Hague’s vision for British foreign policy

July 28, 2009 at 10:45 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, International | 6 Comments

On paper at least, William Hague seems like he could be a qualified & competent Foreign Secretary. Ideological differences aside, the former Tory leader is regarded as one of the smartest men in his party, is a keen debater and someone who apparently possesses a strong interest in, and grasp of, British history. These qualities (particularly the last) are all important in a top diplomat, and I think it’s safe to say they have not been present in every one of Labour’s foreign ministers.

Likewise, the vision Hague recently articulated for the future of British foreign policy is – again, on paper – a positive start, and one which does well to reflect both the global economic realities of the present and the breadth of challenges our government will face in the future. You should read Chekov’s excellent post for a summary of what was said, but the tone & themes of Hague’s speech seemed to suggest a return to a Realism or Liberal Realism which would be a welcome break from a Blair doctrine we cannot afford – either financially or diplomatically.

By embracing a more realist approach, Hague can reconcile the traditional Tory emphasis on the sovereignty of the nation state and aversion to grand global designs with a promotion of British values by means of diplomacy, trade and cultural dialogue. Using these means, the Tories would hope to restore those relationships which have corroded in recent years, whether with superpowers such as Russia or the smaller, fractious states in the Middle East where we used to have considerably more influence and respect than we currently possess. As Chekov notes, the worth of any new policy can only ever be judged by how it’s implemented but, if his vision is realised, we should at least avoid the kinds of interventionist escapades which have blighted the past decade.

But there are still some significant omissions from this speech, and problems with other statements the Tories have made in opposition. The first omission regards how his government will approach the arms trade, which has snared previous Conservative governments in scandal. As much as the Tories see free trade as a means to healthier diplomatic relations, the kinds of regimes our manufacturers sell arms to does reflect on our country’s reputation. For that reason, it’s to be hoped that – recession or no – David Cameron will make good on the commitment he made over three years ago to be tough on British manufacturers who provide arms for the world’s bloodiest conflicts.

Whilst Hague promised a comprehensive review of defence spending, he was frustratingly tight-lipped on what vision the Tories have for the future of the armed forces. Given the budget crisis and his more modest appraisal of Britain’s place in the international community, it would be nice to have received an indication that we should therefore be funding a different kind of military. In particular, beginning a shift away from funding a force built for conventional warfare, and towards combating unconventional, terrorist & economic threats (as suggested by this IPPR report) would be welcome. There is still, to my mind, no strategic loss if we failed to renew Trident.

The old issue of Europe still looms large over the party, and whilst the long-term consequences of Cameron’s decision to withdraw his MEPs from the centre-right EPP are still unknown, those voices (even within his own party) who warned that Cameron was making the biggest mistake of his leadership have so far not been proved wrong, judging by the ‘interesting’ company they now keep. Meanwhile, the Tories’ admirable (and slightly surprising) commitment to maintaining our foreign aid contributions has been spoiled by proposed reforms which appear to privilege Whitehall bureacracy over on-the-ground local planning, and feature a bizarre and slightly degrading internet democracy component

Another concern I have is the role a Prime Minister Cameron will play in setting Britain’s foreign policy. Over the past year or so, Cameron has shown a tendency to overreact to world events: his intervention in Georgia last year was anything but the kind of nuanced diplomacy promised in Hague’s speech, and his naive approach to the uprising in Iran would’ve been disastrous had he been Prime Minister – lending a scrap of legitimacy to Tehran’s paranoid ramblings about foreign agents trying to influence the country’s affairs. For a man who three years ago wanted to see a return to ‘humility & patience’ in Britain’s foreign policy, it’s yet to be seen whether Cameron possesses the temperament to see that through.

So whilst Hague’s words about the path the Tories will take on international relations will hardly fill even the Conservatives’ sharpest critics with dread, there are still many outstanding questions to be answered and many unknown tests that his government will have to face. They might not repeat the mistakes of the Blair era, but that’s not to say they won’t make a whole load of mistakes of their own.

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  1. […] Bleeding Heart Show wonders if William Hague is up to being Foreign Secretary. GET THESE LETTERS DELIVERED […]

  2. ‘…a strong interest in, and grasp of, British history. These qualities (particularly the last) are all important in a top diplomat’.

    Particularly the last? How so?

  3. ‘…a strong interest in, and grasp of, British history. These qualities (particularly the last) are all important in a top diplomat’.

    Particularly the last? How so?

    Well, I think having an interest in the history of British FP would add valuable context when deciding how you’re going to handle certain situations.

    They’re not, of course, the only qualities you’d want in a foreign minister, and I think that having an understanding of how domestic political realities can shape a nations’ international relations is more important than having once written a book about William Wilberforce. But I suppose I’d like someone who has read & thought deeply about foreign policy, and doesn’t just like the idea of attending fancy summits & staying in plush hotels. Remains to be seen how well Hague would perform in the role, but he doesn’t fill me with dread as much as, say, Liam Fox or Michael Gove.

  4. Hmm.

    But what of the supposed disquiet in the United States over Cameron’s schizophrenic approach to the European Union? The New Statesman has been reporting regularly on misgivings in the US about British FP under the Tories. If multiple press reports are even vaguely correct and Barack Obama is neither impressed nor overly excited about a Cameron Ministry, how effective can a Cameron-Hague foreign policy really be?

