Building a global network of liberty: An address by the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP
Lowy Lecture Series

Building a global network of liberty: An address by the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs of the United Kingdom spoke at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
Fri, 21 January 2022

Liz Truss: It’s great to be back in Sydney and at the Lowy Institute with my friend Marise Payne. As the UK sets out on its future as global Britain, we now have full use of our trade, our defence, our diplomacy, and our development policies, to be able to work with friends and partners across the world. And I see Australia as a real inspiration in that, in it with the work you do to promote free trade, freedom of speech, human rights, and rights for women and girls as a leading nation. And our close bonds now are more important than they’ve ever been. And we are doing more and more together. And this is vital because of the growing threats we face.

The Kremlin hasn’t learned the lessons of history. They dream of recreating the Soviet Union, or a kind of “Greater Russia” carving up territory based on ethnicity and language. They claim they want stability, while they work to threaten and destabilise others. We know what lies down that path, and the terrible toll in lives lost and human suffering it brings. That’s why we urge President Putin to desist and step back from Ukraine before he makes a massive strategic mistake. Ukraine is a proud country with a long history. They have known invading forces before – from the Mongols to the Tatars. They suffered through the state-sponsored famine. Their resilience runs deep. If they have to, Ukrainians will fight to defend their country. Invasion will only lead to a quagmire, as we know from the Soviet-Afghan war or the conflict in Chechnya.

Last week, at the NATO-Russia Council we sent a clear message to Moscow that any further incursion into Ukraine would bring massive consequences, including through coordinated sanctions hitting the financial sector and individuals. This week, the United Kingdom announced a new package of training, support and defensive weapons for Ukraine to boost their defensive capabilities. And we’re working with our partners on high impact measures targeting the Russian financial sector, and individuals. We’re also strengthening our bilateral partnership following high-level talks in London in December – and we’re fostering new trilateral ties with Poland and Ukraine. We’re also pushing for alternatives in energy supply, so that nations are less reliant on Russia for their gas. We need everyone to step up. Together with our allies, we will continue to stand with Ukraine and urge Russia to de-escalate.

What happens in Eastern Europe matters for the world. Threats to freedom, democracy and the rule of law are not just regional – they’re global. And that’s why we have to respond together. Iran’s nuclear programme has never been more advanced. China has been conducting military flights near Taiwan. And it is using its economic muscle to attempt to coerce democracies like Australia and Lithuania. Russia and China are working together more and more, as they strive to set the standards in technologies like artificial intelligence, assert their dominance over the Western Pacific through joint military exercises and in space through closer ties. The International Institute for Strategic Studies argues we are now seeing the “strongest, closest and best relationship” the two countries have had for 70 years. And we are seeing an alignment of authoritarian regimes around the world. It is no surprise that regimes like Belarus, North Korea or Myanmar find their closest allies in Moscow and Beijing. They don’t look to these nations as partners but as puppets. Moscow wants them to promote their propaganda and destabilise free democracies on their doorstep. At the same time, Beijing has forged a so-called “iron brotherhood” with Belarus. China is the biggest buyer of Iranian oil and Pyongyang’s largest trading partner. China and Russia have spotted an ideological vacuum and they’re rushing to fill it. They are emboldened in a way we haven’t seen since the Cold War.

As freedom-loving democracies we need to rise up to face down these threats. As well as NATO we are working with partners like Australia, India, Japan, Indonesia and Israel to build a global network of liberty. Aggressors are reneging on their commitments and obligations. They’re destabilising the rules-based international order and they’re chipping away at the values that underpin it. But they have nothing to offer in its place.

The free world is different. We’re not defined by what we’re against but by what we’re for. We believe in freedom and democracy. We believe in individual liberty as the greatest transformative force on earth. When people have agency over their own lives, when they have freedom and opportunity, they achieve incredible things. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “we know from the evidence of human history that democracies are the engine room of change.” We see this in the ideas and innovations that fuelled our fightback against COVID – from the University of Sydney’s Edward Holmes publishing the COVID genome… to Oxford’s Sarah Gilbert and her life-saving vaccine… to our shared efforts to distribute vaccines to those in need around the world.

