A Conversation With UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, United Kingdom


President, Council on Foreign Relations

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly discusses the United Kingdom’s foreign policy priorities and approach to the seventy-eighth United Nations General Assembly.

FROMAN: Good afternoon. My name is Mike Froman. I’m president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to what is a busy UNGA week. Thank you for braving the traffic to get here. 

We’re joined today by not only the members in this room, but over a hundred CFR members online as well from all over the country. And we are delighted and honored to be able to host the Right Honorable James Cleverly, the secretary of state for foreign, commonwealth, and development affairs. As I recall, the job and the title tends to change every few years, and this is the most expanded of that. In true Westminster fashion, he’s had extensive experience across the Middle East, North Africa, North America, and was the parliamentary undersecretary of state for the Department for Exiting the European Union, no doubt a subject we will touch upon in the Q&A. We will begin with a presentation, and then we’ll have a conversation ourselves, and then open it up to questions as well. 

Please, Right Honorable James Cleverly. Please welcome him. (Applause.) 

CLEVERLY: Mike, thank you. Thank you very much. And thank you for hosting me today. Thank you all for coming. 

I was about to say I’ve done a bit of research, but I don’t think it’s good starting a speech with an outright lie, so I’ll be a bit more honest: Members of my team have done a bit of research. (Laughter.) And I discover, because they’ve written it down here for me, that the origins of the Council lie in meetings between Brits and Americans in the aftermath of the First World War. And the conversation between our two countries has been a longstanding one, and the work of this institution, the thinking about international relations, is unsurprisingly as relevant today as it was back then. 

Those meetings occurred in one of those pivot points in history. And as someone who I regard not just as an important interlocutor but increasingly someone I regard as a friend, Tony Blinken, reminded us in a speech that he gave last week, we, too, are living through a pivotal moment because we’re at the nexus of interconnected challenges. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not necessarily a trial of strength as the work that our two nations did through conflicts in the First and Second World War, but is absolutely a trial of our resolve. And the point that I have made, and the point that I will make here today and will continue to make, is that the world is watching. Our resolve is being tested and we are being observed. 

Now, yeah, no, you can—you can applaud at any point you—any point you fancy. (Laughter.) 

Now, that is not, of course, the only area where our resolve is being tested, our willingness to address issues such as climate change, how to deal with new technologies such as AI, all these things are testing our ingenuity and testing our resolve. And today at the U.N., this week at the U.N., we are reminded, sadly, that we are way behind schedule on the delivery against our Sustainable Development Goals. And after the economic dislocation of the pandemic, and of the war in Ukraine, I think citizens here in the U.S., certainly in the U.K., and more widely across the world, are asking their governments: What are you doing about it? What are you doing to act on our behalf? 

And I—Mike, you’re a former U.S. trade representative, a voice on the international stage. And I suspect that you like me, and indeed many of you in the room, will understand that there is no real boundary between foreign policy and domestic policy. And the idea that there is completely artificial. But I think it is now incumbent upon us that we pay more attention to the interrelationship between international policy and domestic policy. Last week, Tony Blinken spoke about having a fully integrated domestic and foreign policy. And my prime minister and the government that he leads are also absolutely determined to address the principal concerns of our citizens, which they tell us loud and clear are about addressing illegal migration and economic growth. 

Those superficially appear to be domestic issues but, of course, as soon as you look at them in any kind of detail, it becomes clear that they can only be resolved through international engagement. So that is why we are intensifying collaboration with the countries on international illegal transit routes, migrant transit routes, as well as the countries from whom people are fleeing. We are working with international partners to break the business model of those evil people smugglers. And we are deepening our economic ties with countries around the world to try and dissuade people from moving, to try and remove the drivers of that migration. And a know that migration is an increasingly sensitive political issue here in the U.K.—sorry—here in the U.S. And it is also a sensitive political issue in a number of other countries across Europe and beyond. 

What this reminds me of is the need to strengthen our traditional alliances, and also to build additional ones. In terms of strengthening our preexisting alliances, I’m very, very pleased that Prime Minister Sunak and President Biden signed the Atlantic Declaration earlier this year. It’s about reinforcing one of our strongest friendships in the world. It forms part of a continuum of a close working relationship to the first Atlantic Charter signed by Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt. Whatever happened to those guys? Did they make it in the world? I don’t remember. But it is part of a longstanding friendship. And it has reminded us, once again, in a time of conflict in the European continent, how important our bilateral relationship is. 

