A Stop The War campaigner holds up a placard outside Parliament on August 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
After an era of interventionism, stretching from the bombing of Iraq in 1998 to the Libya mission in 2011, the vote in parliament on 29 August against military action in Syria is being portrayed by some as the birth of a new age of isolationism. The morning after the government’s defeat, an anguished Paddy Ashdown wrote: “We are a hugely diminished country this AM. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.” For him and others, “All is changed, changed utterly.”
Beyond the parliamentary theatrics, however, it is doubtful whether the vote will prove the defining moment that some suggest. The narrow defeat of the government by 13 votes was more by accident than by design. Labour, which did not oppose military action in its amendment, failed to anticipate the result or David Cameron’s abrupt decision to rule out intervention. Of the 577 MPs who took part in one or both votes, 492 supported the potential use of force. Yet, for largely political reasons, it is in the interests of both Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband to avoid a second vote and the party divisions that would result.
In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention. It is just two years since parliament voted by a majority of 544 to support military action, in that case against Libya, with just 13 dissenting voices. In similar circumstances, it would undoubtedly be prepared to do so again.
That Mr Cameron lost the vote was a result not of his failure to assert the moral case for intervention against the Syrian regime, but his failure to address adequately the practical and strategic concerns expressed by MPs of all parties. It was never explained how limited missile strikes would prevent the further use of chemical weapons or other arms against civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s administration or his opponents, nor was it made clear how Britain would avoid being drawn into a wider and more dangerous regional conflagration.
If devoid of the significance that some have attributed to it, the Syria vote provides a moment to reflect on the purpose of British foreign policy. Dean Acheson’s gibe in 1962 – “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” – continues to resonate. Having gone to war so often in the past 15 years, we feel a sense of impotence when we do not. This is exacerbated by an increasingly powerful isolationist tendency, most visible in the form of the UK Independence Party, which combines an aversion to foreign entanglements with hostility to the European Union, open borders and overseas aid.
Yet between the poles of intervention and inaction, there is still much good that the UK can do. It should work with others at the G20 in St Petersburg to address the shortfall in humanitarian support for Syrian civilians, four million of whom have been displaced internally, and the two million who have fled the country. The Syria Regional Response Plan for refugees, which has called for funding of $3bn, remains 60 per cent short of this total.
In addition, Britain should intensify efforts to reach a political settlement, including greater engagement with the newly moderate Iranian leadership, as advocated by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, and some Conservative MPs.
Policymakers must reject the false choice between a neoconservative adventurism that disregards the limits of military force and a parochial isolationism that seeks refuge in the pursuit of narrow national interests. The priority remains to craft a multilateral approach that combines a commitment to ethical principles with an awareness of the gulf between the desirable and the possible. If the Syria vote encourages greater reflection on this task, then it could yet prove a significant moment in the search for a consistent post-imperial foreign policy.