And we want to work together to tackle the big problems we face. That does include working with countries like China and Russia where it’s necessary – on trade, tackling climate change, or bringing Iran to the negotiating table. But in doing so, we will stand up for what we believe in. In December, I welcomed G7 Foreign Ministers to Liverpool, together with Marise Payne and some of our other closest friends and allies. We expressed our concern about China’s economic coercive policies and we united to condemn Russia’s aggression. Together, we showed our determination to stand shoulder to shoulder for freedom and democracy around the world.

We are continuing that vital work this week with our AUKMIN, our Australia-UK Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meeting, the first that we’ve had since 2018. And we’re determined to act together in three key areas. First, we will stand up for our economic security. That means calling out China when it blocks products from Lithuania or imposes punitive tariffs on Australian barley and wine. It means cutting strategic dependence on authoritarian regimes, starting with Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. It means helping countries avoiding having their balance sheets loaded with debt. It is estimated that 44 low to middle income countries have debts to Beijing in excess of 10% of their GDP. We’re responding on all of these fronts. And we’re strengthening our supply chains by taking our economic ties with like-minded nations to new heights.

We took a huge step forward by signing our Free Trade Agreement with Australia in December. This is a world-class deal that will remove all of the tariffs on goods, both ways. It’s going to be easier for our people to live and work in each other’s countries, particularly those under 35. And we are building on this by working with Australia to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership – reinforcing the reliability of supply through one of the largest free trade areas on earth. We’re also working together to provide low and middle income countries with honest and reliable alternative sources of investment. In November, I launched British International Investment, helping to mobilise up to £8 billion a year of public and private financing to these countries by 2025, leveraging the firepower of the City of London. Yesterday, Marise Payne and I agreed on a closer UK-Australia cooperation to boost opportunities for investment across the Indo-Pacific – particularly in areas like energy, climate change adaptation and technology. And we are working together to impose sanctions on human rights abusers and to keep those using forced labour out of our supply chains. Second, freedom must be defended and that’s why we are deepening our security ties. Last year in our Integrated Review, the UK we set out a new deterrence posture – including the biggest increase in defence spending since the end of the Cold War. We need to see everyone stepping up in this way. Too few of our NATO allies are meeting the two percent spending target. So it’s great to see that Australia is also increasing its commitments to our collective security.

The power of our partnership has been demonstrated time and time again. We will forever remember those from Australia and New Zealand who gave their lives for freedom on the historic battlefields of Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Pacific. The depth of our commitment remains plain to see today. From the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, to the Five Power Defence Arrangements with our friends Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand, to the Carrier Strike Group which visited the region last year, led by HMS Queen Elizabeth. Our forces exercised in the South China Sea with ships and aircraft from Australia and other partners – standing up for our mutual interests, and supporting regional stability.

And of course last year we finalised our landmark AUKUS partnership. With this deal, we’ve opened a bold new era in our long history together. And by joining forces with the US we are showing our determination to protect security and stability across the region. We are helping Australia acquire a nuclear-powered submarine, and also means deeper cooperation between our three nations on advanced capabilities like cyber, AI and quantum. We want to use this deeper expertise to help support stability with partners right across the Indo-Pacific. I’m looking forward tomorrow to visiting the shipyard in Adelaide, where the UK and Australia are building new Type 26 Frigates. And Adelaide will of course play an important role in developing the new AUKUS submarines. This is a truly formidable and cutting edge partnership – and we are determined to continue strengthening it for the benefit of us all.

And finally, we are boosting our cooperation on technology. Technology has empowered people by enabling incredible freedom, but we know it can be seized upon by others to promote fear. We can’t allow the technologies of the future to be hijacked for malign ends – whether it’s cyber attacks, or building high-tech surveillance states through facial-recognition software and AI. Global technology standards must be shaped by the free world. That’s why we want to go further and faster by deepening our science and tech collaboration. Just as Australia has banned Huawei from its 5G network, we are stripping high-risk vendors out of our infrastructure. And we are embracing Australian expertise – for example to bring the state-of-the-art 5G to the London Underground. Delivering our strategic advantage in science and technology is an absolutely vital objective of the integrated review. And so I am pleased that this week we’re launching our new Cyber and Critical Technology Partnership with Australia – aimed at tackling malign actors, strengthening supply chains and harnessing tech to support freedom and democracy.

