Lord Hague of Richmond, Former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, spoke on global trends in a lecture delivered at the ECSSR on 16th December 2015. Prior to the lecture, he sat down for this exclusive interview with the ECSSR website in which he dealt with issues such as UAE-UK cooperation, Iranian nuclear deal and rapidly changing geo-politics of the Middle East region.
Q: Lord Hague, let us begin with the UAE-UK relations, which have come a long way since the days of the Trucial States. Are you satisfied with the existing level of economic and strategic cooperation? What are the areas in which things can be improved?
A: Well, I think we have increased the cooperation greatly in recent years. One of my priorities when I was foreign secretary of the UK was to strengthen the relations between the UK and the UAE. We set up a task force together led by ministers on both sides. That has particularly strengthened the trading and economic links. It also made sure that there is always a political and a strategic discussion. But there is still scope to enhance the strategic cooperation given all the threats in the region. Given the instability of global affairs the UAE and the UK need each other strategically. So I hope that will be driven further and now that the UK is going to expand its defense expenditure again, after a period of reducing it, I am sure there will be scope to push that further in the future.
Q: When the Arab Spring was unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, what was the first impression in the West? Was there anticipation that this could be a recipe for disaster?
A: I think there was great uncertainty about what it meant. There were many different forces at work in the so-called Arab Spring. In countries where they had been denied economic and other opportunities and in countries that had not succeeded in satisfying their populations, there were people who wanted opportunity. Of course there were other less benign forces at work. So there was great hope in the West that in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya this would lead to greater stability in the long term and the population to be happier than they were under their previous rulers or regimes. So it is sad that in most of the countries it has descended into chaos. Of course it can still be hoped that in Tunisia, for instance, a new stability will have been created and let us hope there will be agreement in the near future between different parties in Libya.
Q: Iranian nuclear agreement is still a work in progress but it has already forced a rethink in the Gulf. So has Russian intervention in Syria. How would these developments drive the Gulf-Europe relations going forward?
A: I think the Iranian nuclear agreement is a good agreement. It has been the right thing to do. Of course it is controversial but I think the alternatives were all worse. If we had embarked instead on a military conflict with Iran, we do not know what the consequences would be, including for this region. In the Gulf that would have been a very dangerous situation. All the evidence is that Iran is sincere about the agreement. But that is different from a wider change in the foreign policy on Iran and I think there needs to be close coordination between the West and Arab states on the wider foreign policy on Iran. Iran continues to interfere in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, probably in Bahrain, and this must be resisted.
Q: Conflicts and changing geo-politics seems to be altering the Sykes-Picot borders that were defined around a century ago. You have said they should not be considered immutable. Is there a possibility of new countries emerging in the region?
A: Well, I think it is going in that direction at the moment. I am not advocating that. I have said that the Sykes-Picot agreement is only 99 years old and is not immutable. The best solution is Syria would be a new Constitution and an agreed way forward for everybody. But if there is no other way to stop the war in Syria it would be necessary in the end to freeze the conflict between participants, except against ISIS it is important to pursue and destroy it. That would, in practice, mean at least for the time being a partition of Syria. And if Iraq cannot fight a united way forward more and more people I think, at least outside Iraq, will discuss a partition of Iraq. So I think things are moving in that direction and it is important that leaders in Syria and Iraq understand that if they cannot find a way to live together peacefully and the rest of the world more people will advocate they should live separately from each other.
Q: You have warned that British troops could be dragged into a ground war in Syria. Is that based on the assessment of ground reality or a strategy to take on ISIS?
A: There is no British authority for deployment of any ground forces in Iraq or Syria. The recent parliamentary vote approved air strikes in Syria as well as in Iraq. I think that is very important because ISIS doesn’t recognize any boundaries. If we are going to defeat them militarily it is important to be able to operate in Syria as well as in Iraq. I have said we should not rule out the use of some ground forces in the future. I do not mean on anything like the scale of Iraq in 2003. I mean that there may be in some Western countries, in the US, the UK and France, specialist forces in small numbers which help to make a crucial difference for other forces from the region. If they can make a crucial difference, we should not rule out their participation.
Q: A Saudi-led coalition is taking on Houthis in Yemen and now a new anti-terror coalition has been announced as well. Do you look at these regional alignments as product of circumstances or more than that?
A: It is a product of circumstances because if security threats are increasing it is important to have collective security. I think such coalitions should be supported provided they include as many nations as possible. In order to work, as we know from our experience in NATO, that means being prepared to put forces under the command of another nation, which will be a change of thinking in many countries of this region. But that should be supported because effective collective security should in the long run help to reduce the threats to stability in the region.
Q: You made predictions for state of the world in 2016 at the 8th Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai. The prediction on Palestinian-Israeli conflict points to continuing deadlock. Do you see a way forward owing to John Kerry-led push for peace?
A: I am not in government so I am not privy to anything behind the scenes. But it has been very disappointing as I was one of the people who greatly encouraged Kerry, when he was preparing to become Secretary of State, to put great emphasis into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He really has put in enormous effort into it. But it is clear there is no progress. I hope he will continue that in the remainder of his time in the US administration. But if that doesn’t work then it will be very important for future administration to continue these efforts because I think only the United States can help to deliver Israel into peace with Palestinians.