    Who knows, perchance British FP will be more humble and patient–but that will only be because Washington realises Britain’s diluted role in Europe (why use the crumbling British ‘bridge’ to Paris or Berlin, when Merkel and Sarkozy work the European angle much better–and are both reflexively less likely to say ‘no’ than were Chirac and Schroeder?) and its over-stretch don’t make it a reliable partner in the short-term.

    • Rene,

      Some interesting points here. I’ll start by saying that I began the post by trying to assess Hague’s speech on its merits, and I’ve explained why there are portions of it which I think are positive. That isn’t to say that there aren’t concerns, and I set some of out later in the post, but it’s a decent enough vision for foreign policy, at least on paper.

      On my more non-partisan days, I have a slight amount of sympathy for Cameron’s position on Europe. Both him and the most vocal section of his party are opposed to a federalist Europe, and so he thought it self-defeating and somewhat hypocritical to remain part of a centre-right alliance which doesn’t share that view. Whether you agree or disagree with that (and I disagree), it at least has the benefit of being ideologically consistent, and there are even some on the left who oppose the Lisbon treaty.

      So what made him look like a fool wasn’t withdrawing from the EPP, but thinking that he could create an influencial (and moderate) alliance to challenge it. This seemed like little more than an attempt to save face and pretend the Tories could still kick it with boys in the European Parliament, and he did it because although the British might regularly show hostility to the European Parliament at election time, I think Cameron recognises that we also don’t like looking weak. This is unfortunate, because however ideologically consistent the decision might’ve been, it was inevitably going to reduce the Tories’ influence & effectiveness in Parliament.

      So there are concerns about Cameron’s judgement on foreign policy, and we should certainly bear those in mind when giving Hague a good review for a single speech.

      I still don’t know how seriously to take the New Statesman pieces. For one thing, the Obama ‘inner circle’ has shown itself to be one of the disciplined political teams I’ve ever seen; they simply don’t leak. So I’m sceptical about how close this source really is to the President on foreign policy, and would suspect that he/she doesn’t currently work in the administration. Besides, I think Britain’s importance to America’s already been diluted by this new administration, which sees close co-operation with Europe as a whole to be more important that simply having Britain & a few assorted others as allies. This isn’t a bad thing for us or the U.S. – given the need for international agreements on several important issues, it’s important that America can work with the whole of Europe.

      Right, I’ve droned on long enough, but in short: yes, you’re right to have concerns and I’d certainly share them with you. But if/when the Tories do start making really bad judgements in foreign policy, I think it’ll be useful to criticise them by holding them to the standards Hague sets in this speech.

      Cheers for the comment.

  5. Hello Neil,

    Thanks for the quick and thoughtgul response.

    I understand you tried to give Mr. Hague the benefit of the doubt. I guess I read the speech and quickly developed the view that it isn’t really much of a change in policy at all–not a fundamental one, at least. He spends an awful lot of space sharing his view that the United Kingdom should hue closely to the United States (as if the UK hadn’t done enough of that since 2001) and vigorously pursue a preeminent role for British influence in the world. The deck chairs may change, but the substantive policies remain the same.

    I thought his strongest point was in recognising the dramatic shift in the balance of power over time to Asia. The last 2 years or so have borne out this inevitable shift in wealth and prestige, certainly. Much less noteworthy is his insistence on keeping most of British policy as is, whilst taking a hard line on one particular issue–Europe. He has little good to say for the European Union, which is a self-defeating policy as you and I both agree, and he still seems terminably wedded to the notion that there is a ‘special relationship’ worth preserving. You can also add his useless gestures towards strengethening cooperation with the Commonwealth to the dung heap.

    I guess it’s indicative of his wider view that he seems shocked by the fact that Europe won’t be the only rich part of the world to witness a relative dilution of economic power relative to Asia. As he putit, ‘[t]he European Commission’s own projections have shown Europe’s share of the world economy declining from 18% now to 10% by 2050. And even the United States is not immune from the effect of economic problems.’ Well, no shit, Will.

    William Hague’s position on Europe may be more ideologically consistent. But ideological consistency is surely not an end to itself: the whole point of having political ideologies is so that the direction of policy is generally consonant to our convictions and grounded in facts for the greater good of the nation. Mr. Hague is allowing his eurosceptical convictions override the inanity of his policies.

    As for the Obama Administration I don’t think the New Statesman’s informants are alone in their assessment. As the Financial Times reported recently some European diplomats themselves are sceptical Mr. Hague will get a fair hearing for his euroscepticism in Washington. As the article put it:

    Another senior diplomat from an EU state said: “I’m fairly relaxed because I just don’t think this stance on the EU will meet with any approval in the US.

    “I think the Obama people will tell a Conservative government right away that Washington wants full UK engagement in Europe to continue. I don’t think the Conservatives will be able to ignore that.”

    To me it is self-evident that Britain needs to engage more openly, more fairly and more consistently with the rest of Europe. But if it doesn’t I don’t think America will much care to entertain British disagreements on major issues. I think Mr. Obama will lean more heavily on France and Germany on the bigger issues of the day if Mr. Hague’s European policy remains unchanged, and sideline an isolated Tory Britain.


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