Traditionally, the position of Foreign Secretary is regarded as one of the four Great Offices of State – and, arguably, second only to that of Prime Minister. Today, on the official list of Cabinet ministers, the current Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, appears in sixth place – behind David Cameron, Nick Clegg, William Hague, George Osborne and Theresa May.
In terms of name recognition, these five also outrank Hammond – no doubt by a considerable margin. Hammond is not one of Westminster’s natural celebrities; nor does he, as the archetypal ‘safe pair of hands’, attract the wrong kind of publicity. But fundamentally this isn’t about the character or capabilities of the incumbent. Had Hammond been appointed Chancellor instead, there’s no doubt he’d have a higher profile than he does now.
Though general elections tend to be about domestic matters, the current campaign is unusual for the degree to which foreign and defence matters have been sidelined. It’s hard to think of a time when the rest of world has done less to shape our politics. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s image as the invincible Iron Lady was formed as much by events abroad as those at home. In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union enabled Labour to leave behind its pinko past and claim the centre ground. In the 2000s, global events would change the face of British politics once again – with the destruction of New Labour in the aftermath of the Iraq war.
This decade, however, is different. With the exception of the EU (which, being neither foreign nor domestic, belongs to a category of its own) defence and foreign policy issue will barely impinge on the next election.
It’s not as if there’s nothing going on in the world. Indeed, recent developments are deeply troubling. From Ukraine to the Middle East to North Africa, the borderlands of Europe (and just beyond it) are burning. Signs of hope – the Maidan protests and the Arab Spring – have given way to spectacles of horror. Sparks of conflict fall close to home: acts of terror in European capitals and Russian warplanes over the English Channel.
There are those who insist that the world has never been more peaceful, that despite the sufferings of Donetsk, Mosul and Aleppo, fewer people are dying in conflicts today than at anytime in human history. However, this is to overlook the geopolitical significance of the last few years. To our south, rising powers fight for control of the Arab world. To our east a resurgent Russia calls the shots, taking territory after territory in defiance of international law. And lest we forget, in the Far East, China grows stronger by the year – ostensibly in peaceful partnership with the West, but in fact forming relationships with Russia, Iran and Pakistan that have little regard for western interests.
So much for Pax Americana. The unipolar world that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall is giving way to a ‘new world disorder’ – to which a coherent foreign and defence policy response is desperately required.
So, where is it? It might be too soon to expect all the answers, but where are the big defence and foreign policy speeches that might give us some sense of direction? At the very least, there ought to be a lively debate between the parties on these issues. But beyond the usual platitudes and the occasional spot of point-scoring, ministers and shadow ministers appear to be under strict instructions to say nothing of interest.
The silence can be attributed to three key factors:
Firstly, a lack of inspiration. Foreign policy theory, whether neoconservative, liberal interventionist or ‘realist’, has not survived contact with reality – at least, not with its reputation intact. When one looks at Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya one can easily come to the conclusion that ‘doing something’ only makes things worse. Then again, if you do nothing, things might get worse anyway – as they have in Syria. Let’s face it, on all of these issues the West is fresh out of ideas.
The second factor is a lack of agreement. Even if a senior politician did have a big idea, he or she would have difficulty uniting his or her party around it. Foreign policy disagreements are just as deep within the major parties than between them – if not more so. Such is the incoherence that you won’t even find agreement within particular party factions. For instance, opinion on the right of the Conservative Party ranges from unreconstructed neoconservatism through to outright isolationism.
The third of the three factors is lack of money. For a sobering assessment of the funding crisis facing the British armed services you won’t do better that David Davis’s article for ConservativeHome on Tuesday. However, don’t expect a thoughtful response from either the government or the opposition front benches. As with spending generally, there is little political appetite for facing up to the long-term implications of Britain’s fiscal outlook. If you want big ideas on foreign and defence policy then you have to say something about the big spending cuts or the big tax increases required to pay for them.
In my own view, the only policy vision that’s worth pursuing is one that honestly deals with our limitations as a country and of the West in general. For a start we need to recognise that people in many parts of the world are fundamentally hostile to western values. America, in particular, needs to stop pretending that it can actively change that fact. The Enlightenment may well have unfinished business across the globe, but this is not the business of western foreign and defence policy. For its part, Europe must set aside the outdated and increasingly ruinous project of ever closer union. Above all, the Eurozone should be dissolved in an orderly manner before it does more to drive countries like Greece and Cyprus into Russia’s orbit.
In place of these projects, the nations of the West need to draw together and work toward achievable objectives. In particular, closer cooperation is required to maximise the efficiency of defence expenditures – including a more active role for both Germany and Japan. Diplomatically, the West must act more swiftly to impose sanctions on countries that flout international law. Greater progress should be made towards free trade – but on the basis of high product standards and helpfulness to the developing world, not an exploitative race to the bottom. Perhaps most importantly, America, Europe and Asia should join forces to end western dependency on the fossil fuel resources of Russia and the Middle East.
Instead of trying to change the rest of the world, the West must change itself – becoming more resilient, more efficient and less exposed to those who hate us.