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This lecture series draws its distinctive strength not just from the life and example of Henry Grattan, a truly remarkable Irishman and Parliamentarian, but also from its recognition of the shared story of Ireland, the UK and the US.   I am honored to be here (in a personal not IRC capacity) and thank very much Trinity College Dublin and the Irish Embassies in London and Washington for the invitation. 

My contribution tonight will touch on all three countries in making the following argument.

First, we are living in a world that is multi aligned not just multi-polar.  Despite the enduring military, economic and technological strength of the US, geopolitics has shifted in the direction of the “rise of the rest”, notably but not only in Asia, that Fareed Zakaria predicted in his book “The Post American World” twenty years ago.

Second, for European nations, including Ireland and the UK, there are particular geopolitical challenges, all exacerbated by the uncertainty about how America is going to position itself in the decades ahead.  European countries are exposed by their proximity to an aggressive Russia, which is bolstered by strong Chinese support.  There is also an economic problem.  In 2008 the Eurozone and US economies were almost the same size.  Today the US economy is almost twice as big.  The UK should not be self-satisfied.  While we have stagnated since 2008, the US has grown 80 per cent so it is nearly 9 times our size (and twice as big per capita).

Third, it is therefore way past time to make up for the lacuna about foreign and security policy in the post Brexit arrangements.  Threats to European security are a threat to British security, and vice versa.  European and British interests and values are strongly aligned.  So the case for common as well as coordinated action is overwhelmingly strong.  This cooperation needs to be systematic, principled and institutionalized, and I will make some suggestions about how to go about this. 

Multi-Aligned World

My starting point is global not local.   I recently read the following assessment:

“The revolutionary character of our age can be summed up in three general statements: a) the number of participants in the international order has increased and their nature has altered; b) their technical ability to affect each other has vastly grown; c) the scope of their purposes has expanded.  Whenever the participants in the international system change, a period of profound dislocation is inevitable.”

It sounds contemporary, but it was actually written by Henry Kissinger in 1969. Every generation thinks it lives through momentous times. 

Nonetheless, today does feel like an inflection point. I think there is a plausible argument that history has gone into overdrive for three main reasons. 

First, the waves of technological revolution are seismic, changing in their wake the economic, military and political power balance. 

Second, globalization has tied the world much more closely together, and this has increased shared risks.  The spread of Covid speaks to that, but so does the climate crisis, nuclear proliferation, refugee displacement, global food insecurity and the global debt crisis. 

Third, this has all happened as the global political order based on American power has fragmented.  Sometimes this is called a multipolar world. 

That word, multipolar, suggests a new balance of power, not between two powers as in the Cold War, but between a larger number.  It brings to mind one of those models of atoms in balance in a science class.

But the whole point about the modern order of things is that it feels out of control not in balance, as if the electrons moving between atoms have taken over. What Anthony Giddens foresaw 25 years ago as a “runaway world”. 


I call this the flammable world.  The humanitarian organization I lead is on the front line in Gaza, Sudan, Ethiopia, Ukraine, wherever there is conflict or people fleeing from conflict.  It’s a world of impunity, desperate need and multiple players.

That’s why I prefer the term “multi aligned”, rather than “multipolar”, to describe the current global (dis)order.  A multi-aligned world is more fluid, more transactional, more unstable, than a multipolar world, with a lot more players, state and non state actors, engaged in a myriad of relationships and plays for wealth, power and influence.  

Suddenly so called middle powers like India, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, South Africa and Indonesia are wielding influence well beyond their borders.  Money, demography, ideology, history give them new hard and soft power.  All are playing by new rules, and writing new rules.  

These countries are not like the non-aligned movement of the Cold War.  They have no shared ideology.  Rather, they are united by their ability to flex economic, political and military muscles to serve their national interest.  They have been challenging the legitimacy, credibility and consistency of western powers, and the Gaza crisis is only increasing that challenge.

Europe’s Position

So where does this multi-aligned world leave Europe’s nations and peoples?

