Influencing tomorrow

In 1938 Neville Chamberlain spoke of the conflict in central Europe as being in ‘a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.’ In Influencing Tomorrow, Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns show just how far foreign policy has come in the last 75 years. Never again can we dismiss issues beyond our borders as beyond our remit.

Whether through global flows of finance or fundamentalism, we are all linked to one another. Our prosperity and security are bound together even between the countries furthest apart and the people most ignorant of one another.

As one might expect from a series of carefully commissioned essays by senior academics and foreign policy thinkers, Influencing Tomorrow is densely packed with ideas. Alexander and Kearns recognise that any book that attempts to take on the full breadth of foreign policy will have holes – there is disturbingly little on cybersecurity – but the biggest challenges and most potent tensions are all present. It is a book of detail and realism rooted in progressive values.

Through their introduction and conclusion, Alexander and Kearns engage with and draw out the key themes which will define global power in the coming decades: multilateralism, legitimacy, smart power and domestic strength. There are also the beginnings of thoughtful responses to these challenges.

They conclude by arguing that foreign policy starts at home. ‘Rebuilding our economic strength,’ they say, ‘will be a sine qua non for future British international influence.’ This is spot on and it’s a shame that the illustration of what this means is only an outline sketch.

The next book from the shadow foreign secretary should be an exposition of what a truly internationalist Labour government would look like. Ranging across government departments, Whitehall silos and the standard divisions of policy thinking, this could set out a compelling vision for Britain and its global influence. As Alexander and Kearns say, this will have to cover all aspects of government, from education and energy to media and manufacturing. Alexander could provide these radical internationalist policy solutions across the piece and reach beyond the traditional remit of foreign secretary. The idea of an ‘Asian step-change taskforce’ based in the foreign office but ranging more widely hints at the new, joined-up approach necessary in the face of shifting global power.

Having said this, Influencing Tomorrow should be welcomed by those on the centre-left. If Alexander doesn’t write a book spelling out these priorities for government, he will still get a significant input into the Labour manifesto. The more that policymaking can be rooted in the values and realism of a progressive, internationalist mindset, the better.

The prime minister and foreign secretary catastrophically mishandled their politically motivated recall of parliament for a vote on military intervention in Syria, the scope and objective of which they could not define. The outcome was unsurprising. This is in stark contrast to a shadow foreign secretary who is not only holding them to account on a daily basis but is finding the time to engage seriously with, and be informed by, the big ideas that will determine Britain’s place in the 21st century world.

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Adam Tyndall sits on the advisory council of Future Foreign Policy

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Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy
Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns (Eds)
Guardian Books | 224pp | £12.99

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