Whilst we look at the horrors that are being perpetrated against the Ukrainian people by the Russian Armed Forces, we are—we are reminded that, once again, at a time of need, the United States of America and the United Kingdom, and others of course, have really stepped forward and are playing a leading part once again in defending democracy and freedom. The U.S. is the leading supplier of military aid to Ukraine. And I pay tribute to your nation’s generosity. And the Ukrainians are making the most of their support. 

And I know sometimes there’s frustration with the pace of their counteroffensive. I’ve had military briefings and whilst I don’t want to bore you with the details, the Russian occupying forces have spent a huge amount of time and effort fortifying the whole of that southern part of Ukraine. Meaning that any advance would inevitably need to be both slow and methodical. But the support of the U.S., the support of the U.K., the support of other nations around the world—both NATO members and further afield—has made a difference. It gave the Ukrainians a fighting chance at the beginning of this conflict. The deep strike capabilities, those long range missiles that the U.K. and others are now providing, are enabling the Ukrainians to target logistics hubs, communications hubs, command-and-control hubs, giving them the ability to methodically push back against Russia. 

Putin believed that he could outlast Ukraine and outlast Ukraine’s friends around the world. He was wrong. Because time is not on Russia’s side. Some brutal statistics. Russia has suffered more fatalities in combat in the last seventeen months than the Soviet Union did in their ten years in Afghanistan. That level is unsustainable. We saw Prigozhin and the Wagner Group with their attempted mutiny. Cracks are appearing. Again, I quote Tony Blinken, cracks are appearing in the Russian system. And the longer this conflict persists, the more those cracks will work their way through the system. 

Putin is scared of a mass mobilization. His circle of friends, both within Russia and internationally, is shrinking. Last year, only four countries defended Russia in the U.N. General Assembly vote on Ukraine. And whilst the world’s largest economies met last week in New Delhi, he was finalizing his plans in a solitary summit with an impoverished dictator. That is the damage that Putin’s poor decision making has done to his own country. And so the lesson I take from that is that we need to maintain our resolve. Putin’s calculation was that he could outlast us. We have to prove him wrong.  

And we have to prove him wrong, not just to ensure that the conflict in Ukraine has a proper and good resolution, where the Ukrainians get their country back. But because every current dictator, and would-be dictator, and future potentate will look at how we respond to this challenge, and they will factor that into their calculations about future actions. So we need to send the message loud and clear that we have the resolve, we have the strategic patience, that we will do the right thing until this is resolved. Because if we do not, then we will invite further aggression, which we will then inevitably have to deal with at some point in the future. Ukraine will not give up. The U.K. will not abandon them. And we will continue to advocate for the international community to lend them their support. 

Now, obviously Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the only issue that we have to discuss. There are many challenges on the world stage. I recently returned from a trip to Beijing, where I spoke with the Chinese government about areas where we have deep, deep disagreements. For example, their treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, their failure to abide by commitments freely entered into over Hong Kong, their aggressive posture across the Taiwan Strait. But, of course, I also engage with them on some of the issues that are important to all of us—the economic recovery post-conference, how we make sure that we benefit from AI, and that we address the challenges and potential dangers of that technology. 

And so we don’t have the luxury of dealing with only one challenge or one situation at a time. We have to look holistically. The United Kingdom has always been a globally focused country. We enjoy good working relationships with the United States, as I’ve already said, and our other friends in the Americas, our European friends and colleagues. But also, we have enhanced our focus on the Indo-Pacific region, where of course, we have longstanding friendships. And we intend to enhance those.  

So to give myself some time to answer your questions, I will summarize by saying that the challenges the world presents us are legion. But we do have the opportunity to make positive progress. We do have the opportunity to get the Sustainable Development Goals back on track. It is going to mean that we work with our traditional friends and allies, but it also means that we have to give voice to the emerging powers in the world. The U.K. has encouraged an expansion of the United Nations Security Council, for example. We believe that India, Brazil, Germany, Japan, should have permanent membership. And Africa really deserves a louder voice on the—on the world stage. 

We think there needs to be change, evolution and modernization, of the international financial system so that we can apply the really big bucks held in the private sector to some of the challenges that we need to address. My prime minister has recently announced that the G-20 a $2 billion commitment from U.K. to the Green Climate Fund to reinforce the value that we place on the natural world and the future of our children. So there are plenty of things that we can discuss. I throw myself open to questions from the floor. You can ask me anything you like. There are three caveats. There are some things that I don’t know. (Laughter.) You probably find that hard to believe, but nevertheless it’s true. There are some things that I do know that I’m not going to tell you about. And other than that, I am quite willing to answer questions on any subject that either I’ve covered here or maybe in your heads. Mike, thank you very much for hosting me today. (Applause.) 