I was struck that Dame Louise Richardson, a former lecturer in this series and recent Chair of Ireland’s Consultative Forum on International Security Policy, aka Ireland’s neutral status, concluded that Ireland was “politically aligned and militarily non-aligned”.  She didn’t use the term multi-aligned, but very much could have.

Europe is still a very wealthy single market.  It is a trade superpower.  It’s regulatory power makes it a climate superpower too.  And it has been first mover in digital regulation.  Two European countries, both nuclear weapon states, sit on the UN Security Council.   

But Europe’s economic security is challenged by American technological dominance, China’s leapfrogging economy, and the rise of the rest. 

Political security is threatened by popular discontent. Europeans are divided and quite angry.   The European elections look like they will provide further evidence of growth in far right parties in a month’s time.

National and continental security is threatened by newly combative Russian belligerence.  The delay in getting military support to Ukraine over the last year has been deadly.  And conflict in the Middle East is always an issue for Europe.

Then there is the question of Europe’s primary ally across the Atlantic.  This is not just about the prospect that ex-President Trump could come back to office with a highly disruptive set of instincts and policies, whether on the war in Ukraine and handling of Russia or on across-the-board tariffs, to name but two.

What the veteran American columnist George Will calls President Trump’s “grievance tour” includes multiple grievances against European countries that he believes have exploited American generosity.  A group of European scholars have written that “America First means Europe last”; we have been warned.

But my point is that Europeans doing their homework have to hedge against the prospect that it will not be plain sailing in the event that President Biden is re-elected. 

The Biden Administration believes in the Transatlantic Alliance and the multilateral system. But as we have seen in the saga of support, or rather lack of support, for Ukraine from the US this year, the divisions about international engagement that have marked its history are to the fore again today; an internationalist administration is far from certain to get its way in the face of a revanchist Republican Party.

But I also want to flag just how serious the Biden team are about what they see as a toxic combination of Chinese support for Russia in Ukraine, in the form of critical components for the Russian military machine; Chinese trade and industrial policies that are dumping subsidized goods in vital sectors of the economy; and Chinese dominance in the harvesting of critical minerals. 
Recent speeches and Executive Orders show that beneath the surface of improved senior Sino-American political contacts, there is a brewing confrontation of a fundamental kind.   

Europeans need to think about this multi-aligned world in a hard-headed way.  Russia is a serious military threat in Europe’s East, but there is not yet a coherent Russia strategy.  Chinese electric cars could decimate the European car industry while the China strategy has not yet reckoned with bifurcations in the global economy.  Fracture and fragility in North Africa and the Middle East are a growing reality that will test the limits of the EU’s new asylum and migration pact.

These are questions for the UK as well as the EU, and they will be better answered if they are answered in a united way. We in Britain need to have a global view, but we will be better able to think and act globally if we sort out our relationships in our own neighborhood. We are still a European country, albeit outside the EU.  So the rest of my talk tonight focuses on Britain’s relationship to Europe, of which it is a part, and Britain’s relationship to the EU, of which it is not.

Britain, Ireland and the EU

It is no secret that I always thought that Brexit was a folly.   But the self harm is still shocking.

The British government rejected the idea of a foreign and defence policy partnership with the EU when it was proposed in 2019. We are therefore left in the absurd position where the EU has Strategic Partnership Agreements with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan, but not the UK.

It has Framework Agreements to facilitate the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy with 21 partners, including Colombia and Vietnam, but not with the UK

It has Trade and Technology Councils with the US, and with India (albeit that it faces serious challenges), but not the UK.

And when the Windsor Framework was concluded, some EU member states wanted to add a structured framework for foreign policy cooperation, but the British side brushed aside those ideas.
It should be obvious that this makes no sense.  And it should be equally obvious that it needs to be put right, since the shared future of the people of Europe, in and out of the EU, is being written now.

David Lammy’s recent comments about making a priority of European engagement are important, as is the Labour idea of a UK-EU “defence and security pact”.  It is also noteworthy to see the cause of common sense in foreign policy cooperation between the EU and UK being supported by the recent report of the Conservative European Forum. It is not healthy to have the EU seen as beyond the pale by the Conservative Party.

My view is that we should urge our political leaders to address this problem with a broad and deep set of commitments to mutual cooperation and mutual security. 