Building these partnerships and drawing other countries closer to the orbit of free-market democracies, will ultimately make us all safer and freer in the years to come. That is why it is time for the free world to stand its ground. We need to face down global aggressors. We should be proud of our ideas and our ideals – clear about what they have brought to mankind, and even more ambitious for what we can do together in the future. Forty years ago Margaret Thatcher gave the Sir Robert Menzies lecture in Melbourne. She said: “Where freedom…exists, I seek to expand it; where it is under attack, I shall defend it; where it does not exist, I shall try to create it.” I cannot think of a better friend than Australia to work with on this vital endeavour. We can make great things happen. Thank you.

Liz Truss in conversation with Michael Fullilove

Michael Fullilove: Foreign Secretary, thank you very much. Thank you for giving an important speech that's already being widely reported around the world. And thank you for agreeing to take some questions. I'm going to kick off, and then we've got some questions from our audience, which I'll also put to you. Let me start with Ukraine. You said in your speech, the Kremlin has not learned the lessons of history. But Vladimir Putin might reply that history tells him that the West, the free world, is not prepared to stand up to him. After all, eight years later, the Russian flag still flies over Crimea. Why are you confident that the free world will 'stand its ground', as you said?

Liz Truss: First of all, I think it's very important to note the commitments that Russia made in the 1994 Budapest Agreement in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. Russia agreed - alongside the UK and US - to protect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. So the claims that are being made by Vladimir Putin are completely wrong about what has happened. And it is true - and I made this point in my speech - that the free world has not been doing enough since the end of the Cold War to make sure that we are deterring aggressors. But we are very clear together with our allies in the G7, with our allies in NATO, that if there is an incursion by Russia into Ukraine, it would come at a massive cost. We are prepared to put very severe sanctions in place. We are also working to support Ukraine in terms of defensive capability.

What I would say as well, is that dealing with this immediate situation is, of course, an absolute priority. But the free world also needs to work together to reduce economic dependence on Russia. To put in place the agreements that help countries have alternatives in terms of trade and investment. So in the future, it becomes harder for those aggressive regimes to use economic dependence as a way of getting what they want. So, yes, we are very ready to act in the immediate term. But in the longer term, this is why it’s so important that we are investing in developing countries. It’s so important that we are trading widely across the world, using strong rules-based agreements like the CPTPP. That’s the best way to protect ourselves from aggressors - is from a position of economic and defensive strength.

Michael Fullilove: Let's move to that long-term approach. Because I know that you're also very keen on allies and like-minded countries working much more closely together, cooperating with each other and AUKUS is an example of that. When I heard about AUKUS, I was reminded of something that Winston Churchill said in 1940, when the United States provided Britain with 50 over-age destroyers in exchange for access to British naval bases, and Churchill said that the two countries, the UK and the United States, will have to be somewhat mixed-up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage. Do you think that in the face of new challenges, we will once again see like-minded countries getting more mixed-up together?

Liz Truss: Yes. And I think that's a good thing. One of the points I made in my speech is we're seeing more working together by authoritarian nations. And it's vital that we do work together and that we rely on each other. And that's of course about important allies like Australia, like the United States, like our European allies. But we also need to make sure we're working more closely with India, with Japan, with Indonesia, these are all important parts, I think of creating a much stronger alliance of those in the free world.

Michael Fullilove: What are the limits of liberty as an organising principle for foreign policy? Because in the Indo-Pacific, for example, many of the countries that would be useful in balancing against China are non-democracies or quasi-democracies.

Liz Truss: The way the way I look at it, is, I want a world where free democratic countries can survive and thrive. Now, there are many countries who are not, which are not free democracies, who want to live in that world too. A world that's based on the rules. A world where countries hold true to their commitments, like the 1994 Budapest Agreement. So I think it's right that we form partnerships with all of those countries who want to see a fair, rules based world. Now, not all of them will share our exact way of life and our exact values. And, you know, I'm a believer in personal freedom - in democracy. I do think it is the best way to organise a society. But I also believe in countries' sovereignty, and countries' ability to make their own decisions. What I think is important is that the countries that we work with, believe in the rules-based international system, and fair play.

Michael Fullilove: What's the most important aspect of AUKUS from your perspective?

Liz Truss: Well, AUKUS as is a comprehensive arrangement that is going to involve very deep work together in areas like Artificial Intelligence, in cyber, in quantum, as well as helping Australia acquire that nuclear-powered submarine capability. So to me, it's a comprehensive arrangement that is going to deepen that partnership. It's worth saying, though, that it's part of a broader picture. You know, we also need to make sure we are preparing NATO for the new era - working much more in areas like hybrid, in areas like cyber as well. So this is not... We want to work together to develop these capabilities and also share with our friends and allies around the world. I mean, of course, the ASEAN group is extremely important in that, for example.

