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Foreign Policy challenges facing Britain

Submitted by on 27 Sep 2010 – 10:16

Photo: Alex Folkes/Fishnik Photography

By Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife

It is said that foreign policy never wins general elections but can lose them. I say “can” because Tony Blair got an historical third victory for Labour in 2005 (albeit by a much reduced majority) in spite of Iraq and even the leaking during the campaign of the Attorney General’s original equivocal advice about the legality of military action against Saddam Hussein. It is hard to imagine foreign policy determining the outcome of a 2015 General Election when we know that the central theme of this Parliament will be the management of the economy and deficit reduction.

We are effectively out of Iraq and we have a de facto deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan the two overseas engagements which have dominated Britain’s international agenda since the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. There has been an outbreak of pragmatism over Europe which might in the absence of the coalition have proved a difficult issue for a Conservative government with a large majority. Nothing encourages rebellion more than large majorities as Francis Pym, the then Chief Whip of the Tories sagely implied at a general election press conference in 1983. Margaret Thatcher exacted a heavy price from him for his sagacity by sacking him once the election was safely won.

Iraq and Afghanistan are important not just for themselves but the caution against similar engagements in the future which they have undoubtedly engendered.  Neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Foreign Office will show much enthusiasm for similar overseas escapades for a long time to come. Nor will the UK have the capacity (if it ever properly had it) to fight two such long drawn out “hot” engagements simultaneously for such a long period. The defence review will see to that as will the inevitable public reluctance to tolerate casualties on the scale of the last nine years.

In Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo, UK forces in implement of UN resolutions or the doctrine of humanitarian intervention (now modified to the concept of the duty to protect) engaged in conflict for the protection of human rights and individual freedom. Look around and ask yourself if such obligations would be so readily undertaken today.

Reduced military capacity means reduced foreign policy choices. To argue as all three parties have that the future rests in alliances restricts such choices even further. Alliances require agreement. European nations have shown reluctance to commit their young men and women when the bullets start flying. You need spend little time on Capitol Hill in Washington to learn that whatever the White House or State Department may think it will take real damage actual or potential to US interests to persuade either side of the aisle in both Senate and the House of Representatives to support further large overseas military commitments. Even at 50,000 non combat troops in Iraq the USA will have a substantial obligation there and in the Pentagon there will be many voices adding to the murmurings of recent weeks that no artificial deadlines should be set for the USA in Afghanistan whatever other governments may do and however persuasive of the White House policy for withdrawal the electoral cycle and President Obama’s campaign for re-election may be. Our existing alliances with European nations and with the USA will not readily reach agreements which require military deployments abroad. Listen carefully and in the margins of NATO you will even hear muted whisperings about the continuing need for the Article 5 Treaty Obligation which treats an attack on one member of NATO as an attack on all members.
But there is one military obligation for a British government which cannot be avoided, not that any political party shows any sign of doing so. And that is the Falklands. In all this review about defence needs and obligations I have no doubt we shall hear nothing about reducing the commitment to the South Atlantic. Why? Because even a sniff of a reduced commitment whether theoretical or practical would be seized upon in Argentina. And as we saw earlier this year the immediate reaction in the USA to Argentinean bluster was less than unequivocal support for the British position.

And therein lies a real foreign policy challenge which any government, coalition or not, would be required to face. The alliance with the USA, often misrepresented as “special” meaning unique, will inevitably change. American interests are less with Europe and more with the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil. The old nostalgia for the UK being stripped away under the influence of economic pragmatism. Europe and the UK will remain important in Washington but not automatically so. Their importance will be determined by their contribution to the transatlantic alliance not their dependence upon it.

In the foreign office and the MOD we shall have to do more with less. The next few years will be about coping not swaggering.