action programme in relation to small arms, which of course have been responsible for the largest single number of deaths in conflict situations of any type of weapon since the end of the Second World War, he made it clear that there were profound objections by the US administration to this programme of action and he believed this was part of the international community's hidden agenda to deprive US citizens of their constitutional right to bear small arms. When you take the complete litany which I have set out, Foreign Secretary, it is difficult to dispute there really are some very major differences between the United States and the rest of the international community, particularly other NATO members, in the multilateral arms control area. The question I would like to put to you is this: in relation to the four multilateral agreements that I have referred to, leaving aside the ABM Treaty which of course is between the United States and Russia alone, in relation to the other four, the Biological Weapons Convention, the verification protocol, the CTBT, the Anti-personnel Land Mines Convention and the action on small arms, could you set out what the British government is doing in trying to persuade, if it can, the US administration to move closer to the position that we have, which is shared universally amongst the other members of the NATO Alliance?
  (Mr Straw) You are right to point out that this is one area where there are significant differences of view between ourselves and the United States and it is important that we should be open about that. On each of the four that you mention, the United Kingdom has been in the lead on each of these four treaties.


  56. And the International Criminal Court?
  (Mr Straw) Indeed. What are we doing? On the Biological Weapons Convention, one of the first issues which I looked at in detail when I took over this portfolio in early June, it is always important, if you are involved in discussion, to try and comprehend the detail and strength of arguments which are going to deployed against you. That is what I sought to do. What has concerned the United States particularly about the protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention is the nature of the verification regime. The BWC is a very fine Convention but it lacks verification. It cannot come effectively into force without a verification system. They are concerned that their pharmaceutical industry and defence services might have key intelligence taken from them by the process of verification. We believe that those worries are unfounded and that the benefits of a thorough verification system are very substantial. The simple truth is that it is extremely improbable that any verification system is going to find anything untoward in the United States, in this country or in many other countries. Why we need a good verification system is in respect of countries which may or may not have signed up to the Convention but are covertly developing such weapon systems.

  57. What are we doing to influence the US?
  (Mr Straw) I raised it with Secretary Powell and others in June. There has been further correspondence. That has continued. There have been discussions and there has been some movement, although not sufficient, by the United States since then. If you are suggesting can we always, because of the special relationship, get the United States to agree with us, the answer to that is no. Can we get them to shift sometimes? I think the answer is yes. I spoke at the CTBT conference which is part of the United Nations last week. The United States is one of the countries, along with India and Pakistan and a number of others, which refused to sign the CTBT. I doubt we will get them to move, but we might. They—the US—have however agreed not to operate tests and to observe a large part of what is in the Treaty. On the Small Arms Convention, which was held in September, we have taken a different view. I think I know exactly who you were talking to about this and I take a different view. There is a process there of education with the US. If we cannot get them in the short term to agree to take part in these conventions and treaty operations, we can sometimes get them to agree to do the same by other routes and to observe effectively their terms without signing up to them. I have agreed the terms of our statement here. There is a BWC review conference which is underway in Geneva now and we, with the European Union, will be making our position clear and working for a shift in the US position. On the Anti-personnel Land Mines Convention, I will pass this to Mr Wright.
  (Mr Wright) The Land Mines Convention is in force without the United States. There is as I understand it no current intention on the part of the US to sign up to it, but it is possible to demonstrate—and we do seek to demonstrate—to the US administration that the experience of implementing the Convention is perfectly consistent with maintaining an effective force posture by our national armed forces. The US, as I understand it, is not currently reviewing its position, but we will continue to work for progress.
  (Mr Straw) I have spoken so far in terms of what we have done by way of discussion with the leading members of the administration. One of the facts of life so far as the US Government's foreign policy—which you neglect at your peril—is the fact that the framework in which any President and Secretary of State in the United States can operate is determined to a significant degree by the United States Senate and, in other ways, by the House of Representatives. When I have been to Washington, I have made it my business to go and talk to the people I need to talk to, to maintain relations there. It is extremely important that we try and open up these debates, as I have sought to on a number of occasions, with senior senators and representatives, as well as with people directly in the administration, to try and shift the context in which the people in the administration are working.

Sir John Stanley

  58. Foreign Secretary, of the four areas we have been discussing, I think you would agree that the single most crucial, because it is the single most devastating, is the biological weapons and the absence of a verification regime for them.
  (Mr Straw) Yes.

  59. I think you would also agree—this is accepted around the world—that given the nature of biological weapons, the smallness of size, the ease of concealment, the only effective way you are going to achieve verification is by on the ground inspection.
  (Mr Straw) Absolutely.

3   HC 413-ii, p 54. Back

4   Note by witness: We sell the United States £29 billion worth of goods. We provide them with services of £18 billion worth. Back

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