Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Hague's foreign policy speech outlines the right approach, but the test will be implementation.

Yesterday William Hague delivered a speech to the International Institute of Strategic Studies describing the contours which a Conservative government’s foreign policy would follow. The shadow foreign minister gave the clearest indication to date that his party intends to renounce the interventionism which Labour has practised during its time in office. Existing undertakings in Afghanistan will be honoured, although the strategy there must be reviewed. But the Conservatives will develop their foreign policy around a realist core, making future military entanglements less likely. Significantly, Hague’s address suggests that, whilst Britain should continue to emphasise commitment to democracy and human rights in its relationships with other countries, the proselytising style favoured by David Miliband and other government figures will be replaced by respectful engagement.

It is a speech which will delight advocates of a more cautious and sceptical foreign policy. And it is a speech which is predicated on financial constraints which the UK will experience during the next number of years.

It is debt, bequeathed by the Labour government, and the ‘economic challenges’ that will face its successor, which Hague chose to stress in his opening remarks. But although short-term financial woes and longer term ‘forces of economics and demography’ may erode ‘conventional assumptions about what Britain and its main partners can readily achieve in world affairs’ the UK retains advantages which can allow it to realise its foreign policy objectives. There are compelling arguments, both practical and moral, which support the type of change that Hague envisages, beyond economics. A more circumspect attitude, which recognises and respects differences in outlook between different political cultures, is a virtue in itself. Less hectoring relationships with Russia and China will accrue trade benefits and offer an opportunity to exercise influence, subtly, on the two countries’ conduct. Fewer instances of hypocrisy, adopting a more nuanced stance on international issues rather than seeking out an absolute narrative of right and wrong. If Britain possessed enormous surpluses and a buoyant worldwide reputation, a rethink along these lines would still be welcome.

None of which is to suggest that the UK should seek to isolate itself. The pertinent point is that the dangers which we now face are different from those which dominated the world post WW2. A multilateral approach is required to meet many of these challenges and we are unlikely to achieve multilateralism by constantly extolling our own virtues and contrasting them with the perceived barbarity of potential partners. Hague identifies ‘failed or failing regions’ as a principal concern for the international community in decades to come. Broadly defined these are states, or series of states, which collapse, with the result that terrorism, private armies and organised crime become prevalent. The Horn of Africa is the shadow foreign minister’s example, whilst in Afghanistan and Pakistan the possibility of similar disintegration remains real. Although our promotion of democracy and human rights must remain constant, we should be careful not to undermine stability in areas where states struggle with separatism, which is often intimately connected with precisely the characteristics of failed regions that Hague describes.

In its article about Conservative policy the Guardian suggests that ‘national interest’ will dictate a Cameron government’s approach to foreign affairs, whilst ‘ethics’ defined Labour’s terms in office. The paper appears to me to be systematically hardening its stance on Cameron conservatism as an election looms closer, but even so, this is quite a distortion. Hague demonstrates with repeated examples that following the national interest is not incompatible with an ethical foreign policy. International stability, fewer instances of terrorism, increased prosperity in troubled regions and countering climate change are all objectives which would place Britain in a calmer, safer and happier context, should they be realised. Pursuing foreign wars, colluding in torture, fomenting separatism and taking an enormously subjective view of the constituents of democracy, were not viewed throughout much of the world as ethical successes, whatever the Guardian implies. Hague characterises his vision for foreign policy as ‘enlightened national interest’.

“Britain will be safer if our values are strongly upheld and widely respected in the world. Nor would Britain ever be happy as a nation if we partly or largely retired from trying to influence world events. The citizens of Britain have always been restless in trying to improve the wider world and global in our outlook. We have always been at the forefront of international charity, development aid, and the welcoming of refugees.”


The key is to show respect for the sovereignty of other states, acknowledge that they will pursue their own interests in different ways, and yet remain consistent in promoting our own values. Conservatives are sceptical about the notion that a perfect world, subscribing to common values, is realistic and adamant that it cannot be imposed. They ground their aspirations in what is possible.

“That is why David Cameron and I have spoken in recent years of our approach to foreign affairs being based on "Liberal Conservatism" in that we believe in freedom, human rights and democracy and want to see more of these things in other nations. But Conservative, because we believe strongly in the continued relevance of the nation state and are sceptical of grand utopian schemes to re-make the world. As David Cameron said: "My instinct is to work patiently with the grain of human nature; with the flow of culture, tradition and history."”


From this philosophical basis the specifics of Conservative policy are extrapolated. Armed forces supplied with equipment to do the job which they are asked to do, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office brought back to the centre of decision making, a ‘solid but not slavish’ relationship with America, ‘freshening and deepening’ our connections with Russia and China. It is heartening to read a speech which appears to have learned from the Labour government’s most serious foreign policy errors. If a Conservative Foreign Minister taps into the wealth of diplomatic and strategic knowledge encompassed by the FCO, other objectives will begin to appear more realistic. If David Miliband’s simplistic, meddling, hectoring style, developed on the famous Downing Street ‘sofa’, becomes a thing of the past, the Tories will be much of the way towards a constructive foreign policy.

In common with many of the Conservative keynote speeches and policy documents, the party’s ultimate success will be judged by how effectively it implements its proposals. To date, the instincts, ideas and philosophies which Cameron’s Tories have introduced are often rather sound. I feel that this is particularly true of Hague’s address, which covers another policy area Labour has got lamentably wrong. If it does guide the Conservative party when (if) it enters government, then it will form the basis of sensible, cautious foreign policy.

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