British foreign policy must be relevant and useful

Aaron Ellis 6.03am

Conservative thinking on foreign policy is a contradiction in terms. The time and energy spent on a distinctly Conservative world outlook is tiny compared to the thinking on the economy or welfare reform, for instance.

There are two reasons for this: first, there are few votes in foreign policy and second, there is scant funding for foreign policy think tanks. Many British politicians and pundits take their ideas from America.

The worldview of many Conservatives is infected by a ‘hidden Blairism’, from the Prime Minister downwards. Although Mr Cameron has often dismissed the moral certainties of Tony Blair, he buys into the ‘internationalisation’ of the national interest, which was a hallmark of Blairite foreign policy. In short, it is the belief that the world is so globalised and interconnected that every massacre or famine or failed state is a direct threat to our national security and it is vital that we get involved to sort it out. Libya is the most recent case in point.

In an attempt to fix the Conservatives’ deficiency in foreign policy, Dominic Raab MP recently wrote an op-ed in the Telegraph outlining how he thought his party should approach world affairs. Alex Massie criticised the piece for the Spectator, but I would like to explain my own concerns and offer a new foreign policy for the 'post-coalitionists'.

On top of those detailed by Massie, there are two problems with Dominic Raab’s article: one is conceptual, the other is policy related.

Mr Raab argues that British foreign policy needs to be focused on ‘the national interest’, yet he too buys into its ‘internationalisation’, thus undermining any attempt for that foreign policy to be focused. It is in our interests, he believes, to resolve conflicts and rebuild failed states, but he fails to say which of these problems and where is specifically a national interest to sort out. By linking failed states to terrorism - a link that I criticised recently - shows that Mr Raab’s foreign policy is as much subconsciously Blairite as David Cameron’s and the coalition’s, despite claiming to be an alternative.

His policy recommendations are also similar to those favoured by the coalition government and like them, they leave you asking some basic strategic questions.

Mr Raab suggests that the UK should loosen ties with the United States and strengthen them with emerging powers. We should rehabilitate the Commonwealth. But what exactly does the UK gain from balancing power in the Far East? And with regard to the loosening of ties with the US, we need an explanation of how this radical shift would impact on the Trident nuclear deterrent and close intelligence relationship we enjoy.

The watchwords for British foreign policy in the twenty-first century must be relevance and usefulness.

Lee Kuan Yew, the great Singaporean statesman, has said that the only way his small country can exercise influence in a world dominated by geographical giants is by being relevant to them. One key feature of this policy is acquiring expertise in niche technologies. It would be obtuse to say we should become a ‘mega-Singapore’ but a policy of relevance is appropriate to Tory ideas on the economy, education and welfare reform.

Britain also needs to be useful, mostly to the United States. Prof Christopher Coker, a sharp observer of world affairs, has noted that being useful to the Americans is not in itself an objective but “a tactical instrument to follow a larger strategy - that of the national interest”. The hope is that our usefulness will be repaid in influence on US policy, as well as justifying the benefits we already enjoy. Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that this hope was misguided then, but the benefits of the Special Relationship continue to be important. Fifty per cent of intelligence processed by the Join Intelligence Committee (JIC) comes from American sources. This is a privilege we should not relinquish.

If we are to be successful then it is essential to impose restraints. Britain needs to determine our areas of expertise that make us relevant and which areas of the world we are useful to. These decisions require leadership. In my opinion, we are still waiting.

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