From our own correspondent… with William Hague at the Foreign Office

Aaron Ellis 10.30am

I felt a bit ashamed when I joined Twitter a couple of years ago. It felt like I was Winston Smith at the end of George Orwell’s 1984, finally giving in to oppressive forces. Yet the social networking site has furnished me with opportunities I would not otherwise have had - such as meeting William Hague.

Last month, the Foreign Secretary asked his Twitter followers to say what they think should be the United Kingdom’s top foreign policy priority. The best five would then meet him to discuss their suggestions.

Last week, the winners of this competition – Katie Jamieson (@kejamieson), Antonia King (@antoniaking), Jack McCann (@Jack_Mc_Cann), James Willby (@JamesWillby), and I – met Mr Hague and enjoyed a long, interesting talk on a wide range of issues, including trade promotion and the war in Afghanistan.

A chunk of the discussion was about British foreign policy and the ‘Pacific Century’, which had been the topic of my winning suggestion. I argued that the United Kingdom had to define its role (or non-role) in a world where power was concentrated in Asia-Pacific, as it would impact on all our other defence and foreign policies. The Foreign Secretary emphasised to me that we had to be in the region, but he didn’t show that he appreciated how big an effort would be needed by the British to become real players there. ‘It would represent the most judicious, and audacious, use of the hard/soft power combination yet seen in contemporary politics,’ one expert has warned.

Mr Hague agreed with me that a potential role for the United Kingdom would be to “fill in” for the Americans as they retrench to the Pacific, which was what I argued in these pages in the summer. He used the Libyan intervention as an example of this “filling in”, ironic perhaps given my opposition to the campaign. I was too polite (as well as awed) to point out that the United States enabled 90 per cent of the military operations there, which implies we don’t yet have the capacity to take up Washington’s mantle in many areas of the world.

The other issue that I raised was British policy in Central and South Asia; as I argued in May, the United Kingdom is pursuing policies in the region that are incompatible with one another. We want a stable Afghanistan, a special relationship with India, and a strategic partnership with Pakistan – the problem is that the latter two countries believe stability in Afghanistan comes at the expense of either one or the other.

Mr Hague recognises the dilemma – in contrast to the Defence Secretary, Phillip Hammond, who denied it exists when I put it to him in December – but he thinks that the British are best placed to mediate a solution. As an example, he pointed to the recent meeting in New York between David Cameron and the Afghan and Pakistani leaders.

Though I am often critical of this Government’s foreign policies, I have always believed that Britain needs William Hague as its Foreign Secretary – a belief reinforced after meeting him. His policies are good for the country, even if I think some of them are strategically discontinuous. Mr Hague is also likeable, charismatic, and he has built up good connections with leaders around the world, which aren’t bad things when it comes to diplomacy.

The meeting also showed his enthusiasm for engaging younger people via new technologies, on the issue of the many challenges facing this country in the early twenty-first century.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis

A British Empire could rise again…on American coat-tails

Aaron Ellis 10.07am

The rise and fall of great powers is a familiar theme of history and a regular concern for politicians. Yet few appreciate that a country can rise and fall and rise again.

During the past millennium, England has held and lost many empires, and gone from one of the known world’s foremost powers to its weakest and back again. An Anglo-Saxon chronicler lamented in the late tenth century that England’s navy was not what it was just sixty years previously, “when no fleet was ever heard of except of our own people who held this land.”

England can be one of the world’s foremost powers once more, but it is a long-term ambition, and I will be long gone if and when it is achieved.

We are only a secondary world power today and, since the 1940s, we have been dependent on the United States for our security. Trident is not the only thing for which we rely on Washington: half of the material processed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) comes from American sources. We could not have intervened in Libya without the help of the US military either, no matter how fiercely the Prime Minister believed that venture was vital to national security.

In order to justify the many benefits we enjoy from our close relationship with the Americans, Britain tries to make herself useful. Yet we will find this more and more difficult to achieve as successive administrations in Washington "pivot" to the Pacific, and as successive governments in London try to keep the defence budget as respectably low as they can.

So how could Britain make itself useful? There is an option: take responsibility for those parts of the world the US can no longer afford to look after.

Not only would this justify perks such as intelligence sharing and the nuclear deterrent, it would also give time to develop these and other capabilities ourselves or wait for emerging powers to develop them and realign ourselves accordingly. It also offers Britain an opportunity to build her influence in those regions vacated by the Americans in the twentieth century.

