Does the United Kingdom have a foreign policy? I mean a clear sense of our international priorities, reflecting our strengths and weaknesses relative to other nations. And a national consensus on our global role (or lack of one) – a clarity of purpose that an ‘A’ Level student could explain to a stranger.
Ask a class of 6th formers to explain Britain’s current foreign policy objectives and you would get several different answers, and plenty of blank stares. Ask an MP, or a Foreign Office Minister and they might smile patiently and direct us to the National Security Strategy (NSS); or to a list of speeches made by William Hague and his colleagues at the Foreign Office. Hawks would remind us that the UK now has a National Security Council, aping the US grouping which is President Obama’s “principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters”.
I’m not sure this adds up to very much. The NSS provided narrative cover for the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review which phased out Britain’s ability to deploy airpower from the sea just a few months before the UK led calls for NATO members to intervene in Libya. British bombers attacking Colonel Gaddafi’s forces had to take off from Italy and Norfolk.
Our current foreign policy still feels reactive, top-down and incoherent. We retain the apparatus (nuclear power, P5, US military partner of choice including unique intelligence sharing relationship, world class armed forces and diplomatic service), and the instinct for global intervention, but our posture is unconvincing. And we are ambivalent about what our role should be: our imperial past simultaneously raises expectations, and sows doubts. Iraq hasn’t helped, sapping our sense of moral authority and our reserves of blood and treasure. We are overstretched, while our military is shrinking. I’m not sure we have a clear idea what our interests are, or what we are prepared to do to protect them. Nor do our friends, nor our enemies. Is this a problem? I think so.