FROMAN: Well, thank you. That was a terrific menu of things for us to follow up on. 

Why don’t we start with Ukraine? Last year at this time, there was a lot of concern, heading into the winter, the cost that British citizens would face, the impact that might have on their support for the war. Britain did a great job, along with the rest of Europe, in reducing its dependence on Russian oil. How firm—and you’re seeing a debate here beginning to emerge on Ukraine. How firm is the public support for Ukraine? Do you support NATO membership? Are British citizens ready to fight and die for Ukraine? 

CLEVERLY: So in the U.K., there is no significant constituency of people that don’t support our action in working with Ukraine. We are really committed. I mean, the U.K. is absolutely committed at political level and throughout society. Many, many, many British people have hosted Ukrainian refugees in their own homes. That means there are people all over the U.K. who have had firsthand experience of talking with Ukrainians about the terrible situation that their families are experiencing back at Ukraine. British people understand the sacrifices the Ukrainians have made and, I think, instinctively understand that the sacrifices that we have made as a country in support of Ukraine are completely eclipsed by the sacrifices that the Ukrainians have made themselves. 

So in broad answer to your questions, the U.K. position, I have no doubt, is resolute. Our main opposition political parties are as committed to continuing supporting Ukraine as the party of government. And so this is our position. What other countries choose to do, that is up to them. But just to let you know, whatever other countries will do, the U.K. is going to stand firm on this issue. 


CLEVERLY: And NATO. So I’ve said publicly a commitment was made to Ukraine that they will join NATO. Ukraine has a place in NATO. And ultimately, what we recognize is that we have to be willing to defend each other. And we absolutely must not allow the perception to be built that there’s some kind of two-tier NATO. You’re either in NATO or you’re not in NATO. If you’re in NATO, we defend each other. And we are, again, resolute on that principle. 

FROMAN: Yeah, you were involved in the post Brexit adjustment of the U.K. During that campaign, there was a view that as the U.K. becomes unshackled from the EU, it would be able to play a bigger leadership role on the global stage. Global Britain, not little Britain. As foreign minister, that sort of falls to you, I imagine. How’s it going? Are you global Britain? I noticed—I took some interest in the fact that Britain joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. What else will Britain do to exert itself? And, as you turn to the Indo-Pacific, do you have the wherewithal to engage military assets as necessary there to support a positioning of Britain in in the Indo-Pacific? 

CLEVERLY: Well, so firstly, how’s it going? Great. Thanks for asking. (Laughter.) 

FROMAN: So, there might be a follow-up question to that one. (Laughter.) 

CLEVERLY: Ah. So I campaigned for Brexit. And the point that I made was that the U.K.—and I think because of the fact that we’re an island nation—we are predominantly a maritime nation. And I’m not going to bang on about, you know, Britain’s history, but we have always had a global outlook. And as a kind of euphemism for any non-historians in the room. So we’ve always had a global outlook. And that’s hard coded. That is in our DNA. And the point about leaving the European Union was not that we were going to cut ourselves off from our near neighbors in Europe, but it was about making sure that we have the flexibility to work not just with them but with our current and future partners around the world. 

So, look, this is not all about me, but I am the one sitting here talking. In the twelve—in the first twelve months of being foreign secretary, I did fifty-eight international visits. One of the reasons that I was able to do that is because, unlike many of my predecessors, I didn’t have to do my monthly pilgrimage to Brussels for EU foreign ministers’ summits. We have a friend—this afternoon had coffee with my French counterpart. We have an excellent relationship with our European neighbors.  

We maintain a very good relationship with the United States of America. We are now ASEAN dialogue partners. We joined the CPTPP. We have got the AUKUS submarine program with Australia and the U.S. and the U.K. We have entered a fighter development program with Japan, and Italy, and the U.K. So we are doing exactly what we said we were going to do. We are good friends and partners to our European neighbors. And we are reestablishing our very strong friendships across the Atlantic, across the Pacific, and widely across the world. So as I say, it’s going great. Thanks for asking. 

FROMAN: Is there a corollary of that? Does the U.K. need to have an avenue for a common foreign and security policy with the rest of Europe? 

