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There is a gaping hole where Britain's foreign policy should be

Theresa May said little in her Mansion House speech. 

Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech at the Mansion House on Monday demonstrated that her government has a gaping hole where it should have a foreign policy. 

The Lord Mayor’s dinner is the annual opportunity for a British Prime Minister to take stock of the UK’s foreign policy and to map its future direction. David Cameron was a master of this speech. His delivery in November 2015, following the heavy loss of life in the Paris terrorist attacks, forensically set out the UK’s strategy and capacity to engage internationally to counter the threat of terrorism. 

In contrast May’s focus was on the need to ensure that the benefits of "liberalism and globalisation" are more evenly distributed.  For her, the EU referendum and the US presidential election should be read as wake-up call. Important as this analysis may be for electoral politics, it does not set out a clear road map for the UK’s future foreign policy. It also resulted in a speech in which May made no reference to key security challenges faced by the UK, such as Russia and the ongoing conflict in Syria. 

With the UK facing the most challenging period in its foreign affairs since the Second World War, the absence of a clear government narrative on Britain’s future foreign policy is a major concern.  Britain’s planned exit from the European Union is now taking place alongside the election of a US President who, as a candidate, challenged the global liberalised free-trading order that Britain helped to construct, and the security alliance rooted in NATO. Most of the central tenets of the UK’s foreign, security and defence policy have now been called into question. 

Avoiding tough talking about the challenges to the UK’s foreign policy is becoming the default position of the May government. Her Mansion House speech contained a rallying cry for the UK to be a global leader. But for what purpose? Beyond making a softer version of globalisation work, she was not clear. 

The impression of avoiding a debate on future UK foreign policy is reinforced by the speeches and statements of the Foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who appears content to conduct the UK’s public diplomacy through a combination of tweet-length bon mots and attempts to publicly antagonise other European governments. 

PM May has also further diminished the UK’s capacity for addressing its major diplomatic challenges by redistributing responsibility, staff and resources. The UK now has three secretaries of state influencing foreign policy - Johnson, but also David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union and Liam Fox at the Department for International Trade. Each are presenting piecemeal, and sometimes contradictory, positions on how the UK’s sees its future relations with the EU and third countries. To add to the confusion, the secretary of state for International Development Priti Patel has publicly called for new objectives and spending priorities for the UK’s development policy. 

Negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU is going to be the UK’s most pressing foreign policy challenge in the coming years. It will be the major preoccupation for Britain’s diplomatic and civil service machinery. And it will be made considerably more difficult if the UK’s exit from the EU isn’t embedded in a broader and deeper understanding of Britain’s future place in the world. 

The Prime Minister’s controlling instincts (demonstrated in No.10's handling of the Brexit negotiations) are not a good starting point for debating the future for Britain’s foreign policy. Her government will need to make difficult choices. It must balance the needs of its post-Brexit economy, recalibrate relationships with its neighbours in Europe, and work out where, and for what purpose, to build deeper foreign and security policy relationships beyond Europe. The UK must draw up a clear roadmap for its post-Brexit role in the world. Otherwise, the danger is that the UK's foreign policy will be simply a defensive reaction to the twists and turns of an unpredictable Trump Presidency. 

Richard G. Whitman is Senior Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and Senior Fellow on the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme. 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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