Where in the world…On foreign policy

25 November 2019

DRD partner Duncan Fulton assesses the foreign policy offerings of the three main parties, and the ramifications of these for the UK’s global standing.

1000 words on foreign policy and the election. Easy. Oh…

Foreign policy: the hole where serious analysis of Britain’s future role in the world should go.

My mistake.  It is in the manifestos. Right there at the end (you may have been distracted by the tax and spend bit), the final few hastily assembled paragraphs of a collective essay crisis.

Foreign policy rarely features prominently in General Elections. It tends not to win votes, but, as we saw in 2005 with the spectre of the Iraq War eating into support for Labour, it can lose them.

If, in 2019, the question of Britain’s place in the world is an important one, you wouldn’t know it from the campaigns.

Foreign policy in manifestos?

Barely a word from Boris on foreign policy; we’ve been told Corbyn doesn’t like arms sales to Saudi Arabia; but at least Jo Swinson has noticed something is going on in Hong Kong. Putative PMs usually like to trumpet their qualities as statesmen and their grasp of global events; but not these three.

The Conservatives promise that “getting Brexit done will allow us to do more on the international stage” and defend the “UK’s history and standing in the world” and its “willingness to act” militarily. In keeping with their low-key manifesto, they’ve promised just a little bit more of the same with some trade deals and climate change diplomacy thrown in for good measure.

Labour decry a “‘bomb first talk later’ approach to security” (advice that Mr Corbyn will hopefully be passing on to some of his ‘friends’). They want an “audit of Britain’s colonial legacy,” apologies for Amritsar and Jallianwala Bagh massacres, and reparations for those countries affected by the climate impact of a UK-led industrial revolution – “Climate Justice,” they say. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Trump come in for more criticism than Russia, Iran or those fleetingly mentioned “all terrorists.”

The Lib Dems have arguably the most to say on foreign policy, or more accurately, their “Plan for a Better World” is the longest. Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems would fight “nationalism, authoritarianism,” and, apparently, Trump too. All the while being champions of a “new international liberalism,” and a commitment to multilateral organisations like the EU, NATO and the WTO.

Where in the world…

Ask almost any former diplomat and most serving ones, and they’ll tell you the same: Brexit has harmed our global standing significantly. But that is something no main party has felt able to admit or address. Much as we’d love to pretend that the past three years have been a local problem, other countries may have noticed.

The world realigns and reorientates without us. France has arguably stepped into the global role we once occupied – assertive, confident, interventionist. The patchwork quilt of alliances, friendships and mutual dependencies that once underpinned our global influence is badly frayed, and some were looking threadbare even before the Brexit vote. There’s little sense, from anyone, of how we will set about repairing them.

This Tory manifesto seems to have parked Theresa May’s ‘Global Britain’. The idea that liberated from the EU, the UK would dash off around the world forging new bilateral and trade relations or revisiting old ones like the Commonwealth. It may be a desire to use different language and to demonstrate to would-be voters Boris’ absolute focus on ‘getting Brexit done,’ rather than representing a retreat to ‘nationalism’ as the Lib Dems would call it. But either way it’s as light on vision as it is on detail.

Meanwhile in Labour’s manifesto, Corbyn has split the world into countries we need to hector – and those we need to apologise to and probably compensate. Labour’s proposed approach to foreign policy feels more about assuaging guilt than maintaining or extending influence.

There’s a real absence of analysis or ambition – and if you believe what is written – our foreign policy could be reduced to either an apologia for our colonial history or a desperation to sign trade deals.

What about Defence?

On Defence, there is a common commitment to matching, and, in the Tories’ case, exceeding the NATO target of 2.0% of GDP on defence spending. Similarly, all parties will continue to spend 0.7% on aid. We see some parting of ways, however: Conservatives remain fans of military intervention, while Labour would seek to limit the use of the military to UN Peace Keeping commitments. Plus, conventional military action would require (as the Lib Dems have also pledged) Parliament’s approval via a War Powers Act.

Tories, Lib Dems and Labour (on paper at least) commit to maintaining a nuclear capability, but consider, then, Labour’s position. Trident is a synecdoche: an independent nuclear deterrent symbolises Britain’s strategic power, it gives us heft in the international sphere. As such, it matters as much that we have it, as whether we might ever have cause to use it.

But Labour has an avowedly pacifist leader, who has campaigned tirelessly for nuclear disarmament, who polls suggest would need support from the SNP to form a government who have made scrapping Trident (and holding a second independence referendum) a condition of any such deal.

The terms of a Labour/SNP government would give Corbyn the licence to lose Trident, and an important part of our strategic standing globally would be traded away. Those same terms risk hastening the prospect of the break-up of the Union, which really would leave us diminished. ‘Domestic’ choices in this election have global repercussions.

It’s not inconceivable, therefore, that the next time foreign policy features in a General Election campaign there are rather more votes riding on it. And, with manifestos involving not just our relations with the EU or other countries in the world, but with the former nations of the once United Kingdom.

PHOTO: Courtesy of the British Museum