A hollow statement of British foreign policy

William Hague (source opendemocracy)

Conservative shadow foreign secretary William Hague is one of the best orators in British politics. His attacks on Labour figures such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson have always been enjoyable to watch. His speech earlier this week outlining what a Conservative foreign policy might look like if they win the next election was less amusing. (Read the speech here.)In fact, it amounts to a rather hollow statement of what Britain might stand for.

It is welcome that he does not adopt a tone that is too self-congratulory. British politicians and thinkers often talk about the achievements and importance of Britain in the world: such comments come less often from their counterparts in other countries. William Hague is well aware that, if we aspire to a peaceful and liberal world order, things are not necessarily going our way: “the world looks likely to be a more dangerous rather than less dangerous place in the coming decades,” he says. Disorder is on the increase and not the reverse.

His second note of realism is in discussing the relative importance of Britain in the world. Demographically and economically, Britain stands out less than it used to. (It is a bit unfair to blame Gordon Brown for all that relative economic decline, for it represents also the rise of China and India, but William Hague is not only discussing foreign policy but also campaigning for a change in government and has to take every chance he can get.)

Against this background of growing disorder and relative decline, William Hague proposes, with one important exception, a policy largely of continuity. He acknowledges the bi-partisan support for much of British foreign policy at present: the engagement in Afghanistan (and even in Iraq at the outset), a tough line with Russia, a strong friendship with America, and support for reform of the United Nations. He thinks that more could be made of the Commonwealth as an international institution, but this is largely as a counterbalance for his major difference in policy with the current government, namely on Europe.

His opposition to the Lisbon treaty and the current trajectory on which the EU is set is well-known; he only has to mention it briefly in his speech.

(And it is not only William Hague who thinks this. A survey by the website ConservativeHome.com of adopted Tory candidates in the top target or Conservative held seats found the following results:

The next Conservative Government should retain Britain’s current relationship with the European Union as it is but cede no further powers to the EU 10%
The next Conservative Government should seek to repatriate powers in some areas from the European Union to Westminster 47%
The next Conservative Government should seek a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union 38%
The next Conservative Government should seek wholesale withdrawal from the European Union 5%

The view of this blog regarding Conservative policy on Europe is well-known too: read it here and here and here if you need any reminding.)

There are two problems that arise from William Hague’s approach (aside of course from our basic criticism that his policy on Europe is wrong).

The first is that much of what he wants to achieve depends on Europe. His ability to pursue even a policy of continuity will be reduced if he chooses not to work closely with his closest neighbours. Whatever the differences of opinion between the different member states, they are still generally smaller than those with countries outside the EU because the confluence of interests among EU members is so strong. It would be unwise to let an ideological difficulty with the EU spill over into Britain’s role in the world as a whole.

And it is not only this blog that is saying this. The Financial Times reported that a “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.’”

The second problem is that even continuity in foreign policy is insufficient. We have already noted that there is a growing disorder in the world and this surely needs something new, not more of the same (and certainly not less). And if Britain has declining influence, it needs to act now to do those new things, not later when it will be less able to do them.

The Schuman Declaration of 1950 spoke of the importance of “creative efforts”. That remains true today.

For example, all the talk of UN reform is useless as long as Britain insists on retaining a veto on the Security Council. The problem is that there are too many vetoes, not that there are too few, and the British entitlement to a veto is one of the chief anomalies in the system. For William Hague, though, in his speech, it is an asset.

Similarly, any worries about a possible Iranian nuclear arms programme or wider nuclear proliferation sound rather hollow as long as the UK has its own submarine fleet underneath the Atlantic Ocean.

The remaining question is whether it is all too late. Maybe the UK now is too small on its own to make significant unilateral gestures. However, a concerted European move on UN reform, opting for a single EU seat on the UNSC for example, or a European initiative to separate the military from the civilian uses of nuclear power –which other countries around the world could then be invited to join – could make a real difference.

What this means is that William Hague’s attempt to discuss foreign policy separately from European policy seems rather odd, and is, when you think about what his European policy is, actually doomed.

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