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School of Government & International Affairs

The poverty of foreign policy debate in the UK general election.

Prof John Williams Professor in the School of Government and International Affairs, Member of the Centre for the History of Political Thought

‘There are no votes in foreign policy’ is a supposed political truism, yet the absence of significant and sophisticated debate about UK foreign policy is one of the most dispiriting aspects of the General Election campaign so far. The onset of ‘official’ campaigning seems unlikely to raise the bar or the tone.

Yet foreign policy is important, as the UK continues to aspire to play a role in world affairs and possesses significant structural advantages through membership of amongst others, the G-7, EU, NATO and, of course, the UN Security Council. However, the parties have yet to set out a distinctive foreign policy stance. This is not especially surprising, perhaps. You have to go back to 1997 and New Labour’s notions of ‘an ethical dimension to foreign policy’ and the determination to make international development a distinctive area of British foreign policy innovation and specialisation to find anything approximating such a vision. Protecting international development from austerity has been a welcome coalition commitment, and DFID remains amongst the more effective governmental development agencies, but largely in continuation of the late-1990s animating vision.

Instead, current debates are issue-driven (whether those issues are Ukraine, ISIS, Ebola or whatever else grabs headlines) and reactive, with little sense of how UK engagement informs and is informed by a strategy for where and how the UK can play a distinctive role, maximising structural advantages. David Cameron has attempted the liberal interventionism characteristic of Tony Blair’s military commitments to Sierra Leone and Kosovo at the end of the 1990s. UK and French leadership of NATO action in Libya in 2011 probably averted a humanitarian catastrophe in the short-term, but impoverished long-term support for political transition in Libya is telling of the incoherence of vision and the absence of strategic perspective. Libya is now somewhere the Foreign Office recommends no British citizen should travel. The Prime Minister’s second effort at muscularity – Syria in 2013 – resulted in defeat in Parliament, with his call to military action in the face of chemical weapons use and a brutal civil war rejected by MPs wary of Middle Eastern military entanglements post-Iraq. The UK’s wider strategy – of backing ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad – has been overtaken by events and rendered largely meaningless, yet it has not been replaced by anything else. In Iraq, whence the UK returned in 2014, military options are limited to airstrikes against ISIS, including through drones no longer employed in Afghanistan. The strategic power in Iraq is Iran.

These examples illustrate wider inconsistency. The debate is not just in terms of how to wield UK military power in support of foreign policy objectives, but how economic influence and ‘soft’ power (through historic connections, cultural influence, diplomatic skill) are best used. Effective work on issues like violence against women – led by William Hague during his stint as one of the UK’s longest-serving Foreign Secretaries post-1945 – have been mismatched by inconsistency on other human rights issues, such as the repression of democracy in Hong Kong or Israel’s excessive violence in repeated military assaults on Gaza. The coalition’s determination to be ‘the greenest government ever’ has not shaped foreign policy in any notable ways.

What should the foreign policy debate look like? Three themes would help change the tone and raise the bar, laying foundations for substantive debate. They are connected by a vision of UK foreign policy rooted in a progressive commitment to alleviating poverty, facilitating communal autonomy, and strengthening institutions. Firstly, debate should accept facts about the kind of foreign policy the UK can support. Liberal interventionism, for example, is unaffordable and unsustainable outside of multilateral operations. The likelihood of multilateral operations is greatly diminished. Led by the BRICS, and partly in reaction to perceived NATO exploitation of its mandate in Libya in 2011, the UN pendulum has swung away from authorising military interventions in response to human rights and humanitarian crises. The promotion and protection of human rights can thus no longer be a global ambition for the UK now that the climate is hostile. Regional and sub-regional ambitions are possible, though. Whether in South Asia or North or Central Africa, the UK has historic connections and obligations, as well as continuing activities and networks, that can support local organisations and authorities engage with the challenge of making ordinary peoples’ lives better, including through making them more able to make effective political contributions. The integration of development and diplomacy should be stepped up, but focused on specific areas with long-term commitment.

Secondly, the place of Europe in foreign policy should be re-thought. Whether or not the UK leaves the EU in the next decade, sustained, positive, active engagement in Europe is unavoidable. Continuing NATO membership ensures that. Whether apocryphal or not, the supposed 1950s newspaper headline, ‘Fog in the Channel, Continent Cut Off’ still informs too many mindsets. Really, the rest of Europe is not hanging on the UK’s every word about the EU, ready to renegotiate treaties and create (more) special concessions to keep the UK in the EU. Making this issue the focus of foreign policy debates about Europe is to miss the real action. As Europeans look East, out of trepidation over Russia, as much as ambition for the continuing embedding of post-communist democratic transitions, the UK should recognise internecine squabbles about the EU attract little attention. How to support embedding democratic transitions in East and South East Europe and the Caucasus provides a positive focus to balance unrealistic talk of a return to the Cold War and tedious clichés about ‘the Russian bear’. Russia today is not the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Building more positive relations with Russia is desirable, and that may involve recognising Russian concerns about the institutional mechanisms Europeans have used for democratic transition since 1989, particularly the role of NATO. However, that doesn’t mean the policy ambition to assist and support people in creating more accountable, more representative and less authoritarian governments should be set aside in the name of dusted-down notions of ‘spheres of influence’ and ‘Iron Curtains’.

Thirdly, regulatory and governance structures at regional and global levels are failing. Rising inequality, environmental damage and financial regulation stand as three instances where current institutional architecture is inadequate. There are many more. As with intervention, the climate for institutional reform is less conducive than previously, but the UK can focus on picking instances that cohere with a foreign policy vision and work consistently for reform, including being willing to make concessions and accept diminution of influence if it enables institutions to be more effective at tasks the UK sees as central to the role it wishes, realistically, to play. The EU could be one of these, but that is dependent on theme two. NATO should be a prime target, and the IMF – in particular its development role – a second. Thirdly, the UK could look to innovate in emerging areas where regulatory challenges present themselves and where the UK is a leading player – regulatory structures for increasingly automated and potentially autonomous weapons systems is one instance.

What will the debate look like? Prediction is a mug’s game, but I anticipate largely vacuous contributions, full of clichés about the UK as a ‘global leader’, about ‘punching above our weight,’ about ‘the special relationship with the US’ (a phrase almost unknown in Washington) and about ‘the national interest’ as though that were something akin to the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – exogenously determined and always, just, out of reach, with the only debate being the nonsensical one about which party has the best map to reach it. Specific issues will be discussed at length, for example, Russia, the European Union (especially) and ISIS, but without consistency, intellectual coherence or any sense in which the UK in particular has a distinctive, integrated, coherent and realistic approach to achieving its ambitions on an appropriate scale and within realistic resource constraints.