CLEVERLY: Yeah, we have NATO. NATO is the foundation stone for the Euro-Atlantic defense architecture. We are absolutely committed to that. We don’t need to replicate it. We don’t need a parallel structure. What we need to do is we need to make sure NATO remains credible and robust. And actually, NATO has really demonstrated that it does what it says on the tin. I talked to my Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, and the Ukrainian president. They are very clear. They are very clear that the reason that they were attacked, rather than the Baltic countries that neighbor Russia, was because those Baltic countries were members of NATO and Ukraine was not. That is why they are so passionate about joining NATO, because they recognize that NATO is the gold standard when it comes to international defensive architecture. 

FROMAN: Let’s talk—you mentioned your trip to China. You were, I think, the highest level official to go to China in five years from the U.K. 


FROMAN: Where do you see—we see pressures within the U.K., with some in Parliament saying the government is too soft on China, or too focused on engagement, is being naïve. How do you respond to that? How do you feel your trip went? Do you feel you made progress? You raised a lot of very difficult issues. Do you feel you made progress in resolving those issues? 

CLEVERLY: Well, so firstly—and maybe I’m getting a—so when people say, oh—or, when people accused the government of going soft or softening its position to China, I always think to myself, you know, give an example. You know, you can’t just say it. You can’t just make an accusation. Give me an example. Because what I have seen is that we have recently put through legislation which gives us an enhanced capability of protecting a British industries from aggressive takeover or purchase by Chinese entities. So we’ve strengthened our defenses against that, you know, potentially aggressive industrial posture. So we’ve toughened our position.  

Now, if people think that looking a Chinese government minister, a Chinese foreign minister, in the eye and explaining in clear and unambiguous terms why we deeply object to their persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, why we deeply object to their security laws and the implementation of them in Hong Kong, why deeply object to their aggressive posture across the Taiwan Strait, why we deeply object to their sanctioning of British parliamentarians, you know, face to face, clear in the room. If that’s a softening of our posture, then that’s a surprise to me because we are absolutely clear that one of the reasons why we engage is so that we can have those conversations directly, without any ambiguity, expressing our strength of feeling. 

You ask whether we’re making progress. I said in my—in my speech at the Mansion House earlier on this year, we are not naïve. We are very clear-eyed. We are not expecting to be able to change China’s behavior easily or quickly. But we do believe we have authority. We do believe we have a voice. And we do believe we have agency. And we’re going to use those to try and steer China in a better direction. But it won’t happen overnight. But we are absolutely determined to pursue that as part of a balanced, pragmatic, but hard-nosed relationship with China. 

FROMAN: I mean, as you know, we’re having a similar conversation here in the U.S., with some people concerned about any type of engagement whatsoever. That engagement itself is a form of weakness. Where do you see—is the U.K. policy towards China different than the U.S. approach? And if so, in what areas? 

CLEVERLY: Well, look, I have conversations with my G-7 counterparts and others. I was recently at the Women’s World Cup final. We got to the final of the World Cup—soccer. (Laughter.) Top sport. (Laughter.) What was I saying? Oh, yeah. And I had a meeting with my— 

FROMAN: Did you guys win the World Cup? I can’t remember. 

CLEVERLY: Yeah, whatever. (Laughter.) And I had a very, very good conversation with my Australian counterparts about their posture. And actually, what we see is a consistency, which is recognizing that we have to engage with China diplomatically, economically. We also have to be clear that we do need to protect ourselves against, you know, a malign activity or, you know, aggressive activity from China. And we also need to build strong alliances internationally. And, again, in that Mansion House speech that I spoke about, the three pillars of U.K. foreign policy towards China is to protect ourselves in the areas that we need protecting, to build international alliances both in the region and beyond, and to engage directly on the really important issues—both those areas where we fundamentally disagree and those areas where we should and could work together for the greater good. And that is quite similar to the postures of a lot of our friends around the world. 

FROMAN: I’m going to open up for questions here in a moment. This is—does seem to be the season of summits and big gatherings. We’ve had the G-20. We’ve had the BRICS. Of course, we’re here for U.N. General Assembly. How do you assess the effectiveness, for example, of the G-20 in dealing with the current challenges and the expansion of the BRICS to the additional countries? Is that something the G-20 should be worried about or welcome? 