Michael Fullilove: Can I ask you how does the network of liberty square with Brexit? I mean, I think like you at the time, I supported the Remain case, because I was worried that Brexit would hinder Britain, make Europe less liberal, and weaken the West - and provide succour to the adversaries of the West like Beijing and, and Moscow. Hasn't Brexit undermined the network of liberty?

Liz Truss: I don't agree with that. Brexit was a sovereign decision made by the British people who wanted that ability to determine our future without being part of the EU. And we now have full control, for example, over all aspects of foreign policy, including policies like trade policy and sanctions we previously didn't have. And some of the portents of doom about Brexit simply haven't come true. Not the economic consequences were claimed. But also, in terms of security, if you look at the response to the issues of Russian aggression on Ukraine, we've been working very closely with the EU. A key part of the G7 statement, we've been working very closely as part of the Quad with France, Germany and the United States. So our security relationship is extremely strong, but it is from the position of a independent sovereign nation.

Michael Fullilove: Let me come to China. You referred to China a couple of times in your speech. Is the UK late to the game on China, and on China as a as a strategic actor - and perhaps as a strategic threat? I mean, I recall David Cameron and George Osborne were incredibly bullish about China back in the day. I know the tone in London has changed very substantially. And even, I think it was last week, we saw that story about MI5 identifying an agent of the Chinese government working at Westminster. Why has it taken so long for London and other European capitals to clock to the threat that China poses?

Liz Truss: I give credit to Australia here. I think the situation with Australia, the economic coercion we saw was one of the 'wake-up calls' as to exactly what China was doing, and the way it was using its economic might to try to exert control over other countries. And I think there was a belief in the past that as China got wealthier it was headed on a path towards becoming a freer, more democratic society. The reality is that hasn't happened. And the situation we were in in the late 90s, the Chinese economy was a 10th the size of the United States economy. We're now in a situation with a China with a much bigger economy, much more able to coerce other nations. And as I said, we've looked to Australia as we formulate some of our policies around how we deal with those issues.

Michael Fullilove: In your speech, you talked about how democracy should be less economically dependent on countries that don't share our values. And that's obviously a good idea and desirable. But China, for example, does three times more trade with Indo-Pacific countries than its nearest competitor, the United States. Is it realistic for countries like Australia and the United Kingdom to diversify away from an economy the size of China's?

Liz Truss: Well, I look at it in positive terms as we are diversifying towards countries that follow the rules. For example, on areas like intellectual property or forced technology transfer. So one of the reasons why we want to sign up to the CPTPP is that has strong rules basis so that UK supply chains will UK companies, you know, when we are sourcing products, we will know that they have good environmental standards, we will know that there are a good labour provisions in place, we will know that intellectual property is protected, because that's part of the CPTPP agreement. So the way I see it is more making those supply chains more resilient by working with countries who share that rules-based, that rules-based approach.

Michael Fullilove: You want to join the CPTPP. Would the UK like to join the Quad as well?

Liz Truss: Well, we are we're looking at all kinds of groupings that we could potentially be part of. But it would take the Quad members to want to have the UK as part of it.

Michael Fullilove: I'm going to go to the audience, but I am going to squeeze in one question about domestic politics if I can: the last time we hosted a Foreign Secretary at the Institute - as Marise noted - he went on in short order to become Prime Minister. Should we expect to see that phenomenon again, do you think?

Liz Truss: Well, our Prime Minister, as you said, spoke at the Lowy Institute, he became Prime Minister, I was delighted to serve as his Trade Secretary delivering on the promise he made here at the Lowy Institute and I've now working from his Foreign Secretary, he is doing an excellent job. Britain is one of the first countries to get people vaccinated, to deliver a successful booster campaign. We've got the fastest growing economy in the G7. And that is what is important to people.

Michael Fullilove: All right, let me put some questions from the audience to you, Foreign Secretary. First of all, back on Ukraine - I have a question from the chairman of the Lowy Institute, Sir Frank Lowy. He says that in your speech, you urge Vladimir Putin to desist and step back from Ukraine before he makes a disastrous strategic mistake. What would NATO do if Russia invaded Ukraine? And should Russia be concerned about that?

