Read any of the world’s press and it is clear that Britain’s standing in the world is slipping. Is this a matter of policy or fowl-up? This week a senior advisor was photographed holding a memo which revealed that Britain will “not support, for now, trade sanctions … or close London’s financial centre to Russians.”
Some have read this as putting the City ahead of the interests of Ukrainians. Clearly, the UK has to tread lightly in its relationship with Russia, a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, but there seems to be a wider debate that is running under the surface of all the discussions over a British response to the Ukrainian situation.
At its core is the Conservative view of British foreign policy. Traditionally, the Conservative party took a foreign policy position based on a world-view that placed order and sovereignty at the heart of its deliberations. In the last Conservative Government Douglas Hurd famously dismissed the “Something Must Be Done Club” – largely referring to, now ennobled, Lord Ashdown over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Yet, things seemed to shift. This happened in several phases. First, came Tony Blair’s famous Chicago speech in 1999 where he articulated a theory of a just war based not on territorial ambition but on values.
Then scroll forward to William Hague’s July 2012 speech in the Hague on “International Law and Justice in a Networked World” is as clear an articulation of this world view as any one could hope for. His specific call for justice to cross borders; for sovereignty to be downgraded, in essence, in pursuit of wider humanitarian goals. The formal theme of the speech was focused on international criminal law, but his language can be readily appropriated for wars in the name of humanitarian causes.
Many saw this as evidence of a new foreign policy; that Libya was a new sign that the Prime Minister and the foreign secretary were moving past Iraq and returning to Blair’s doctrines set out in Chicago thirteen years previously.
Yet the proposed intervention in Syria has changed all of this. The rebellion of 30 Conservative MPs against the government whip, and the subsequent failure of the Coalition to secure a majority in favour of the option of military action against Syria is part of this debate. Iraq made the problem more acute. Should Britain intervene in conflicts?
Yet, in Ukraine military intervention has never been on the cards and yet Britain seems to be taking a back seat, something that the foreign media has picked up on. The French and Baroness Ashton taking the lead role from within the UK’s EU allies. Has British foreign policy shifted for the time being once again? It’s looking like the vote on Syria was an inflection point.
With David Milliband absent from British politics will anyone now advocate a new British foreign policy? Perhaps it’s time for British business to articulate some foreign policy principles – from our role in TTIP to post-Kyoto negotiations and crucially our role in Europe and its frontiers.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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