Mark Field is MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, and a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party.
Few elections since Victorian times can be said to have been determined by foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the absence of any significant debate on Britain’s place in the world during 2015’s General Election was revealing. In the decade since troops were controversially sent into Iraq, the UK still has not decided the extent to which it wishes, or believes itself obliged, to engage in global issues. Last year’s campaign did little to enlighten us on British voters’ views.
The Syrian crisis exemplifies the current national uncertainty. Imploring the Prime Minister to ‘do more’ to stem the human catastrophe that has unfolded in the Middle East, the British public nonetheless shows little appetite to engage more deeply in checking the violence at its root. Such reluctance might be regarded as a sophisticated understanding of our limited ability to influence complex global conflicts. None the less, I also detect a naive hope that the world might leave us alone if only we disengaged from it.
Jeremy Corbyn’s notorious January reshuffle, which followed hot on the heels of agonised internal party wrangling on Syrian air strikes, gives more than a hint of the direction in which the Labour leader would take his uncertain countrymen. High-brow pacifism, naive moralising, a childlike faith in international diplomacy unaccompanied by the threat of force, and a shunning of our nuclear deterrent: Corbyn’s world is one in which threats disappear once we take the time to understand the grievances of our enemies. As the Labour leadership seeks to coalesce its party around an alternative vision of Britain’s place in the world, Conservatives must be ready to counter them with our own robust and confident narrative.
Our first task is to move firmly on from the last parliament by addressing criticisms of the coalition’s foreign policy. The commentariat relentlessly lamented what they perceived to be Britain’s diminished global role under the coalition, citing an absence from the negotiating table over Ukraine; a lack of post-conflict planning in Libya; the failure to command support for Syrian intervention; and the reduction in our Armed Forces personnel while aid was increased.
To some extent this linked into a wider crisis of confidence afflicting the West. After the euphoric end to the Cold War, the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s made way for a miserable series of intractable conflicts from the 2000s that have ensured Western electorates are sceptical of any overseas military adventures. Just watch the US grapple with its own isolationist instincts as the presidential election battle winds on. What we in Europe already know, however, is that the modern world’s interconnectedness removes isolationism as an option.
In this fresh parliament, we have already made a distinctive break from the preceding five years. We have committed ourselves to spending two per cent of GDP on defence for each of the years to 2020 (a key NATO pledge previously ducked), the development budget has been maintained and more money is being dedicated to the work of our security services. October’s Chinese State visit firmly restated Conservatives’ commitment to Britain as a global trading nation. We were finally able to pass a decisive parliamentary vote for cooperative action in Syria, and now lead a reform agenda in the EU which could make way for two-tier membership.
In taking these lines, I suspect the Prime Minister is broadly in tune with the instincts of the public. British people appreciate the complexity of modern foreign affairs. They wish the UK to continue to play a prominent role in international diplomacy, maintaining our membership of NATO and place on the UN Security Council. They complement our historical Commonwealth links with a huge array of international connections of their own built from business and travel experiences as well as increasingly diverse family ties. They are proud of Britain’s global cultural influence. But they remain as suspicious and sceptical as ever of grand projects and short-lived successes, acknowledging the limits of our ability as a mid-tier nation to mould outcomes.
With our historical relationships, military and aid resource, and cultural and economic clout, the UK is now uniquely placed to articulate a more patient, reform-minded and flexible approach to international affairs. This will involve utilising the resource of our Armed Forces, Foreign Office and DfID in a much more coordinated way but also the skills and expertise of our many and varied professionals – lawyers, financiers, tech experts and educators.
This approach is already being developed in the Syrian crisis, where military activity is just one strand of our work. Last week, the Prime Minister launched a plan to use market forces to boost the economy in Jordan, where to date around 1.3 million Syrians have been displaced. By removing trade tariffs for exports to the EU, and creating special economic zones with donor-funded wage subsidies and tax advantages, it is hoped jobs will follow that will keep people in region, ready to rebuild Syria when the time comes.
British knowledge can also be put to use undermining ISIS’s financial clout, drawing on lessons from Northern Ireland where the patient unravelling of the IRA’s financial infrastructure helped force terrorists to the negotiating table. Far from ideological obsessives, many of the young men fighting for ISIS are making a raw economic calculation based on the high wages they receive from their terror paymasters. One of the reasons ISIS have suffered strategic losses in recent weeks is that they have been forced to slash fighters’ wages, thus increasing defections and desertions. British financial and security expertise has played a key role in this: by cooperating with others we can help further deprive the terror force of its economic lifeblood.
There is plenty of scope to broaden DfID’s remit to hit wider security and economic objectives, demonstrating how aid prevents international problems becoming British ones. DfID money has helped develop vaccines for Ebola and other diseases. A focus on good governance and stability can lessen migratory flows from states failing to provide basic living standards and good jobs. The Investment Facility for Utilising UK Specialist Expertise ( IFUSE) programme, for example, matches British experts from organisations as diverse as the Met Office, CPS and Bank of England to partner governments in need of support. In this digital age, we are also deploying technology to help entrepreneurs circumvent inexpert, inflexible or corrupt governments. DfID’s Energy Africa work, for instance, assists people in overcome regulatory barriers to power their homes through rooftop solar systems.
Closer to home, I am optimistic that the Prime Minister’s renegotiation of our relationship with the EU may prove only the opening salvo in a thorough, ongoing process of European reform. In this way our nation will be at the forefront of advancing a free trade and competitiveness agenda well beyond the referendum, assisted by our energetic team within the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists.
We shall always need to have our international work backed up by conventional military force, strong alliances, a nimble security service and a nuclear deterrent. To neglect those crucial components of our international engagement is to risk being coerced into submission when diplomatic efforts fail. But efforts to find innovative, flexible solutions to today’s intractable global conflicts can help assuage understandable doubts among the British public that force alone can deliver lasting positive outcomes in the twenty-first century.
2016 is the year of opportunity for the Conservative Party in setting out a bold and sure-footed vision of modern Britain’s contribution to global affairs. It is likely that by year end, the British people will have had their chance to pronounce on the issue of our EU membership. Conservatives must then regroup and govern. The unanticipated ascendancy of Corbyn reminds us that there remains a strand of domestic apologist thought that still needs to be decisively defeated if global dangers are to be confronted. It is the duty now of our Conservative Party to remind the public that Britain needs to be engaged and active in positively shaping an increasingly uncertain world.