Britain and the EU need a new relationship on foreign policy.  It doesn’t have to be a romance.  It should be a reboot.

For London, this means a shift from viewing Europe-focused policy as the sum of the UK’s bilateral relations, to a more strategic outlook, predicated on the fact that a successful EU is in the UK’s own interest. And, in Brussels and European capitals, that recognition necessitates viewing the UK as a “third country” of particular importance and value, worth the investment in tailored arrangements for cooperation.

I know that questions of security have historically been discussed in the UK as questions for NATO.  That alliance remains vital – indeed increasingly important.  But there are two reasons to believe that now is the time to augment that set of commitments, not just with modernization of NATO but with a set of mutual security commitments between the EU and the UK. 

The first reason is that security now goes beyond transatlantic military questions.  Climate security, energy security, health security, personal security, go beyond the remit of NATO.  And the geopolitics of economic security, centered on relationships with China, is increasingly important and vexed.


The second reason is that the war in Ukraine has transformed relations between Nato and the EU.  Two EU members, Sweden and Finland, have joined Nato.  The EU has aligned financial support for Ukraine behind the logic of NATO’s military support.  And the EU has worked to send arms directly to Ukraine.

So, far from being undermined by a structured relationship between the EU and UK, the UK – Nato relationship would be strengthened by it.  The omertà on structured cooperation between the UK and EU does no one any favors.  It would be additive to UK-Nato commitments, just as cooperation through the European Political Community, meeting in the UK this summer, is also additive.

The issue then becomes what should, first, be the purpose, second the content and third the form of such cooperation between the EU and UK to make this reboot real. 

In my view the purpose of the agreement is avowedly to strengthen the shared security interests of EU countries and the UK, and serve our shared values, which are deep, enduring, and in various ways under threat.   

There is also a less tangible but vital dimension: a recognition that the UK remains critical to common European security even though it now sits outside the EU, and also vice versa that British security is enhanced by a strong and geopolitical EU. 

The intangible purpose here is to revitalize trust between the UK and the EU.
Cooperation on foreign policy should be a ‘proving space’ in which to move on from the acrimony of the past eight years and make positive-sum cooperation the norm not the exception, not just in foreign policy but beyond.

The content of the agreement is the next item to be addressed.  I take a broad view of security and so the list of policy areas that might fall within such an agreement is really quite long. 

Foreign policy.  Defence policy including space policy.  Policy and practice to tackle terrorist threats, cyber security and illegal migration.  Policy and practice on pandemics and other health security issues.  Development coordination.  Decarbonization, climate and critical minerals, and the associated industrial policy. 

All of these seem to me to be in scope.  Out of scope for the purposes of this exercise would be issues like digital policy, and financial stability and cross border regulatory policy.  There are good arguments for the UK and EU to work together, but they range beyond even an expanded definition of foreign policy.

There are really three choices when it comes to cooperation. 

  • The EU and UK can coordinate separate activities through commitments to the free flow of information to inform separate decision-making. 


  • They can collaborate in collective efforts through common commitments. 
  • And they can contribute to each other’s efforts through shared entities and initiatives. 


Here are some examples of what this could mean.

Start with foreign policy broadly defined. 

‘Cooperation’ would mean setting up regular consultations and dialogues between the British government and the European External Action Service (EEAS), focusing on areas of mutual concern.

‘Collaboration’ would entail developing shared policy responses on those issues based on formalized engagement of the UK, for example bringing the UK Foreign Secretary to those meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council where common positions are decided.

‘Contribution’ would mean joint activities, for example establishing a framework for the UK’s role in the EU’s peacekeeping operations under the Common Security and Defence Policy, with transparent rules governing such participation.  It could also mean secondments of staff to each other’s organizations or in joint teams.

A second example is the intersection of defence policy and industrial policy, an area where the EU is looking for ways to be more strategic and creative and the UK’s contribution is of significant value.

‘Coordination’ here would signify concerted efforts to align defence R&D and industrial strategies so as to avoid duplication. The UK government has recently decided to increase its defence R&D budget, while the next EU administration will have to look for new ways to pool some resources of member states to fund defence innovation. Why shouldn’t their respective strategies be aligned when both sides have the same interests and grapple with the same fiscal constraints?