CLEVERLY: Well, I have felt—the U.K. has said for quite some time that these multilateral institutions play an incredibly important role. And I know sometimes it can—it can be quite tempting to criticize or dismiss the role of these multilateral—formal multilateral institutions, like the United Nations, or NATO, or whatever, or even kind of the less-formal ones, like the G-20, the G-7. But I think they play an incredibly important role. But they have to adapt, and they have to evolve. Many of them grew out of the conflict in the middle of the twentieth century. And the membership of those organizations has perhaps not kept pace with the changing power dynamic across the globe.  

That’s why I have said that we need to expand the membership of the U.N. Security Council, for example. We need to make sure that—and I’m very pleased this has now been adopted—that Africa has permanent representation at the G-20 through the AU. Very pleased that that happened. We called for that. That things like the World Bank and international development banks kind of evolve their posture so they are really providing what the developing world needs.  

Because if these institutions don’t adapt to the reality of today, they will become obsolete. So I don’t believe they are obsolete, they certainly don’t have to become obsolete. But they do have a duty to make sure that they evolve to stay relevant. You know, they play a really important role. And if they didn’t exist, you need to invent them. They’ve got to always test themselves to make sure that they are doing a good job, not just for the powers of the back half of the twentieth century, but the countries that are and will become the really significant players through the twenty-first century. 

FROMAN: We were talking offline about sometimes there’s as a gap between what we think we’re saying and what is being heard. And certainly over the last few months, the discussion about the Global South and the dialogue between the Global South and the rest of the world. What should the North, for lack of a better term, what should we be doing differently to be able to communicate more effectively our position to the Global South in ways that help build stronger relations? 

CLEVERLY: So please, please, please don’t take this as a personal criticism. I don’t mean it to be. But your—but the phrasing of your question, I think, highlighted one of the challenges that we have. You basically said, right, what do we need to do? And I paraphrase somewhat. What do we need to do to better communicate our position to the Global South? And that’s the point. It’s not about us telling them what we want them to hear. It’s about us listening to what they want to tell us. We have to listen better. And there is a—there is a risk that because the U.S., the U.K., the members of the G-7, for example, have traditionally been the repository for the wealth and power in the globe, that our instinct is—let’s be generous, and say our instinct is to is to talk. 

Some of the people I speak to, some of the leaders in the in the Global South, for want of a better word, they perceive it as hectoring or lecturing. And it’s very easy to slip into the habit of just telling people what we want them to hear. And I think if we don’t get better at listening to what they want to say, we will be in trouble. And I suspect if we—so one of the—one of the things that has really hit home today, I thought that I had spent this year as foreign secretary making it very, very clear that whilst the U.K. is committed to helping Ukraine defend itself, we were equally committed to helping the developed world deal with the preexisting challenges. And I thought I was being very, very clear that it’s not one or the other, it’s both. 

I won’t say who is with. I just had a meeting this afternoon with a foreign minister from the Global South, who I have a huge amount of respect for. And they said, James, one of the problems is, of course, you, and the U.S., and the G-7, you only ever talk about Ukraine. And I thought I’d been really fastidious in balancing the narrative, but what they heard was Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine. And we got to be sensitive to that. And we got to make sure that we respond to that. 

FROMAN: Terrific. Let’s open it up. This gentleman on the aisle. There are microphones coming. 

Q: Thank you. Adam. Silverschotz. I’m a private investor. 

You’re talking about kind of stabilizing relations with China and being, you know, pragmatic, and protecting your interests, and engaging where you can. Electric vehicles is probably a good case study that can—I would love to hear you expand on, and especially as you spoke about at the podium integrating your foreign policy and your domestic policy. Chinese EV exports to the U.K. have been surging over the past couple of years. And while increased EV adoption in the U.K. can help you reach your net zero goals and your 2030 emission goals, there are also questions about competition against domestic automakers in the U.K., issues with the labor unions. We’re dealing with our own auto union issues in the United States right now. Security issues related to the supply chains in China, the raw materials, and the batteries, and IT security issues as well. So on an issue like electric vehicles, how do you square the circle in an integrated, coherent manner between foreign and domestic policy? 

CLEVERLY: Yeah, really good question. I lay my cards on the table. My political tribe—I’m a Reaganite, Thatcherite Tory. So that’s my starting point. So, therefore, all my instinctive response is to make sure that we are increasingly competitive, and to try and avoid what I think can be a rather dangerous kind of competitive protectionism. Protectionism, I don’t think, has ever been our sustainable friend. And so competing. Now, again, I recognize that we’re not starting from scratch. It’s not a completely level playing field, and we need to be conscious of that. When I speak to many African leaders, for example, I make the point that they have the repositories of the kind of critical minerals that are going to be instrumental in electric vehicle manufacture, electric—sorry—green energy generation, and storage. And they should not let themselves fall foul of habit from previous centuries, which is exporting unprocessed raw product, and seeing all the value added overseas.  

