Men without grand strategies: Ed Miliband and David Cameron (Stefan Wemuth/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
The general election is only months away, yet there is a disquieting silence in the two main parties when it comes to foreign policy or any underlying grand strategy for the UK. This is hardly surprising. Foreign policy has rarely been electorally decisive in the UK, as in most other Western democracies. Nonetheless, five months since this country came close to the dissolution of the Union, this is an election that is fundamentally concerned with Britain's identity. The stakes are raised as fragmentation of the electoral landscape sees six parties campaigning in a system designed for two. Despite the silence, at this election foreign and defence policy will prove to be crucial, while both main parties will do their utmost to avoid debating it in a meaningful way.
By focusing on the UK's electoral campaign, one could be forgiven for assuming that the international environment posed no serious challenges. Yet 2015 has started with the further unravelling of international stability. February saw the most important change to European security since the end of the Cold War. The fragile ceasefire in Ukraine was brokered by the "Normandy format", making clear that on matters of vital interest, Germany and France dictate European foreign policy. Britain has lost any meaningful role, while America has taken a step back from European security. The original objective of Nato and the EU, to maintain cohesion amongst the transatlantic allies while balancing German power and checking Russia, appears to have ended. Negotiating from a position of weakness, Russia has delineated the borders of Europe, and weakened both the EU and Nato. In appeasing Putin, the European powers have saddled themselves with a chilling culpability for future Russian adventurism.
It has also become clear that the limited Western campaign against IS has done little more than push them from Iraq into Syria, supporting Iran's regional ambitions. Across the Atlantic there is little comfort to be found. In the final stretch of his presidency Obama is at odds with Congress on almost every major issue, not least the way forward in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Closer to home there are worrying echoes of the political maelstrom of the 1930s in Europe. Quite apart from shifting Europe's macroeconomic agenda, by raising the issue of German war reparations, Greece's Syriza has changed the debate within Europe from economics to politics. Their success has emboldened populist parties on the Left and Right. The failure of British politicians has been the desire to flee, rather than tackle, such populist debate—an absence of ideas as much as leadership. Too fearful of domestic consequences to offer vision and values, they are paying a price at the polls. This fear is echoed in the inability of European social democracies to provide a coherent alternative to Putin's (and Syriza's) narrative of modern European politics. So far, the price has been blood on the streets of Paris, Copenhagen and Donetsk.
For the UK, the lack of serious foreign policy debate has been a persistent theme since the last election. The disintegration of anything resembling a coherent foreign policy since the UK government failed to win parliamentary support for intervention in Syria in 2013 is not surprising, but the longer-term consequences are deeply worrying. Neither of the two main political parties has expressed a coherent foreign policy vision because they are both hostages to domestic political fragmentation. Neither expects to win an outright majority.
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