‘Collaboration’ would entail developing joint procurement and technology programmes in areas of mutual and strategic interest for doing so –– for example by supporting the EU’s joint military procurement initiatives for Ukraine.

‘Contribution’ would mean the UK participating in select EU initiatives where mutual benefits are evident. Such participation would require new operational arrangements with bodies such as the European Defence Agency and the European Defence Fund.

A third example is in humanitarian and development policy, where the EU has geographical coverage, scale and variety of instruments that go beyond the UK’s reach, and where the UK has expertise and experience as well as presence that is valuable. 

‘Coordination’ would mean dialogue to align priorities and systems for the most efficient and effective deployment of resources.

‘Collaboration’ would involve setting up joint efforts in areas like malnutrition, or support for girls caught in conflict, where both the UK and the EU have common objectives.  EU “Team Europe Initiatives” have so far rarely involved non-EU partners, but why not?

And ‘contribution’ would involve the UK and EU pooling resources to meet shared goals, for example through specific Trust Funds that are used across the international system.  I don’t see why we should be scared of this.

Here is a fourth example: clean technology. If we know one thing about the economics of decarbonization, it is that the higher the volume, the lower the price.  Economics as well as values and politics demand EU-UK cooperation.

At the intersection of economic policy, climate policy and security policy, ‘coordination’ would involve setting up discussions on shared strategic supply chains––for example in areas such as critical materials, semiconductors or green technologies––and working more closely to reinforce them.

‘Collaboration’ could see aligning policies on dual-use goods exports so that they do not fall into unfriendly hands, or the exchange of intelligence regarding investor screening from high-risk countries. It could also mean aligning decarbonization policies, including on issues such as carbon border taxes.

And ‘contribution’ would mean developing joint policy tools in areas where the EU’s and the UK’s strategic interests align. 

You get the idea.  These three types of cooperation – coordination, collaboration, contribution - represent a ladder of engagement.  Ambitious contributions in one area do not necessitate similar contributions in others.  Equally, the whole point about an understanding of shared threats is that they are met together.

If purpose and content can be agreed, that leaves the question of the political and/or legal basis for this agreement to work together.

There are two broad options.

A minimalist option entails developing a high level agreement aimed primarily at establishing new dialogues and coordination mechanisms.  The momentum would need to come from political commitment.

A more maximalist option would be to negotiate a legally binding agreement, with substantive policy commitments to advance cooperation. This would anchor policy commitments in clearly defined rights and obligations for both parties. Any such obligations would need to be symmetrical. The eventual agreement could come under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement as a new Foreign and Security Policy pillar, or could be a supplementary agreement which the TCA  already makes provision for.


Both options would take time for negotiation and ratification.  But the geopolitical moment does not afford much time.  A new government in the UK and a new Commission, both with five years ahead of them, need to be urgent, strategic and practical in their work.

A more immediate step, and I think therefore more attractive, would be to agree a high level Political Declaration between a new British PM and the new President of the European Commission and Chair of the European Council, setting objectives for a future agreement on foreign and security policy.  While not binding, it would create momentum, and set the stage both for action in different policy spheres, and negotiations of a fully fledged set of mutual commitments.  The key would be for cooperative practice to make for a new relationship. 


In preparation for the lecture, I went back to President Kennedy’s address to the Dail on the occasion of his visit in 1962.  He did not just poke fun at the Brits, although he did some of that.  He emphasized interdependence and common vulnerability, which are all the more relevant today, despite the vote in 2016.  Brexit is not going to be reversed in the near term, but its illusion that there is a world where our destiny depends only on our own decisions needs to be addressed.  That world does not exist.

Security and prosperity in Europe depends in part on the ability of all European countries, in and out of the EU, in and out of Nato, to pool their weight, their brains and their assets to advance interests and values that will otherwise be in retreat. 

That, it seems to me, is the challenge not just for politics and for statecraft, but for all of us.

I am very grateful to Anton Spisak for his expert help in preparing this lecture.