Liz Truss: What we've been clear, is there will be severe consequences, should Vladimir Putin stage an incursion into Ukraine. Economic consequences in particular. And that would have a very damaging effect. And the other point I would make, which I made in my speech, is this will not be - it would not be easy. The Ukrainians will fight this. This could end up as a quagmire. And I think that should be seriously considered by Russia. But of course, Ukraine isn't a member of NATO. So it's not in the same position as, for example, the Baltic states where there would be direct action in the case of any conflict.

Michael Fullilove: Okay, we have a question from Susannah Patton, who's a researcher at the Institute. Susannah asks, how do you see the evolution and the purpose of the Five Eyes intelligence network? And she says - she asks, it appears to be emerging as a grouping to coordinate policies, as well as to share intelligence.

Liz Truss: That is a very fair point. It is both of those - it is both of those things. It is a very, very valuable intelligence network that both the United Kingdom and Australia are part of. But I think what we're seeing in foreign policy in general, is more overlap between different areas of policy, whether its economic and trade, policy, diplomacy, intelligence, communications. All of those things are interlinked. So yes, it is a useful forum for policy too.

Michael Fullilove: I have a question from Laura Jayes of Sky News: What role what role will the UK play in maintaining the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and helping to curb China's growing aggression?

Liz Truss: Well, first of all, we are playing a leading role, for example, in organizations like the World Trade Organisation to change to make sure the rules are adhered to, but also to update the rules for the modern age. The WTO was created before, or before in particular we see so much use of technology and the internet. So we need to make sure that it's updated to reflect the way the way things work now. I think the CPTPP is an important part of creating a better rules basis, and of course, by joining that the UK is helping bolster that organisation.

Michael Fullilove: We have a question from Evelyn Nordhoff, in the Australian Defence Department on China's activities in the South Pacific. She asks how can Australia and the UK work together to protect the democracies of the South Pacific and reduce their coercion by the CCP.

Liz Truss: I think one particular area is maritime security. The UK has already carried out a deployment of the Carrier Strike Group in the region. There is more we can do to cooperate on maritime security with Australia but also other nations in the area.

Michael Fullilove: We have also a question from Mary Jardine Clark from Greenwich House and she mentions that we've seen a growing presence of US defensive forces rotating through Australia. Might we see home porting for UK naval assets in Australia?

Liz Truss: Well, we're certainly looking at what more we can do. And this is a comment the Defence Secretary made earlier - to have a visible presence in the region, as well as a greater degree of diplomatic engagement as well.

Michael Fullilove: Finally, Foreign Secretary, I might ask you one more question about the United States if I can, which is at the centre of any 'network of liberty'. We've seen a lot of inconsistency in Washington's approach to the world. During the Trump era, for example, the President was very unconvincing in his commitment to the idea of collective defence as enshrined in article five of the of the NATO Treaty. Some people think Mr. Trump could return to the White House in 2024. Are you worried about the fractures in the American polity, about how that affects America's credibility and influence in the world? Are you concerned at all about the trajectory of the United States. Because in a way, the whole of the rest of the network of liberty is hinged off the United States.

Liz Truss: Well, the United States is very important. Other countries are also important. One of the reasons I'm here in Australia its a very important partner of the United Kingdom. I've mentioned India and Japan as other absolutely key parts of working more closely together in areas like the economy and security. One comment I would make about the United States is that I want to see more engagement on trade and the economy. Because if countries don't have an alternative to 'strings-attached' investment, that is a problem. So we are working with the United States on investment partnerships. They've got the Build Back Better World program. But I think more economic engagement. The UK and Australia, by working to promote free trade and doing that - it would be fantastic to see the US doing more, and also the European Union doing more, to make sure that countries have those alternatives.

Michael Fullilove: Foreign Secretary, it's been a pleasure to host you today at the Institute. We've run out of time, thank you for giving an important speech that will be studied closely and for taking our questions. The Foreign Secretary has said that she's an admirer of Arya Stark from Game of Thrones and like Arya, I would say that that Liz Truss is one to watch. Foreign Secretary we look forward to hosting you at the Institute again in the future.

Liz Truss: Thank you.

Michael Fullilove: Thank you also to Australia's Foreign Minister, Senator Marise Payne, for joining us and to everyone in the audience for tuning in. For now, it's goodbye from the Lowy Institute. Thank you very much.

Event Audio



Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions