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.
Clearly the influence of populist politics is no less malign in the UK than in Europe. The issues which exert greatest pressure from the fringes onto the mainstream of British political debate are all fundamentally concerned with Britain’s place in the world. UKIP exacerbates the traditional split within the Tory party over Europe, while the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have effectively issued an ultimatum to Labour over Trident renewal. Trident has no conventional military utility, but is strategically significant in terms of Britain’s international position. Its symbolism in electoral terms is as a proxy for the type of international engagement which the various parties desire for Britain. The foreign policy paralysis this has created in Westminster risks Britain drifting into international irrelevance. Philip Hammond sought to downplay Britain’s exclusion from Ukrainian negotiations by suggesting that Cameron was instrumental in securing EU sanctions. In reality, this makes the UK’s silent acquiescence in the Franco-German pursuit of short term peace in Ukraine at any cost all the more reprehensible.
Across Europe, the impact of populism has been to drive the mainstream political focus inwards, towards nationalism. The same trend is true in the UK. The SNP exploits the fact that north of the border Trident has become totemic for questions of independence from Westminster. The SNP’s trumpeting of the imposition of “foreign” elite rule in Scotland finds its intellectual mirror in UKIP’s fusion of the threat to the UK from Europe and immigration.
If Britain truly sees itself as a major player in international politics or at least with its European neighbours, her failure to engage is contributing to the undermining of the normative contours of Europe. The twin challenges of populism and Russian autocracy make the nuances of David Cameron’s soft Euroscepticism look worryingly like a relic of the 1990s and perhaps a sideshow to the historic unravelling of Europe.
The direct implications for UK foreign policy of potential coalitions are hard to predict, because populism has had the effect of shaping mainstream political debate and it has placed constraints on government policy. Syriza’s victory only exacerbates this trend by putting pressure on Cameron’s EU balancing act. His ambiguous approach, on the one hand seeking to placate UKIP and Tory Eurosceptics, while on the other supporting Angela Merkel on EU-Russia sanctions and reform, has left the UK deeply vulnerable, with the imminent prospect of “Grexit”. The possibility of cooperative Anglo-German reform of the EU may well be overtaken by revolution from below—a widespread renegotiation by the most indebted eurozone members. By necessity the maintenance of the single currency has become the number one priority for the EU and “Brexit” has slipped further down the agenda.
Syriza’s victory should be a source of concern for both main parties. Like many of Europe’s populist parties, Syriza maintains ties to Russia, not least because it sees economic recovery tied to maintaining trade links. Although Greece acquiesced in the continuation of sanctions against Russia before the Ukrainian ceasefire, it is unclear how this relationship will play out over time. The Greek Right, with whom Syriza finds itself in coalition, traditionally views Russia as its ally, not least because of their shared Orthodox faith. Greece could act as a Russian Trojan horse, given the unanimity required by EU and Nato decision-making. There is a precedent in former President Andreas Papandreou’s balancing act in the 1980s, at first threatening to take Greece out of Nato and the Common Market, only to perform a volte-face once in office. Eurosceptic delight at the blow to the EU is being echoed in the halls of the Kremlin. Emboldened by effective victory in Ukraine, Russia is likely to continue its destabilising support for European populism. Given the implications for European politics, it is striking that neither Cameron nor Ed Miliband has engaged seriously with this issue.
In this context, Cameron’s inability to emerge from the shadow of UKIP is irresponsible. Even the most hardened Eurosceptic should see that the fragmentation of democracy in Europe, coupled with Russia’s recent belligerence, changes Britain’s strategic interests. The only greater folly than the creation of the eurozone would be its uncontrolled disintegration. Even if the major parties recoil from discussing it in detail, recent polling suggests that foreign policy does matter to the UK electorate: 63 per cent of the public say that the UK should aspire to be a “great power”, even if a decade of strategic drift in Iraq and Afghanistan has left them wary of foreign intervention. If the rise of populist politics is fundamentally about the value gap between the people and political elites, this surely represents an important point of congruence upon which the mainstream parties have failed to capitalise.
The most important lesson from Syriza’s victory is that it demonstrates the political value of a strong narrative and vision. Both Cameron and Miliband have failed to articulate a grand strategy, a coherent sense of what Britain stands for, its place in the world and the ability to align actual interests and capabilities. These are difficult questions, particularly in a period of economic austerity but the debate has barely changed in the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War. It is hardly surprising that populist politics has filled this vacuum, conflating domestic concerns about British sovereignty within Europe with genuine debate about challenges to British and international security.
The effect has been a hollowing-out of British foreign policy and a consequent diminution of our security. The starkest illustration is Cameron and Miliband’s quixotic approach to military intervention. Cameron came to power describing himself as a “liberal Conservative”. This oxymoron was hard to decipher at the time and unsurprisingly it translated into confused foreign policy. In opposition, Cameron spoke dismissively of Tony Blair’s attempts to “drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet.” In power, however, Cameron has been hamstrung by his attempts not to make the same mistakes as Blair. This has resulted in strategic illogicality and a worsening of policy outcomes.
Cameron embraced multilateral intervention in Libya in 2011 whilst also pushing for Security Council authorisation. In this he was supported by Miliband. Downing Street suggested that this was a template for future interventions—the apparently successful multilateral support for local democratic emergence, supported with airstrikes and without risking the lives of British soldiers. This model was trumpeted as a success, long after its consequences became disastrously apparent, and it has continued to shape subsequent interventions. It has revealed a desire to act on the world stage that has not been matched with any thought for the consequences or the will to maintain Britain’s capabilities. Cameron’s international engagement is based on a disappearing world in which the UK acts in partnership with an America that is actively engaged in maintaining international stability and is prepared to act as military backstop to Nato. None of these suppositions are as stable as they were even a decade ago, yet parliamentary debate suggests that they inform the foreign policy thinking of both main parties.
It looks increasingly likely that the UK will no longer meet Nato’s commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Britain has already lost its airborne maritime patrol capability, despite increased Russian submarine activity. Reform of the general officer ranks of the army suggests that, despite the rhetoric, further manpower cuts can be expected. This might well mean an army of 60,000 or so soldiers, so small that it would barely qualify for Nato classification as an army. Coupled with Britain’s flirtation with “Brexit”, the reduction in military capability has placed real strain on the other supposed pillar of Cameron’s foreign policy, the special relationship with America. President Obama, for all his foreign policy incompetence, is perfectly happy to let Berlin take the lead in European security, especially its response to Russia. The fact that this is happening at a moment when Berlin’s power within the EU is ambiguous should be taken not only as a signal of America’s view of Britain’s place on the world stage but should also be a critical moment for reassessment of British foreign policy. Given his failure to articulate an alternative, there is no reason to assume that Miliband has any alternative for reversing Britain’s strategic decline.
This incoherence has continued in Britain’s support for American intervention against IS. Having lost a vote in the Commons that resulted in a veto against action in Syria, Cameron has persisted in following Obama’s flawed model for intervention in Iraq. Miliband deserves his share of the blame. Neither of them has questioned the logic of Obama’s National Security Strategy of “strategic patience”, making them both a hostage to a fundamentally astrategic approach to foreign policy. Cameron’s decision to restrict British action to Iraq was political: it was strategically incomprehensible but it was the price Miliband demanded for support. Miliband sought to appear statesmanlike by not blocking intervention entirely but instead tried to create political capital by distancing himself from Cameron and the legacy of Blair. Clearly on both sides of the Commons there was little thought for the wider strategic consequences of the campaign.
The overall effect has been the unprecedented Shia revival under Iran, though it seems unlikely that this was Cameron’s or Miliband’s intention. This has wider ramifications than simply in Iraq and Syria. The recent skirmishes on the Golan Heights are a direct consequence of this shift of the balance of power in the Middle East. Hezbollah now has combat experience from fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria and Shia militias in Iraq. Iran’s emboldened stance has seen Hezbollah prepare for the type of military confrontation with Israel that would have been unthinkable a few years ago and could now ignite a serious regional conflict.
As long as the UK reduces its military capability, weakening the special relationship while simultaneously undercutting its influence in the EU, the effect is to absent the country from leadership in international affairs almost completely. Both of the main parties have a duty to assert a concept of the national interest and to translate that into a coherent and logical foreign policy, not one dictated from the fringes. If this is not done, Britain risks becoming a bystander as the political settlement in Europe faces its biggest challenge in a generation. The only real beneficiaries from this would be Russia and China, both of whom are actively pushing for a reordering of world affairs, based around “spheres of influence”. As the ambitions of Europe, the UK and America become more parochial, their wish looks set to be granted.