What will the smallness of Tory foreign policy mean for Britain?
Both Labour Prime Ministers of the past 13 years believed in using Britain’s position in the world to push for change. That change was not always cheered by everyone, but Britain was never a bystander in world affairs.
Tony Blair used the UK’s leadership of the G8 to put aid, trade and debt at the centre of the world’s economic agenda in Gleneagles in 2005. He used Britain’s military power in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. On taking office he changed instantly our hands off approach in Bosnia where thousands had died as a result of ethnic cleansing in central Europe. And he set out a policy of liberal interventionism which argued that both a concern for our fellow human beings and the increasing interdependence of our world meant we could not ignore what people did inside their own borders.
Gordon Brown used Britain’s chairmanship of the G20 in 2009 to push for a co-ordinated programme of global government intervention to stop the most serious economic recession since World War II turning into a second great depression.
It all seems a world away from the current government’s stance, or the lack of one. At the last G20 meeting it was hard to notice Britain was there, and there seemed to be no British attempt to shape the agenda in advance.
The Government has made clear it sees trade as the essence of foreign policy. And of course, trade is essential to an island nation like ours. It is crucial to our future economic prosperity and it has the capacity to be a liberating force for other countries too. But it is not the beginning and end of our foreign policy or our interests in the world.
As people took to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and now Libya our government has had little to say.
Of course, for every country making sense of the protests has not been easy, for we have always been told that the choice in these countries is the devil you know or a harsher Islamic fundamentalism. No one knows how this will turn out but so far it hasn’t looked like that as Muslims and Christians and secular groups protested together in Tahrir Square.
These events are indeed fast moving but one doesn’t get the sense of a desperate effort to make sense of it all from our government. Instead they seem content to take a back seat, to avoid what they regard as the adventurism of the Blair years or the grandiose economic plans of the Brown years.
And this is the rub. The smallness of our foreign policy is not an accident. It is not an accusation that bothers the government. It is, they would argue, in the traditions of Conservatism. All that heir to Blair stuff stops for us at the water’s edge they would say. Here the policy is not a rebranded Conservatism but a return to the stance of the 1990s. We saw it before over Bosnia and we are seeing it again today.
Now for some this will be welcome. There was always a realpolitik view in the Foreign Office that saw new Labour’s foreign policy as rocking too many boats. Instead pursue a policy based on interests and don’t bite off more than you can chew.
And of course there will be those on the left who opposed the war in Iraq, and perhaps Afghanistan, who will, for the most part agree. But what will this stance really mean for the UK and the world?
To state the obvious based on our recent experiences, pushing for change has risks. It can mean facing up to totalitarian regimes or trying to bring them into a more productive dialogue (critics like to attack both). It is not a recipe for a quiet life.
It may be that the Government changes its view over time but it looks unlikely that Britain will be working hard at forming alliances to face up to key international issues in the near future. Don’t expect Britain to try shape the agenda at international gatherings. And if others, either in Europe or more broadly do have such plans, well, that will be for them.
That of course doesn’t mean the issues go away. There are still dictators oppressing their own people. The issue of what our role is when abuses happen inside countries and not just between them remains. And the global challenges which require countries to work together remain. Is stepping back from an active role in dealing with these things really what we want from our foreign policy?
Posted on 22 February 2011.