All around me feelings run high about Syria, Isil and Jeremy Corbyn, while Twitter is full of foreign policy experts. I don’t claim to be an expert myself but I’m interested in international politics and, well, my lack of expertise has never stopped me in the past. Now seems as good a time as any to explore some of the unspoken assumptions and values that underpin contemporary debates about the global security environment. Join me then for a quick dart through the foreign policy approaches of David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn and various Scottish nationalists, followed by an alternative view I’ve sketched on the bag of a metaphorical fag packet.
Firstly then, what does a country’s foreign policy consist of? Obviously it refers to the country’s relationship with the rest of the world, and this relationship has many facets. There is, of course, a military angle. But there are other aspects to foreign policy, such as diplomatic activity, attitudes to trade, tourism and culture. These components of foreign policy are by no means all orchestrated through the External Affairs ministry but cumulatively express and promote a country’s values to the rest of the world.
As such, countries have scope to emphasise different aspects of foreign policy at different times.
So how should we characterise current UK Government foreign policy? I would argue that the Cameron government has taken a strikingly mercantile approach to world affairs. The EU referendum is one component of this. The electorate will be presented with two options: (i) exit the European Union and engage on an instrumental, case by case basis with our European partners as and when it is in our interest; or (ii) remain in the EU on a renegotiated basis that will to all intents and purposes resemble option (i). In this sense, the government is inviting the British people to view our relationship with the rest of the continent as a series of market interactions, shorn of any significant burdens of shared sacrifice or partnership. It’s just business.
This is of a piece with the government’s recent high-profile trade projects. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that our foreign policy is rooted more in Number 11 than in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office at the moment. The Chancellor’s trip to China and the subsequent visits to London of the Chinese and Egyptian premiers – neither likely to be the toast of liberal Britain any time soon – reflected the Conservative government’s priority of trade and economic development over, say, the promotion of human rights.
There is one crucial plank of Cameron’s foreign policy that confuses his opponents, however. (It probably confuses his supporters too). This is the ongoing commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid (or ‘Official Development Assistance’) each year via the Department for International Development. This happens, and has continued to happen even since the Lib Dems dropped out of the government. So why do the Tories spend what is a genuinely huge amount of money helping Johnny Foreigner?
Well, it’s just business, innit? After all, we’re hardly likely to develop new markets for our exports if we don’t give underdeveloped economies a bit of help to liberalise. It’s all good capitalist practice.
Britain under the Conservatives is open for business, as long as you’re not flogging a UK national. This is the very opposite of the traditional approach of the British Left, which has often trumpeted the value of consumer boycotts as a political tool. South African oranges were an absolute no-no for a generation of socialists, while (more troublingly, to my mind at least) Israeli goods are today rejected by many in the same constituency.
Jeremy Corbyn deploys his familiar tactic of equivocation when asked for his view on the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement, but I think we can all assume his private view. Boycotts are of a piece with the principle of renunciation that underpins the Corbynite left’s approach to foreign policy.
For the Corbynite left, Britain and the USA have been a force for evil in the world and all of the world’s problems can be traced back to their colonial and post-colonial misadventures. Any and every intervention pursued by either government for any stated purpose will only and always create legitimate grievances among its intended (and unintended) targets.
Now, there’s a wee bit of truth in this, isn’t there? The British Empire wasn’t exactly above brutalising local populations and extracting their resources, and one can think of at least a few military adventures that have been at best questionably legitimate. The trouble is, this is surely an incomplete picture of British (and American) foreign policy over the years.
The problem with the Corbynite worldview, in fact, is equal and opposite to the problem one encounters in the worldview of hawkish imperialists. To explain, Corbyn exemplifies a strand of the left that is distrustful of the police because they’ve been harassed at peaceful demonstrations and remember the Birmingham Six, and that recoils instinctively from the armed forces because of the various instances in our shared history when some of our soldiers have been bloodthirsty sociopaths. The trouble with this analysis is that it excludes all of the positive contributions the police and armed forces make to our lives, most of which are invisible (especially in Islington). The UK right has always seen the left as full of spineless traitors for this stuff, but advocates of such a muscular view tend to possess an enduring blind spot to the excesses highlighted by the Corbyns of this world. (Whereas I find it possible to keep two ideas in my head at once, and I daresay you do too, dear reader.)
