Alistair Burt is a former Foreign Office Minister, and the Conservative candidate for North East Bedfordshire.
Candidates around the country are heavily and understandably absorbed in domestic politics, except for Brexit, and even that from a largely UK point of view. But for those heading to Westminster, the next few years of foreign affairs will be as absorbing as any in recent years, and will demand more of their attention than perhaps might be considered usual.
For some decades our foreign policy has been anchored in the two obvious and deep relationships of the EU and the US. But both these establishments have been shaken by recent events, and our foreign policy will need to be re-calibrated over the next five years.We will be post a Brexit referendum decision until 2019, but not yet post Brexit itself. It will be a fascinating period for the continent and our relations with it, including those in the number of security, defence and intelligence arrangements which are outside EU structures. Similarly we are also coming to terms, after a hundred days, with what a Trump Presidency means in practice.
A quick review of current events whets the appetite for what’s to come.
President Trump, having had a number of world leaders head to Washington, is about to embark on his first foreign visits. He has chosen to kick off with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican before coming to Europe for a NATO and a Group of Seven summit. If his mantra before becoming President was “Make America Great Again’, his current one appears to be ‘This is not as easy as I thought it was going to be’.
Whilst revising opinion in the face of fact or greater knowledge is always welcome, some of his discoveries are startling and rather add to the sense of lack of preparedness to take on the role in the first place. This compounds the problem for allies such as the UK – and its Parliament- to keep up. For example the President quickly changed his mind about NATO being obsolete, and seemingly the irrelevance of the EU, both of which he might have grasped before he claimed the opposite, startling their members.
The chemical attack by President Assad’s forces is another case in point. There have been at least three UN documented chemical attacks by Assad’s Syria against its own people yet, in the run up to the election, candidate Trump made out that he did not wish to be the world’s policeman and become involved. An entirely predictable attack shortly into his Presidency appeared to derail such a view and the U.S. retaliated; contrary both to what he had said before and indeed the inaction he urged upon President Obama after a similar incident in 2013.
A response to events, even as sickening as a chemical attack upon children, does not make a policy. What role is the U.S. to play in a Middle East confused by the previous administration, which had appeared to turn away from traditional allies in pursuit of an agreement with Iran? We do not yet know, though perhaps an awareness of the gap in thinking is one reason for the President’s initial destinations abroad.
As an eternal optimist on the Middle East Peace Process I am pleased that seeking the resolution of matters between Israel and the Palestinians appears high on the agenda, an issue of immense interest in Parliament for decades. Many have argued for sometime that the stars were lining up in a propitious way, with Israel’s Sunni Arab relations stronger than before, and a relative peace between Israel and those who threaten it holding in a fractious region, though domestic Israeli and Palestinian politics offer little sign of change.
Having hosted Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas recently, President Trump suggested that maybe this issue wasn’t as difficult as people made out. History suggests he, perhaps once again, overestimates his abilities; though one day someone or something is actually going to succeed. It would confound us all if it was him.
The search for policy is further hampered by the extraordinary U.S. system of departmental appointments, or lack of them. State Department still awaits a series of important appointments, and has both expected and unexpected roles to fill, after a number of senior figures chose to leave following the President’s election. It has added to a sense of vacuum at a critical time.
Parliament has also noted that the response by the U.S. to the chemical attack opened up again the issue of UK involvement. We recall that following the events of August 2013, when David Cameron’s Government sought support for a potential UK military response to a similar attack, Parliament said no in controversial circumstances.
Does the present Government regard itself as bound by the same vote and the commitment made by the Prime Minister immediately afterwards, or does it regard itself as free to respond as it thinks necessary, needing only to report and seek approval from Parliament afterwards? A new Parliament is going to want to engage with the Foreign Secretary on this quite soon, as it would be best to get some clearer guidelines before an inevitable incident than afterwards.
And finally of course there is Europe for the new Commons to get into, with both the Dutch and French elections now out of the way, and the German to come. Have these elections, which whilst confirming pro-European leaders remain at the helm, revealed deep seated anxieties about both the EU and their own societies, made a difference to the atmosphere in which Brexit negotiations will be conducted?
That new President Macron took office pointedly to the music of ‘Ode to Joy’ has not been missed by any of us. It makes very clear that the cohesion of the EU, and its importance to a major European nation, is a factor which may appear peripheral to a UK media seeing only trade and our own sovereignty as dominant, but will in fact drive a significant element of the discussions. More than anything, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly made clear and obviously understands very deeply, it points to the need for negotiations to succeed for the sake of both the UK and the EU, as both, whatever Jean-Claude Juncker may suggest to the contrary, need ultimately to be strengthened by Brexit rather than weakened.
And we haven’t even mentioned North Korea, China and the wider world!
Some agenda ahead for the class of 2017.