This week we are hearing about the UK’s public spending plans for the next four years which will include substantial cuts. Given that the government has committed to spending 2% of GNP on defence and 0.7% on aid the only place for cuts in the foreign budget is the FCO and two groups have put out reports in the last couple of weeks to make the case for growth in foreign affairs expenditure. First on the scene was Strengthening Britain’s Voice in the World from the UK Foreign and Security Policy Working Group and this was closely followed by Investing for Influence from the LSE Diplomacy Commission. The latter group has a more academic make up – although the ‘academics’ include several retired diplomats and the former is more drawn from the think tank community. The media is represented by the Financial Times and the BBC, the LSE has a banker.
As you might expect the ‘think tankers’ have produced a more narrowly focused report while the ‘academics’ take up broader issues of nature of the international system and the purposes of foreign policy but the two reports recognizably emerge from the same milieu. Both argue that the UK should pursue an active foreign policy and needs to invest in its diplomatic machinery. Both are concerned about the decline of spending on the diplomatic service. As the think tankers conclude governments ‘cannot talk the rhetoric of being a global player while at the same time cutting back on many of the institutions that sustain British influence abroad’. They also agree what British foreign policy is about; for the think tankers it is the ‘support of an open, liberal international order’ for the LSE ‘a dispassionate advocate of both globalisation and governance.’ These two papers essentially restate the logic of the past two decades of British foreign policy which have produced the current situation where however persuasive the government finds the argument for 2%+0.7% everyone else finds the UK unengaged with foreign policy.
What is more interesting in these papers is the what is absent from them and looking at them this way suggests some of the features of how the British foreign policy elite constructs the world.
- This is international politics without politics. Britain should support ‘a rule based international order’ or in the words of the LSE ‘the UK’s key relationship, as it for all states, with international society as a whole: in a globalised, networked world, states’ interest in the system’s overall operation vastly outweighs their partial interests within it.’ There is zero insight that there might be different rule based orders and that the UK tends to favour a particular version of a rule based order. Everyone might agree that the absence of rule based order would be bad but that doesn’t mean that they agree on which rules and how they are applied.
- This is international politics without priorities. Part of the reason for this is that there is no sense of geopolitics in these documents – indeed it is the think tankers who head a section ‘global not just regional’. Geography is one way in which priorities can be set. Both the reports slip into the typical British perspective of identifying Europe with the EU as something which is different from foreign policy. Here there is something that can be learnt from French thinking where the EU and an idea of Europe as a geopolitical space coexist, the EU is an asset that France can choose to use or not, and the existence of the EU does not abolish countries as geopolitical actors. From this perspective Europe must always be a foreign policy priority for the UK regardless of the EU.
- There is very little in these documents about democracy and human rights – oddly the academics have less discussion of this than the think tankers. How much significance should be attached to this? Are they advocating de-emphasizing these concerns or merely taking them for granted?
- There is also little about one of the centrepieces of British foreign policy thinking over the last decade and a half: the doctrine of stabilization. That fragile and failed states are the sources of threat to the international order (not least through terrorism, drugs and refugees) recent events make this proposition plausible. The corollary is that the UK (and its partners) can, through a mix of military, political, humanitarian and development actions, resolve the situation. The problem is that while the proposition makes sense in theory it’s not really clear that it works in practice. The political and organizational challenges of stabilization are simply too much for Western coalitions to handle. If organizational dysfunction is normal should the UK put so much effort into doctrinal and organizational innovations (eg Building Stability Overseas Strategy, Stabilisation Unit and associated funding streams)?
If you read these reports together you get an idea that British foreign policy is supposed to be about doing global good deeds with little sense of priorities or feasibility; it’s no wonder that beyond the members of these study groups most people (including the political class) don’t seem very engaged by it. These are the same ideas were originally set out at the height of post Cold War Western self confidence. If British foreign policy is not to be guided by George Osborne’s random enthusiasm for China we need some new thinking for a post Western World.