Shadow Government

How will the Tories run UK foreign policy?

By Will Inboden A default conversation starter in political and media circles here in London goes something like "So, what will the Conservatives actually do once they take power next June?" (the assumption being that victory is inevitable; at the least very likely). For all of David Cameron and the Conservatives’ political success in becoming poised ...

By Will Inboden

A default conversation starter in political and media circles here in London goes something like "So, what will the Conservatives actually do once they take power next June?" (the assumption being that victory is inevitable; at the least very likely). For all of David Cameron and the Conservatives’ political success in becoming poised to win nationwide elections, their policy priorities remain elusively vague. This is certainly true on domestic policy, but even more so on foreign policy, which remains an enigma to many British observers. The politics of this are understandable. Why spell out specific policies which might elicit criticism and turn off some voters, especially when Gordon Brown’s manifest governing failures make almost any opposition party look good in comparison? 

Yet how Cameron and his team will actually conduct British foreign policy will do much to define their governing success or failure. Moreover, the UK remains America’s most important ally, and what kind of partner a Cameron government would make is (or should be) of considerable interest to the Obama administration. Here are some observations on a potential Tory foreign policy:

1. No Sudden Moves. The main thing that jumps out about a Tory foreign policy is that nothing jumps out. The Conservatives have not spelled out any substantial changes of course from the current UK global posture and priorities: stay close to the US; cautious linkage with Europe; rhetorical homage to multilateral institutions; a wariness towards Russia; ambivalence about Afghanistan; a polite increase in economic pressure on Iran; and general encomiums about development, democracy and human rights, and free trade. Not much here that Gordon Brown’s government would disagree with. The Tories even want to avoid giving rhetorical offense, hence their description of their foreign policy as "liberal Conservative." A phrase which, to American ears, sounds as incoherent as "free market socialist", but is at least plausible when Cameron explains it: affirming universal rights and freedoms yet mindful of human frailty and skeptical of utopianism.

2. What about the Great Powers and Grand Strategy? Tory statements on the great powers and grand strategy are thus far generally anemic. Take Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague’s major foreign policy address last month on a Conservative foreign policy. A grand vision, and the great powers, were both either absent or at best at the margins. There was a discussion of bilateral irritants with Russia, and a nod towards improving ties with India, though little appreciation for India’s dramatic trajectory as a democratic power in its own right. Elsewhere on Asia, Hague showed some ambivalence about China, and barely mentioned Japan — a worrisome oversight of the world’s second largest economy. Germany and France only show up in the context of reforming EU processes, not as powers in their own right. Also thus far lacking among Tory leaders is any substantial geo-strategic analysis of the state of the world. There are the usual platitudes about globalization, the challenge of failing states, balancing interests and ideals, etc. But there is little of sophistication said about the underlying shifts in balances of power, the tension between the nation-state and sub- and trans-national actors, the salience of ideology, or the tectonic forces of history.

3. Process, Process, Process. Perhaps the most specific Tory policy commitments are about administrative process, specifically to establish a National Security Council (based on the US model) to coordinate the activities of the various ministries, and to launch a national security review process modelled on the new US Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review. Both are sensible steps, especially since ineffective processes can easily derail sound policies. But the prominence of process reforms in Tory statements inadvertently reveals the paucity of other substantial new policy ideas.

4. Diminished Resources, Declining Power. Tory foreign policy statements include repeated acknowledgements, both implicit and explicit, that the UK is a declining power with diminishing resources and influence. In Hague’s words, "looking a decade or two ahead, powerful forces of economics and geography elsewhere in the world will make it harder for us to maintain our influence… Britain stands to lose a good deal of its ability to shape world affairs." This comes from a combination of Britain’s century-long decline from its global power status, and the more recent budget shocks caused by the economic crisis. Yet there is the risk that British decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or an excuse for maintaining domestic welfare spending at the expense of national security needs, or for passivity in international politics. To his credit, Hague makes clear that the Conservatives will work to arrest this decline and try to maintain British power and influence, though with an inescapable sense that world forces are aligning elsewhere.

5. Ambivalent about Aid; Anemic on Trade. The recent Tory Green Paper on development reaffirms the dubious commitment to devote .7 percent of GDP to overseas development aid. "Dubious" because this number derives originally from a public relations campaign and not a strategy, smacks of the old and discredited massive budget transfers approach, when what is really needed is a combination of more effective aid giving and a more robust focus on business enterprise as the only sustainable driver of growth and enabler of human capital. Fortunately elsewhere the Green Paper does just that, and also focuses on making aid monies more accountable for results and more tied to governance reforms. On promoting free trade, the Tories need to show not just lip service but leadership, particularly against the prevailing global climate of protectionism.

6. What about jihadism? The Conservatives generally display a clear-eyed understanding and resolve about the jihadist threat. Cameron has spoken out eloquently in this regard. Yet perhaps the most bracing discussion of jihadism comes not from a foreign policy official but from Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, whose book Celsius 7/7 (the title a rebuttal to Michael Moore’s scurrilous Fahrenheit 9-11) places Islamism alongside other totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism, and who may exert more influence on national security than one would expect from an education official. Cameron and his team will need to be more specific and more consistent in placing the Afghanistan mission in the context of the conflict with global jihadism, especially if it means bolstering their troop deployment amidst declining public support.

7. America (Still) Sets the Agenda. One gets the inescapable sense that British Conservatives (like Labour) still look to the United States to set much of the foreign policy agenda, irrespective of which president occupies the White House. On policy, Cameron and Hague peer towards American leadership on front-burner issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East Peace Process, as well as relations with China or strategic shifts such as the ill-fated "reset button" with Russia. While Cameron has made a clumsy effort to put some rhetorical distance between the US and UK with his call for a "solid but not slavish" relationship, all serious signs from the UK side are that the Anglo-American relationship would continue to flourish under Conservative leadership. How the Obama administration would respond remains to be seen; will Churchill be welcomed back into the Oval Office?

Even amidst the vagaries and uncertainties, in the overall measure the Tory foreign policy team, particularly Hague and Liam Fox, seem to possess wisdom and gravitas. Moreover, there are not any Tory leaders or policies that elicit significant concern — there is nothing even close to a latter-day Lord Halifax in this Shadow Cabinet. Yet nor are there any Conservative ideas yet advanced that seem compelling in the face of the profound challenges of today’s world, or that inspire hope for a landmark new era in British foreign policy. This may yet come — often a leader’s convictions and capabilities do not emerge until in the crucible of power, and it is events still unforeseen that will define the Tory tenure. For now, one hopes that Conservative leaders are studying up and thinking carefully about Britain’s role in the world, even if they are not saying much.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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