By limiting ourselves to a few “spheres of influence”, Britain can also prove itself useful to the US without overstretching. Moreover, if the British are to be “deputy” to the American “sheriff”, we must choose parts of the world where we have real interests at stake. This requires thinking strategically and making tough choices in defence and foreign policies. We would also have to put our money where our mouth is on the subjects of “hard” and “soft” power.

There are several regions the Americans could turn over to Britain. For instance, rather than evenly divide its navy between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the US plans to shift its emphasis to the latter in the next eight years (with a 60:40 ratio). Britain could make up the difference and gradually take on full responsibility for the Atlantic. This would require us to build up our own naval power.

We could also relieve the US of responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British have a better relationship with Islamabad than the Americans do, putting us in a better position to oversee security in the region once troops depart Afghanistan next year.

Britain has tangible national security interests at stake: the head of MI5 has said that half of the terrorist plots against the country come from Pakistan. With the latter paralysed by political crises and its army suffering an ideological crisis, it is unlikely that figure will go down in the foreseeable future.

Yet if we were to assume the burden of security in that region from the US, we would have to try to match their presence. This won’t merely be about “hard power” (i.e. US counterterrorism), but also about diplomatic presence and financial assistance. One expert has described British aid to Pakistan as a “drop in the ocean” compared to America’s.

Though British politics is becoming increasingly eurosceptic, Washington would like to see us play a bigger part in the continent’s security, preferably by helping to forge a better working relationship between NATO and the EU. The always-sharp Christopher Coker has suggested the UK can earn real gratitude here, “provided we are seen to be a useful European ally to our European friends.”

This entire approach is ambitious in the long term but prudent in the short to medium terms. In order to sustain the special relationship throughout the twenty-first century, it sticks to the theme of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: if we want things to stay the same, things shall have to change.

As for the twenty-second century, it offers an opportunity for the United Kingdom to lay the foundations for yet another rise to the top of the world.

No Englishman should have any less ambitious a vision.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis

Iraq was a failure of the neo-conservative world view

Aaron Ellis 9.17am

Iraq is the centre of the world and crucial to the United States’ wider foreign policy. President Obama is a failure and President Bush is as wise and as farsighted a statesman as General Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan.

This is the context in which we must understand the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, says Tim Montgomerie.

Last week, Mr Montgomerie attacked President Obama’s withdrawal from the country. He contrasts it with President Bush’s decision in 2007 to ‘surge’ American troops in order to regain momentum against the insurgency. Typically, Mr Montgomerie presents the reader with black-or-white choices: Bush is good, Obama is bad; and if you support the withdrawal, you “hate freedom”.

Neo-conservatives possess a dated worldview – and it shows. They are stuck in the early 2000s and the language of the War on Terror. They show no appreciation of grand strategy in his article or the coming of the ‘Pacific Century’. This is in stark contrast to President Obama, which is why Iraq should be added to the list of foreign policy failures by neo-conservatives and not the President’s.

The two decisions of Presidents Bush and Obama that we should contrast are the former’s decision to invade Iraq and the latter’s announcement last month of a new American military base in Australia.

For no good reason at all, President Bush burdened the United States with a disastrous war in a country of only marginal importance; he handed “a massive gift” to Tehran as a result, and distracted Washington from a real challenge to its power: China.

With his own announcement, however, President Obama sent a signal to Beijing that the U.S. was no longer distracted. The new base, the President said, was “a deliberate and strategic decision – as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping the region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends.”

The great scholar Walter Russell Mead has described President Obama’s announcement, and other diplomatic coups the U.S. achieved in Asia last month, as the “coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.”

If we understand the Iraq withdrawal in this context then it is obvious which of the two presidents can claim to be a wise and farsighted statesman. “Regardless of whether the twenty-first century will be another ‘American century’, it is certain that it will be an Asian and Pacific century”, Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, has written. “It is both natural and sensible that the US be central to whatever evolves from that fact.”

This undermines many of the neo-conservatives’ other beliefs. Tim Montgomerie is disappointed that the U.S. will not have a “foothold” in Iraq but he does not explain why such a foothold is important to the U.S. He has tweeted praise for a Mitt Romney line about whether a government scheme is so crucial that it is worth borrowing money from China to pay for it, but he hasn’t yet answered whether the same test can be applied to Iraq.

The fact that the interests of the United States are in Asia-Pacific also undermines the examples of post-war Germany and Japan as templates for American policy vis-à-vis Iraq. Those two countries mattered to U.S. security after 1945, justifying the time and money spent on developing them. You cannot make the same argument with regard to Iraq.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis