As four years of the Coalition approach on 11th May, this week we examine its record to date in five key policy areas. In the fourth piece in the series, Garvan Walshe assesses the Government’s performance on foreign affairs.
Garvan was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008, and writes a weekly foreign affairs column for ConservativeHome.
Norman Angell’s 1909 book The Great Illusion has come down to us a symbol of foolish complacency: the economic ties between the great powers would make war unthinkable. 101 years later the coalition’s negotiators sat down to hammer out the Coalition Agreement. Part Cutty Sark, part Florence Nightingale its foreign policy doctrine was a tribute to Angell’s work. Security would be entrusted to James Bond, assisted by his magnificent automated flying machines.
Two years after the financial crisis, the consensus reigned as much in Berlin and Brussels as London and Washington. No more military adventures, the Prime Minister warned, dropping democracy “from 30,000 feet.” The future lay with soft power. It was time to re-establish traditional alliances. Out went expensive counter-insurgency. Nation-building, as President Obama, put it, begins “at home”, laid waste by the financial crisis. Books had to be balanced, banks reformed, EU policy left ambiguous, and defence budgets cut.
Surveying the world, things looked calm, except where Western intervention had stirred things up. The BRIC countries seemed set on what Beijing once called their “peaceful rise”: new markets for cheap consumer goods and lucrative services. China bought Chilean copper, German luxury cars, Middle Eastern oil and Australian metals, and sold washing machines and fridges to Latin America and Europe and computers to everyone. Russian gas generated European electricity, while British banks organised the investment to pay for it all, and Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy League educated everyone’s elite. Only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rumbled on. Things hadn’t looked so quiet for years.
Security types, who muttered that it looked “too damn quiet” were politely ignored.
The main security problem was thought at the time to be Islamist terrorism, but even Al-Qaeda was, or at least appeared to be, on the back foot. Theresa May showed extraordinary persistence in getting Abu Qatada deported. The scandal of “preventing extremism” funds finding their way to extremist organisations who happened just to be ever so slightly less extreme than Al-Qaeda seems largely to have ended. The Prime Minister’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2011 was excellent. And lately even the Foreign Office seems to have begun to probe the Muslim Brotherhood. Abdel Bari Atwan has started to complain that the organisation is being “persecuted” in London. I’m sure it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people.
Hizbullah, however, remains unbanned. Proscribing only its military wing is not enough, because money going to its ostensibly humanitarian activities is laughably easy to divert to military purposes. It remains legal to raise funds for them even though its fighters are helping Assad murder thousands of Syrians. And yes, British Jihadis find their way to Syria, and not all will be killed in action, but they have also thereby become much easier to keep tabs on.
Verdict: The Government has devoted serious effort to combating terrorism and it has paid off. 8/10
A Tory-Lib Dem coalition was never going to have an EU policy that would satisfy most readers of this blog. It was always clear that change would have to await a majority Conservative government. Without the votes, James Wharton’s bill was always going to fail. The various constitutional devices introduced: first the referendum lock, and then the promise of a referendum, can be little more than statements of intent when, in Britain, no parliament can bind its successor. The Government’s policy is fated, like Schrödinger’s cat, to be in what physicists call “superposition” and will remain so until the election.
There is no appetite in continental capitals for the kind of reform that the Prime Minister, let alone his restive backbenchers, seek – the most we can expect is more smoke and mirrors like the “veto” that never was. But don’t be too hard on him or William Hague over this. We are in coalition with an avidly pro-European party because we don’t have enough MPs, so there is nothing else they can do about it – a fact that UKIP will exploit mercilessly.
If only the Conservative Party had been Machiavellian enough to support AV, quite a few of those UKIP votes would have come back to us in the end.
Verdict: Not done very much, but not in a position to do more. 6/10
Arab Spring & the Middle East
Who could have predicted the Arab spring? The revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Bahrain came out of the blue. They wrong-footed diplomats, spies and experts everywhere, many of whom stuck to the conventional wisdom that the Middle East Peace Process was the most important regional issue. So when the government had planned an arms-selling trip to the gulf in 2011, they were caught no more napping than anyone else.
However, there was one crucial body that warned something like the Arab Spring could occur: that Arab dictatorships were brittle, mostly led by old men with not long to wait before their day of judgment, and could soon fall. It was none other than the Conservative Party’s own National and International Security Policy commission, led by Baroness Neville Jones (I declare an interest: I worked on it). It argued that the Arab strongmen were less stable than they looked, and that in the likely event that they failed to reform, some could easily find themselves overthrown. Britain, therefore, had better prepare for the possibility: reach out to civil society organisations and the non-Islamist opposition, so that we would know how to react to any revolution and help the countries forestall a takeover by Islamists as undemocratic as the regimes they replaced.
