Why the UK has no foreign policy

In the absence of any political lead either from their UK masters or their indirect US ones, the UK's foreign office diplomats are left with little direction to exercise real clout, and no role, even on a realpolitik basis, to play in a changing and challenging world.

Kirsty Hughes
18 August 2014

David Cameron and Barack Obama during a press conference. Evan Golub/Demotix. All rights reserved.The sharp critique of Cameron's policy failures and inadequacies in the Middle East from the Bishop of Leeds, Nicholas Baines this weekend underlines a wider problem: Cameron's government has had no serious foreign policy throughout its time in office. While the UK was in recession, and the EU was embroiled in the related euro crisis, this absence was less noticed. But in the face of a growing list of serious foreign policy challenges – from Russia and Ukraine, to the Middle East and North Africa (including Israel-OPT, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran), from food crisis and conflict in South Sudan to questions of migration, climate change, food security and more – the absence of a UK foreign policy is remarkable.

Five reasons for this failure stand out.

The US doesn't have a foreign policy

 The US is going through a highly inward-looking, almost isolationist moment under Obama, notwithstanding the recent air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. Obama's foreign policy stance has, in a nutshell, been not to repeat the damaging errors of Bush – the perils of military interventionism are well understood by Obama and by wider American public opinion; the perils of isolationism, and the lack of a clear geopolitical strategy, less so.

A substantial part of the UK's foreign policy has almost always been to follow and partner with the US (with a few noteworthy exceptions including Harold Wilson not joining the Vietnam war). Hence if there is no lead from the US – from Israel and Gaza, to Syria, Russia, climate change or development – then the UK has no lead to follow.

The UK like the US has, rightly, been bruised by the disastrous decision to attack Iraq in 2003. But intervening in Libya (but then not staying the course afterwards), then not intervening in Syria (and so letting the IS grow), and now utter confusion as to any UK role in the resulting mayhem in Iraq and ongoing carnage in Syria, looks like what it is – the absence of any coherent or considered foreign policy.

In the absence of any political lead either from their UK masters or their indirect US ones, the UK's foreign office diplomats are left with little direction or chance to exercise real clout, sometimes reverting more to a nineteenth century real politik analysis even in the absence of policy solutions or actions (one off-the-record UK foreign policy gathering earlier this year musing on the power balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia more than on any UK role or principled strategic approach).

Trade policy is not a foreign policy

 Cameron announced early on in his premiership that promoting 'UK plc' was the top foreign policy priority not only of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), but also of the Foreign Office and British embassies around the world. At a time of major geopolitical shifts, including the long run trend to a multipolar world (and the rise in particular of China), with the Arab Spring unfolding (first hopefully, then turning into the violence of Syria and Libya, and the counter-revolution in Egypt), the continuing urgent and vital need to tackle global warming, and many other challenges in Europe's neighbourhood (from the deteriorating democratic environment in Turkey, to Putin's revanchism), the absence of a serious foreign policy beyond simple mercantilism has meant the UK – whether Prime Minister, foreign secretary, government or officials – has been a light-weight, irrelevant or inconsistent player over the last four years.

If 'UK plc' comes first, then a clear, strategic British approach to Russia, or to China, or the Arab Spring, and its failures, is not going to happen – and clearly has not happened. Human rights considerations are notable by their absence in 'UK plc'. And there is no sense of any overarching framework, even on a pure realpolitik basis, as to the role the UK could and should play in a changing and challenging world in current government policy.

Euroscepticism has undermined any serious European foreign policy

The euro crisis has distracted – or been allowed to distract – the EU's leaders from serious foreign policy challenges in their own neighbourhoods – whether East or South. But Cameron's kow-towing to his own Tory party eurosceptics (now rewarded even with the post of foreign secretary in the person of Philip Hammond) combined with the gradual diminution of those in the Conservative ranks who used to both understand and broadly support EU membership for the UK has meant that the UK's EU influence in Brussels is at an all-time low (the dynamics of this, and its contribution to an absence of foreign policy were well set out by Philip Stephens in an FT piece earlier this year). Where once the UK, with France and Germany, was a key player – even a leader – in any serious and strategic joint foreign policy initiatives at EU level, the UK is now absent. From the Ukraine crisis, to relations with Turkey, to desperate migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, this UK failure to engage with its key European allies is a major problem.

In the late 1990s and early noughties, the UK with Germany in particular, was a crucial influence in ensuring that the EU did (albeit slowly) enlarge to include the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. In 2004, in a moment of real strategic clarity, the EU – with France, Germany and the UK in agreement – took the decisions to open membership negotiations with Turkey, a crucial step in underpinning its then considerable democratic progress. Turkey's shift to a more authoritarian and contested democracy as the Erdogan years have unfolded has several causes, but the EU's backtracking on its commitment to genuine membership talks is one of those causes. The UK's voice has not been heard to any significant degree on this under Cameron.

The EU is also a Union of 'soft power' more than hard – one that can exert influence by being a leader and a model (however imperfect) on democracy, on human rights. But the Cameron government's antipathy to human rights and to EU collectivism for both internal and external policies has meant the UK has, in essence quite deliberately, lost influence in Brussels across the board. Despite the early pronouncements of Hague and Cameron talking up the Commonwealth as some foreign policy or global alternative to the EU, this is, as it clearly always was, an ill-informed dream. 

The UK government has turned against human rights

The Tories shift on human rights in recent years is a quite marked and major trend. Leading members of the cabinet and party are unembarrassed to suggest that the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK was a leading founder of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War Two, which led to regional initiatives such as the ECHR (a decade before the EU even came into existence). But for today's Tories, human rights are seen as a devil's brew combining the EU dictating to the UK, a soft touch for migrants, asylum-seekers, criminals, and generally something that the left but not the right may support. There is a mixture of confusion, ignorance, deliberate kow-towing to the red tops and to backbenchers, and the drive to push back UKIP, all crowding in here.

Even the UN is seen by some Tories, in their defensive, little England mood, as a left-wing or liberal conspiracy – the criticisms by a UN commissioner of the government's 'bedroom tax' leaving some apoplectic.

But if the UK doesn't stand for democracy and human rights in the world today, as one element of its foreign policy (even if not as the driver either of an 'ethical' foreign policy Robin Cook style, nor a real politik Bush-Blair style cover), then there can be little surprise that trade as number one priority on its own does not a foreign policy make.

Add to this, the growing insularity of how the UK's security is explained or projected by the government – we are, in their view, at risk from terrorists, from international crime, from high levels of migration. Yet how these perceived threats are tackled is through a defensive, domestic policy ranging from mass surveillance of electronic communications, as exposed by Snowden and reported extensively and bravely by the Guardian, to generally bungled and ill-thought through attempts to limit international migrant flows (often to complaints from the very businesses whose trade is meant to be the number one – and only – priority of the UK's foreign policy). Earlier attempts to promote the UK as a champion of internet freedom (something that could be part of a reasoned modern foreign policy) have frayed and failed as the domestic, defensive brigade have won out. 

Development assistance is not a foreign policy

David Cameron did come into power in 2010 promising to keep the UK's commitments to increase development aid to 0.7% of GDP. This was said, at the time, to show his warm, modern side – and is a commitment that the Tory right would love to get rid of. Development assistance (for all the debate over the benefits and impact of aid) can form part of a coherent approach to the world – tackling poverty, promoting human security, dealing with crises (famine, conflict, fragile and failing states). But development assistance on its own is not an overarching foreign policy – and indeed should be kept at arms-length from promoting a country's interests, if the aid is not to be, or be seen as, biased. This more UK-centric application of aid – such as the prioritising of education aid to Pakistan or the linking of civilian and military aid roles in Afghanistan – has been more evident in recent years. And at the same time, the Tories have put a lot more emphasis on markets and entrepreneurship since 2010, and much less emphasis once again on coordinating with EU partners.

Interestingly, the government has mostly kept rather quiet about its development aid promises and commitments – perhaps as something that doesn't mesh well with its other anti-human rights, anti-migration, compete with UKIP approaches to the 2015 election.

Any UK foreign policy for the future?

The relative absence of political debate on the abandonment of an overarching European and global foreign policy for the UK is striking. The Lib-Dems are implicated as part of the coalition government, and have failed to impact even in their traditionally strong areas of the EU and rights, while the Labour opposition has not stood up loudly for human rights, for a progressive migration and asylum policy nor against mass surveillance (Alex Salmond in Scotland is a notable sane voice on how migration can benefit a modern economy).

With no coherent Labour view on when if ever intervention might be the right approach in a crisis, or even a strong challenge to Cameron on why he has so weakened the UK's role in international climate talks (even though Ed Miliband led on climate in the Brown government), the UK's shift into its current status as a mercantilist, and rather weak, international player has been remarkably swift and remarkably uncontested. With the Bishop's letter, perhaps that may now start to change though with a general election looming, the head-in-the sand approach from government is most likely to prevail.


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