The Corbynite left doesn’t think the UK can act militarily in the world without causing disasters, so it’s best for us not to do anything. The corollary to this, as Jeremy’s friends Stop the War make clear in every communique, is that anyone who hates the west probably has good reason, because we’re bad, and so they cannot be held responsible for their actions. Hence Corbyn’s tortured and cringeworthy response to the Isil attack on Paris.
It will be interesting to see if Corbyn has any other ideas about foreign policy beyond opposing any sort of military engagement. He’s spoken recently about supporting diplomatic solutions to wars in the Middle East, but I don’t think we can really take him seriously here; how exactly does he foresee this rapprochement with Islamic State proceeding? He talks about diplomacy but he would really prefer to ignore the whole ugly business.
Does he have any thoughts about a cultural foreign policy? A trade policy? A human rights policy? It’s difficult to say. He was dragged kicking and screaming into committing to the ‘remain’ side of the EU referendum but his strand of the left has always seen European integration as a capitalist plot. They tend to be quite puritanical too. It will be interesting to see if Jez and his supporters can articulate a worldview that goes beyond saying no to things.
Which brings us to a third contemporary model of foreign policy, which is that practised by the Scottish Government and supported by its own loyal band of enthusiastic fans.
The SNP has been at great pains to distinguish itself from the ‘unionist’ parties on the basis of a more liberal immigration policy (except when its independence White Paper was advocating a points system). And, parenthetical sniping aside, I don’t think there can be much doubt that the Holyrood government has progressive instincts in this area, almost certainly more liberal than the electorate as a whole. But how can we characterise the Scottish nationalist foreign policy approach more widely?
In my experience, the street-level (and social media-level) Yes campaign is underpinned by quietism.
The example of Scandinavia has loomed large in the nationalist mind over the last few years. It’s not just because we like to flatter ourselves that we can achieve their standard of living, clean energy and sovereign oil fund – it’s also because Yes voters are under the impression that countries like Norway don’t go to war.
Iraq explains a lot here, of course. In contemporary Scotland there is, frankly, a widespread desire for us to keep our heads down on the international scene and keep out of trouble.
To be clear, this is not the self-flagellating approach of Corbyn (and Pilger, and Tariq Ali, and the rest). This is a pragmatic desire to be a small country, unnoticed by the global baddies. The rationale is that Britain tries to punch above its weight and gets into trouble, whereas independent Scotland wouldn’t be expected to be any sort of global policeman.
Central to this has been the growing opposition to renewing Trident. Despite (or because of) the Scottish CND deteriorating into a laughable SNP fanclub, support for unilateral nuclear disarmament is now mainstream opinion. Intriguingly, arguments about deterrence and the global balance of power have largely ceased to gain a hearing. To me, this is explained by the widespread quietism of the Scottish nationalist worldview. If we retreat into geopolitical anonymity then the global balance of power becomes someone else’s problem. Get your own nukes.
It seems to me that there is space for a fourth approach to foreign policy that can be distinguished from Cameron’s mercantile instrumentalism, Corbyn’s hairshirted spirit of renunciation and the Scottish nationalist retreat into quietism.
This is a foreign policy based on self-confidence about our positive values.
We don’t have to follow Corbyn in always accentuating the negative about British military history. The Armed Forces have done some pretty helpful stuff over the years, alone and in solidarity with allies. They can do again.
The Blair Government was wildly successful in promoting British culture. Okay, so Cool Britannia makes us cringe now, but there is a positive vision of the UK to be shared with the rest of the world. This cannot be achieved by just boycotting things.
And the UK still possesses enormous reserves of soft power too, whether Scottish nationalists like it or not. Cameron’s government squanders its potential when the red carpet is laid out for dictators and murderers. Diplomacy and access to British markets are tools to be deployed strategically as part of an ethical framework, rather than sweeties to be cast desperately by a Chancellor seeking photo opportunities. If we believe in progressive values then we should promote them without squeamishness.
One might almost identify the foreign policy I’ve just sketched out as the mainstream Labour Party worldview. It doesn’t get much of a hearing these days, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t still a vast audience for it.
The UK Goverment’s foreign policy is about unconditional trade. Corbyn’s foreign policy accepts anything bad that happens in the world as the merited consequences of western misadventure. And Yes/ SNP foreign policy is about downsizing Scotland’s global stature to a level where we don’t have to carry any burdens and get left alone. I don’t think any of these foreign policy approaches resonate with our shared values, and there’s a moral and electoral dividend to be collected by the party leader who articulates this first. Who fancies it?