Now at the moment, I know my maths might be off slightly on this, but the big repositories of critical minerals that we currently know about is in Africa. And yet, China has a kind of stranglehold on the processing. Now, if we had more of the processing done in Africa, for example, that would help their economies. It would help them develop. It would have a more—I think, a fairer, a more competitive global arena. And that we could then actually compete. And I think it’s completely legit to say, yes, so compete on price is always one thing. But I think making sure that you’re competing on things like security, protection of your personal data. All these things are in that competitive pool. 

I think we should have a bit more self-confidence, rather than saying the only way that we can compete with China is putting big tariff barriers up. I think we should be more self-confident, and we can compete with China or whoever else because we’re good at what we do. And actually backing ourselves. You know, putting the chips—stacking the chips in front of ourselves at the table. That’s my natural instinct. Because I don’t believe the inevitability of Western decline. But we have to have self-confidence do it, rather than just saying the only way that we can compete is these tariff barriers. Because tariff barriers are never sustainable in the long term. 

FROMAN: Take a question from our online audience. 

OPERATOR: We will take the next virtual question from Marc Rotenberg. 

Q: Thank you very much. And thank you, Mr. Secretary, for the opportunity to speak with you. My name is Marc Rotenberg director of the Center for AI and Digital Policy. 

And I would like to ask you about the U.K.’s leading role on artificial intelligence, even as I am here at an airport lounge. You gave an impassioned speech to the Security Council in July. And the prime minister has announced an AI summit in November. My question to you is, will you consider AI fairness as part of the AI safety agenda? And what steps will the U.K. government take to ensure that civil society and independent academic experts are able to participate in the AI summit? 

CLEVERLY: Oh, that’s a cracking question. (Laughter.) 

FROMAN: I think that’s good, by the way. (Laughter.) 

CLEVERLY: Yeah. That’s a really incredibly, incredibly important question. This is an agenda that’s moving at enormous, enormous pace. And you talk about fairness. And that can manifest itself in a number of ways. You talk about nongovernment actors having a voice around the table. I think that’s incredibly important. I think it’s easy for us to slip into habit of thinking that this is a conversation that has to be had between governments and technology companies, and no one else. I think that would be a mistake. And that’s certainly not the U.K.’s position on this. When I hosted—or, sorry—when I chaired the first-ever U.N. Security Council debate on AI, I had a British academic and a Chinese academic address us. I was at an event on AI yesterday. And one of the things that came across was making sure that we inject fairness into it. And that means that, again, it’s not just the voices of the Euro-Atlantic area that plug into the AI. It’s also making sure that AI doesn’t amplify preexisting power differentials. 

So, for example, I’m half Sierra Leonean. In Sierra Leonean society, a lot of history is held oral—as an oral history, rather than codified or in books. And it’s typically women that are the kind of family storytellers. And female voice—or, the oral history and female voices is a lot harder for the AIs to find, and therefore learn from, than the written word of European men. So at the moment, the AI skews very heavily to the voices, and therefore the views, of European men. And there is a danger that the AI becomes the most sexist, racist voice. And we got to make sure that doesn’t happen. And that is part of the safety. 

Now there’s a big, big, big piece of work to do on this. U.K. has got a bit of an advantage. We got the right language, the right time zone. We’ve got a fantastic financial market, providing funding for technology, and the most tightly packed cluster of globally elite universities in the world, which does give us an advantage. But basically, this is a global challenge and it will be resolved globally. Which is a long way of saying, I don’t really quite have an answer to your specific question mark, but I think it’s very well worth raising it. My officials will have scribbled notes, and I’ll make sure I feed that into the prime minister’s team with regard to attendance at the summit. 

FROMAN: Great. In the back there, the woman on the aisle. 

Q: Hi, Maryum Saifee. I’m a State Department Foreign Service officer. 

And my question is building on the last one, around technology and AI. I, you know, work in the State Department. And sometimes policymakers aren’t literate on some of these new emerging technologies in the cyber and digital space. So we’re seeing—we’re prioritizing upskilling our own diplomatic corps. So I’d be curious, as you’ve released your global strategy recently and you’re increasing the number of cyber envoys, how are you making sure that your diplomats in the field have the sort of literacy to write the cables and do the policymaking around this, given how fast moving that issue is? 

