The agreement over the weekend in Geneva signals the first steps to a coherent policy from the international community towards the Assad regime. Syria is one example of the new challenges facing the UK foreign policy following two years of rapid economic and political change. The scale of those changes has been unprecedented, from the revolutions and evolutions taking place so close by in north Africa and the wider Middle East; the eurozone crisis and extreme pressures on the economic and political structures in Greece and now possibly Spain; the shock defeat of the one-term President Sarkozy; and a bizarre and worrying return to the role of president for Vladimir Putin. President Obama is surely right to call this ‘a moment of transition’.
But the staggering pace of change and its proximity to us here in the UK has sadly not prompted a coherent response from the government. Both UK defence policy and foreign policy have failed to respond to the changing geopolitical situation, and ministers at the FCO, MoD and Cameron himself have all failed to provide leadership among our allies on these key issues.
It’s impossible to ignore the political and economic changes that are happening in Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. These parts of the world are not remote; they are our neighbours. We go on holiday to Egypt, Greece, Spain, Tunisia; and we trade with our EU partners and countries such as Turkey on the EU periphery, more than any other group of nations. Indeed, our export rates to the BRIC countries compared to the EU has been highlighted as dismal by the government, although George Osborne did get into trouble for overestimating the problem.
So why hasn’t the government got more to say about how the upheaval around us should be approached?
Sadly, the trajectory of David Cameron’s foreign and defence policy has been predictable since well before the 2010 election and has been driven by political caution and pragmatism. He made an early priority of using our embassies to drive awareness of British companies and promote trade opportunities. This approach caused substantial disquiet in the diplomatic service, which you could argue needed a shake-up, but more importantly it also meant that the prime minister was off shaking hands with businessmen in India on his vital first visit as PM while an immigration row blew up because of government policy on student visas. This episode proved that in diplomacy and global affairs you can’t isolate trade from any of the other key national interest policy issues between you and your allies.
That trip took place in July 2010, but, despite the momentous events that have taken place in the world since then, the government’s policy hasn’t moved on. Just last month in May, William Hague gave a rehashed speech to the CBI about the Conservative party’s foreign and defence policy supporting jobs through trade and commerce.
On the eurozone crisis Cameron has explicitly sought to sit on the periphery of the debate. His only radical intervention was last December when he derailed a debate about the EU’s response to the Euro crisis y threatening to use the British veto. At the time that response was read as short-termist, pragmatic, and devoid of strategy, yet only yesterday he has threatened to adopt the same approach at another crunch EU summit.
Equally, the evolutions and revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East have triggered a confused and ambiguous UK response.
On Libya, Cameron pursued robust bilateral action alongside France, yet on Syria he’s chosen multilateral obfuscation, despite this weekend’s steps towards progress. On Egypt, he kept cautiously silence which has cost Britain many supporters among Egypt’s intellectual, western education middle class, yet on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process Cameron has failed to try and sooth tensions during the current upheaval and regional instability.
Observers would be right to conclude that fear has led Cameron’s foreign policy. It’s been an open secret in diplomatic circles that Britain has been actively avoiding interventions of any kind since 2010, and the FCO has quietly ditched its commitment to public diplomacy which had flourished under David Miliband.
On defence as well the government has shown its immaturity. The spending review and strategic defence review both showed Cameron and Osborne’s acute inexperience in government. They underestimated the pace of change taking place, and their analysis of that change was overshadowed by a desperate drive for immediate savings. As Jim Murphy said: ‘Government documents published with great fanfare were rendered out of date by the Arab Spring almost before the ink on them was dry.’ A recent example of this was the U-turn over fighter jets.
Less tangible to pinpoint has been the absence of leadership on global issues. Leadership is so important at times of uncertainty. When people find themselves unfamiliar with their surroundings they naturally seek a strong leader to offer them an explanation. Voters expect to hear their prime minister talking about Britain’s place in the world, and how current events will affect our lives.
Given the lack of leadership Cameron is taking on global issues, surely now is the time for Labour to live up to its values as an internationalist party and promote a progressive and activist agenda for UK foreign and defence policy.
There are those in the Labour party who argue that the tough economic situation at home should force international and European issues off of the agenda. They’re wrong. Globalisation, and simply being connected to other countries through movement of people, capital, and goods, means that we can’t shut ourselves away in order to solve our economic problems.
Labour’s natural instincts are to take a lead on international issues which affect our way of life at home. During the harshest economic crisis, our foreign policy priority should still be to retain global reach and influence, and to defend and protect British interests through the promotion of democracy and security.
David Chaplin writes the Progressive Internationalism column for Progress
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