Britain’s foreign policy: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue?
Too good – if unoriginal – a headline to resist! Foreign Secretary William Hague has delivered the first of four promised speeches elaborating what he says will be a new strategic vision for Britain’s foreign policy. Most of today’s speech was old or borrowed, and little was identifiably blue. But there were some good new ideas too. But how will he pay for what looks like a very much expanded diplomatic function (the FT report started with the suggestion that he was bidding to protect the FCO from further cuts), and, crucially, will he be an Atlanticist or a European? I sense trouble ahead if he fails to answer the second question.
First, how new was this speech? Not very, as Alex Barker hinted at on the FT website. Even where he described some initiatives or thoughts as new, many of them were merely a continuation of David Miliband’s approach (as Lord Malloch-Brown correctly said on Newsnight later in the day). A minor example is the suggestion that engaging with civil society and the media – including in cyber-space – on his trip to Pakistan was an innovation, when it’s exactly what David Miliband did on several of his foreign trips. Of course, much foreign policy is driven by events, by the state of the world, and by Palmerston’s dictum that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Mr Hague has replaced Robin Cook’s ill-fated “ethical foreign policy” with the concept of “values-based diplomacy” – compare and, if you have the faintest idea what the difference might be, contrast!
Second, what was new and good? I think the reference to the Commonwealth was important. I admit to a nagging worry that when William Hague says Commonwealth he means Empire, but he is right to criticise the former Labour Government for ignoring it except for the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings. For years it has been very difficult to find anyone, official or Minister, to talk to about the Commonwealth per se in either the FCO or DFID except around CHOGMs.
The proposal to spend more time on bilateral diplomatic relationships is welcome, but seriously unfunded, unless Mr Hague really does plan to abandon Labour’s thematic approach, as has been suggested, to issues like climate change (I suspect these themes won’t be abandoned in practice).
I know that the diplomatic service are looking forward to an FCO focused more on steering its own course through the global seas than on servicing other parts of Whitehall, as past Comprehensive Spending Reviews bound them to (many friends in the FCO believe Hague will be less dominated by the PM than his predecessors, not least because they are not competitors for the top job, and will therefore be a more powerful figure in the Cabinet, giving them more independence.)
The decision to establish a National Security Council, bringing together in particular the FCO, DFID and MOD is at least an interesting development. Many NGOs are worried that it will place overseas development at the beck and call of economic and military dictates, but while DFID has so much money and so much operational autonomy in the countries where it operates – to the intense disgruntlement of the diplomats, I think “good luck with that one” is the best we can say.
The main unsettled question, I think, is whether William Hague is an Atlanticist or a European, and there is little evidence in this first speech. I’ve been told the decision is either not made or considered a non-question, but for the following reasons I think that’s deeply wrong.
It might be suggested that his emphasis on Commonwealth and his instinctive Euroscepticism, together with his apparent multi-polarism harks back to the days before the ‘American century’. He is keen to emphasise that there will be no pulling back on the world stage. But, bluntly, he hasn’t got the money, and he lives in a new century, where Europe and the USA are clearly the twin poles around which UK foreign policy must operate. I’m not saying you need to choose one to the exclusion of the other, but we aren’t strong enough or rich enough to be able to annoy both by declaring independence.
Labour by and large chose the US – over Iraq, for example, and over economic liberalism as opposed to the social market. Hague’s speech, which is warmer to the EU than the US, has been taken by some to suggest that overall he may be leaning towards Europe. But he must choose, and future speeches may be clearer.