CLEVERLY: Again, another really, really important question. I’m very proud in the U.K. Foreign Service. And I don’t think we’re unique on this, but I do think this is one of the things that we pay particular attention to. So we are very, very committed to language skills in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It’s one of our points of pride. The British ambassadors and the high commissioners are sometimes—they surprise our host nations by their ability to speak the language of the country that they get posted to, and it strikes me that these digital skills are a natural extension of that commitment to language skills. I need—as the foreign secretary, I need my pool of diplomats to properly be able to understand the environments in which they work, whether that’s a country or a technology. And you do that through immersion. We do that through immersion training. It’s immersion, immersion, immersion. We do that with our language skills and our cultural education of our diplomats, and I think we’re going to have to apply that same philosophy to the understanding of the technology environment. And that’s going to be immersive with the tech firms, with academic research, and others. It is a new-ish environment for us, but some of the philosophy that I think we’ll need to apply to it is actually very, very well-established in our system. 

FROMAN: Great. 

In the third row here. 

Q: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson from DAWN. 

You mentioned that the war in Ukraine and your support for the war in Ukraine was indicative of support for democracy and freedom, and you also noted the importance of deterring dictators from learning the wrong lessons of how you respond in Ukraine. How do you think the world is responding and observing the U.K.’s continued support for Saudi Arabia, the continued provision of armaments to Saudi Arabia in a war that has killed far, far more people than Putin has killed in Ukraine? 

And particularly, five years on the anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, it’s now reported that your prime minister is going to be hosting Mohammed bin Salman, rolling out the red carpet for him in London. How do you think the world is going to observe that, given that just today we’ve learned that the Indian government has murdered a Canadian citizen, possibly taking the same lessons? Do you think people are really buying that this is about democracy and freedom when your government is supporting tyranny and tyrants? 

CLEVERLY: So I fundamentally—I fundamentally disagree with your assessment of my government’s position, and certainly with regards to the points that Prime Minister Trudeau has made. He has said that they are investigating the—this particular killing, and I don’t think that I’d be comfortable going as far as you did in your question. I want to see what the Canadians find in terms of their investigation before I make that point. 

Now, look, the situation in—with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine I don’t think is analogous to the conflict in Yemen, which is I suspect what you’re referring to. I was in Abu Dhabi when Houthi missiles flew across the sky, and I watched the Emirati air defense systems intercept Houthi missiles provided by Iran. I know Saudi Arabia has been at the receiving end of Houthi missiles which have attacked civilian infrastructure and civilian targets in Saudi. The idea that countries in the Gulf defending themselves against Iranian-funded militia groups and terrorist organizations is in any way analogous to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine I think is a fundamental error of assessment. I think it’s a category error on your part, madam. I’m sorry to be blunt about this, but I just think they are—they are so different that they can’t be compared. 

Saudi Arabia has been a bulwark—a bulwark against extremism and terrorism. And that’s not to suggest we always agree with the Saudi positions on things. And again, because we have kind of a mature and well-established relationship with Saudi, when we have disagreements we raise those directly. But it also happens to be that the Saudis have been in talks with the Houthis to try and bring about peace in Yemen. Now, I would like nothing more than this longstanding, brutal conflict in Yemen, which is predominantly a civil war between the Houthis and the government of Yemen which has spilled over into Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and more broadly, I would like nothing more than for this to be resolved, and we will continue working with the U.N. special representative and the regional governments to try and bring that about. 

But the point is that Saudi hasn’t attempted to invade Yemen. It has facilitated—it is currently in the process of trying to bring about a sustainable peace, to turn the de facto ceasefire into a permanent ceasefire. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the most clear-cut modern example of imperial expansionism that any of us have probably seen in our lifetime. I’ve seen videos—recruitment videos where Russian soldiers talk about the houses that they will occupy in Kyiv when the war is over and they have taken Ukraine. And if you blur the lines on what is a clear-cut battle of good and evil, I think you’re making a fundamental mistake. 

FROMAN: We’ll go to one of our online questions. 

OPERATOR: We will take the next virtual question from Samuel Visner. 

Q: Thank you. And thank you, Minister Cleverly. My name is Sam Visner. I’m with the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center. 

I read recently that NATO is considering the possibility of invoking Article 5 for significant cyberattacks. This would migrate cyberattacks and serious cyber weaponry and use of that weaponry into an area that—of warfare to which it really—in which it really hasn’t been present previously. I would be grateful for your views on the seriousness of the cyber issue and whether or not, in fact, we should be giving serious consideration to invoking Article 5 in response to serious cyberattacks. Thank you. 

