New Thinking on Foreign Policy from the Labour Party?

November 21, 2013

Having been writing quite a lot about British foreign policy recently I noticed that Douglas Alexander, the Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary, has co-edited a collection of essays called Influencing for Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy  so have ideas moved on from the Blairite paradigm?

The essayists are drawn from the establishment think tanks (RUSI, Chatham House) with some Americans mixed in. The book has no less than 10 prepublication puffs telling us how great it is.

Some of the pieces have very little directly to do with the UK (eg Rolf Ekeus on a Middle East WMD free zone)

What’s noticeably missing is an attempt to answer the question how we got here or to take stock of British foreign policy generally. There’s also no discussion of spending levels for foreign affairs other than a commitment to the 0.7% development target.

Alexander concludes that Britain needs a foreign policy which is

Multilateral in character, innovative in the use of the power the UK still has, and respectful of international law.  We have called for an approach that is simultaneously Asia-conscious and pro-European, and simultaneously focussed on a mutually beneficial partnership with the US while still being concerned with matters across wider Europe.  And we have collapsed for an approach that is responsible as it exercises sovereignty and is informed by the challenges opportunities presented by new technology.


That list of regions can be read in at least three ways;  ‘the rest of the world is not a priority’ (is this strategic choice?) or   ‘we can’t make up our mind about where our priorities are’ or ‘we’ve forgotten to mention the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.’

The overall impression is that what we are getting is Tony Blair Lite foreign policy, at one point Alexander does say that we should reject ‘the hubris that the UK can “reorder the world”‘  and generally in most of the chapters there’s more of an emphasis on diplomacy than we might have expected a decade ago but without any sense of a major rethinking of what it means to do foreign policy for Britain.  In contrast the contributions on climate change and responsibility to protect you see the Blairite paradigm in full force.

There are some interesting chapters here.  Mark Leonard’s contribution on ‘Making Britain China Proof’ is blunt in its assessment that the rise of China is hollowing out the global liberal order and this needs to be resisted and it includes what I take to be a dig at previous Labour foreign secretaries:

‘British foreign policy-makers have clung to some heroic assumptions about the power of multilateral institutions to socialize emerging powers.  It is vital to hang on to the values and strategy of promoting a world bound by law rather than power, but the tactics will need to be revised’.

Charles Grant’s chapter on the EU has a section on the rise of Germany hegemony in Europe which is a theme that is becoming increasingly common.  Robin Niblett argues for a the UK as an insider/outsider power without being entirely clear what that means but I think that there’s something there – we’re part of lots of networks and that has the potential using the arbitrage between them more effectively. Paul Collier has an interesting chapter on development – for instance improving capacity for tracking how money flows out of developing economies by corruption.

You can get a second hand copy on Amazon.co.uk for £3.08.


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