Hague’s vision for British foreign policyJuly 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.