CLEVERLY: Samuel, thank you—thank you for that. 

So I can’t comment on the specifics of applying Article 5 to a non-kinetic attack. That’s something that would need to be discussed and agreed across the leadership of the alliance. 

I do think more broadly, however, we need to recognize that cyberattacks can kill. If you bring down critical national infrastructure, if you turn off energy generation, we have seen—sadly, we have seen cyber attacks on hospitals. We have seen cyberattacks on critical national infrastructure which—upon which lives depend. So, you know, cyber is serious. And our defense against cyberattack needs to be effective, it needs to be in close coordination with our international friends and allies. The U.K. has a National Cyber Security Centre which is part of our cyber defense as we work very closely with our international partners and also nongovernmental organizations in the—in the U.K., because this is—this is an incredibly important area. 

So, I mean, you make a very, very good point about should we give it that hallmark of seriousness with a kind of an Article 5-type clause. As I say, that’s not where we are at the moment, but I do think that that is a—is a train of thought that is certainly worth pursuing. 

Again, one of the other challenges which really might make Article 5 not the appropriate type of vehicle is it is much, much harder to attribute cyberattacks than it is with physical attacks. And I think that might mean that an Article 5-type response wouldn’t be appropriate, but the concept of collective defense and the coordination of approach from allies I think is an important point. 

FROMAN: Last question. Gentleman. 

Q: Thank you very much. Mahesh Kotecha. 

I’m a finance person and I am from Africa. I just came from a conference where I spoke on climate. You spoke about 2 billion allocation that the U.K. government has just made for climate fund, as I recall. There is a huge shortage of climate finance that is not going to be met by the MDBs or by the public sector. You must engage with the private sector. In order to engage with the private sector, the MDBs have a database called GEMs. It’s a database on performance statistics of countries and projects that are beneficiaries of loans and equity investments by twenty-four supernational institutions, including the World Bank, EIB, IFC, and others. Would you commit to releasing that information to the private sector so that we can look at the information and make a determination of who is likely to repay so the capital that can flow can be in the trillions, not in the 2 billions? 

CLEVERLY: So I’m not going to make a commitment to your specific question just yet. (Laughs.) It sounds enticing, but I have learnt in politics that it is always worth making sure I have a full stack of papers before making a decision on something like this. But you do make an incredibly important point because, you’re right, public-sector money is not enough. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. We do need to unlock the really big repositories of money to drive this change. 

And you’re right, that is in the private sector. Funnily enough, before coming here today I was at a meeting. Mike Bloomberg was there, Mark Carney was there, a number of others, and we were talking about some of the—some of the work that we need to do collectively to unlock—whether it be de-risk or give protections or opportunities to hedge or whatever it might be, to really unlock the big repositories of money, because you’re right; it needs to be in the trillions. 

So governments have got to do their bit. Part of that is the money, but part of it is about the framework and the structures so that the—so the private sector can do what the private sector does best, which is deploy at scale, innovate, perhaps take the kind of risks that governments can’t take. But there are certain risks that governments can take that the private sector can’t. So working in close coordination is what we need to do. 

The point I made at the meeting is whatever it is we need to do, we’d better get on with it because we do not have a lot of time to hang around. And the point I made was reflected by a number of other people in the room. 

So, as I say, genuinely, again, my team will have taken notes. I will look at the implications of providing that kind of information—why we might want to, why we might not want to. But we will keep investigating ways of leveraging in the big pools of private-sector money on this incredibly important agenda. 

FROMAN: And I welcome you to come back next week when we have Ajay Banga sitting here— 

CLEVERLY: Oh, yeah, yeah. He was— 

FROMAN: —to talk about the World Bank’s approach. 

CLEVERLY: He was literally—yeah, he was—he was just across the table from me. 

FROMAN: Absolutely. 

CLEVERLY: And I was quite very—I mean, really very—it’s the first time I’d had a chance to—(inaudible). Seriously impressive. Seriously impressive. 

FROMAN: Well, as the minister said, a hundred years ago the Council on Foreign Relations got started with a U.K.-U.S. dialogue. A hundred years later, we value the same. Thank you, Mr. Minister, for joining us. Please join me in thanking—(applause). 


Top Stories on CFR


The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.


Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: The United States may come to rue its failure to get its fiscal house in order.