I understand the Prime Minister drew on that work when he prepared his rather good speech to Kuwait’s national assembly, but as with so much in this Government there was little follow through.
Of course, it’s asking too much of Britain to have prevented the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt and the coup that overthrew the Ikhwan last summer. But it could have been in a position to lead a floundering international community, which, had it acted in a concerted fashion could have pushed Egypt towards a compromise, instead of a return to unstable military rule and violence already worse than the islamist insurgency in the 1990s.
Things went a little better in Libya, and Anglo-French intervention backed by the US was enough to stave off a massacre by Gaddafi’s thugs. The country remains divided and semi-governable, but sustained international involvement ought to allow it to make some progress. In Syria, Britain’s shameful failure to approve intervention (with Ed Miliband’s speech perhaps the most craven ever heard in that chamber), gave Obama the excuse to put himself in a pickle from which he had to be rescued by Vladimir Putin, while Iran, though potentially cooperative on the nuclear front, conspires with Moscow to keep Assad going.
Verdict: Terrible performance mitigated by the failure of any other Western power to do much better 4/10
Defence & Security
“What’s Putin up to?” I asked my military historian girlfriend “Why has he released Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot? What’s he trying to distract us from?”
“He’s going to invade Poland” she joked.
A month or so later, he hadn’t invaded Poland, but had seized Crimea and massed 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.
It is in defence policy in which the Government has failed most abysmally. It would be possible to sum up the folly in one phrase: aircraft carriers without planes. A glance at the Coalition Agreement betrays a complete lack of interest what has traditionally been the first duty of government. Its section on defence confined itself to proposals for improving the conditions of troops, supporting the military covenant and recruiting ex-servicemen into the teaching profession. All these are worthwhile, but they don’t make a defence policy.
Little of this is the fault of the defence secretaries or the service chiefs. It was ordained by the structure of the deficit reduction plan, and the irresponsible decision to ringfence health spending and the state pension. These two between them account for a third of all government expenditure if debt interest costs are excluded, making the cuts that other departments must bear even tougher. The international development ring-fence is less of a problem. Not only is it small, but it has proven much easier than feared to use a reasonable amount of its budget to provide security in “fragile” states and beef up the interdepartmental stabilisation unit.
In those circumstances forced upon it by the Treasury, the Strategic Defence and Security Review made compromises that seemed like a good idea at the time. The gamble to continue without aircraft carriers now looks rather riskier. The reduction in regular land forces looks less advisable still. Asked by a Christian what he would do if on his death he found himself transported up to face St Peter at the pearly gates, the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell replied, “I would change my mind.” It’s time for the “aputinist” defence policy to change. The territorial defence of the European continent from Russian forces is once again a primary military mission.
Verdict: Cuts this severe were always unwise and are now indefensible. A new SDSR is needed to deal with the threat from the Kremlin. 2/10
0.7% of GDP doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? But the figure amounts to a third of the defence budget or perhaps a fifth of the education budget. There is serious money in development and it’s worth asking whether it should be spent in that way.
First, the good news. There’s little evidence of the fashionable theory that aid is a curse, diverting money from “poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries,” helping to prop up corrupt governments and keep tyrants in power. Meanwhile it has made the lives of the poorest in the world a little less bad: there is less disease and less extreme hunger. This record is something that we should be proud of, and says a lot about the kind of country we are.
Then the bad news: it isn’t correlated with economic growth, either. A moment’s thought should tell us why. If flows of government aid money were to solve a problem: the problem would have to be a lack of capital. But in fact official government aid is an order of magnitude less than revenue earned from trade, foreign investment and emigrants’ remittances, which bypass the state and go directly to people’s pockets. It would seem that quality of government, not quantity of money, is most crucial.
This is an area in which Conservatives can lead. We understand the importance of policies that promote economic growth, open markets to businesses and encourage trade. New technology allows us to bypass grant application procedures and government bureaucracy. Organisations like GiveDirectly and Kiva allow people to send money directly to households and businesses. It’s about more than economics. Corruption and insecurity blight too many lives: ensuring law and order can make a huge difference to people in developing countries. The Government hasn’t left this area to left-wingers for whom “tax justice” means higher taxes.
Verdict: The Government has shaken this area up and challenged Labour’s development orthodoxy, but there’s much more to do. 8/10.
Overall Verdict: The average of 5 1/2 out of 10 disguises dangerous neglect of defence which must be put right swiftly.