Back in 1997, there was a new government anxious to make its mark on world politics and forge a new foreign policy, with the declaration of a “businesslike” approach and the rejection of the previous government’s record. Ministers waded in with half-thought out statements on two of the most difficult problems in world politics: Kashmir and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sound familiar?
David Cameron and William Hague have tried to distance themselves from New Labour and all it stood for. However, it is striking how loudly their foreign policy reforms and diplomatic rows echo those of their predecessor in its first term.
Hague’s announcement of a clearer foreign policy, one more geared towards the needs of business, is just business as usual. When New Labour gained power, Robin Cook, the new foreign secretary, argued that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, like any modern business, should have a mission statement that set out clear goals for foreign policy to achieve. He also declared it a “top priority for our network of overseas posts to promote British exports and boost British jobs”.
As a result, an important part of the work of the Foreign Office shifted from political reporting and analysis to export promotion. By 2009, the government had introduced “business ambassadors” to co-ordinate export promotion between the Foreign Office and the Department for Business. “Supporting the British economy” was listed as first among the essential services the Foreign Office performs.
Like its New Labour forerunner, this government mistakenly believes that international relations are as receptive to reform as domestic politics. Again, the parallels are striking. Flush with electoral success, Cook courted controversy in 1997 when he clumsily offered to mediate over the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. He then upset both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict with a visit to a Jewish settlement on Arab land in breach of the Oslo Accords.
Last week, Cameron insulted France, Germany, Austria and Israel in favour of Turkey — which has proved unreliable when it comes to supporting British initiatives aimed at curbing nuclear proliferation. He then caused a major row with Pakistan, the key regional power in Britain’s efforts to fight terrorism.
The common factor underlying both the desire to transform the Foreign Office into a branch of the Department for Business and the clumsy electioneering style of both governments is a fundamental disrespect for the practice of diplomacy. Under first Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair, the virtues of this activity — tact, patience, humility and, above all, prudence — were seen as obstacles to progress.
New Labour ministers increasingly acted like Big Brother contestants, emphasising how “open” and “honest” they were being. They justified their blunt talk (especially to the French and the Germans) by saying they were being true to themselves.
Disappointingly, the same view is evident in the current government’s posturing. Cameron’s declarations that he doesn’t think “the British taxpayer wants me to go around the world saying what people want to hear” and that there is a need to be “frank” and “clear” in his dealings with strategic partners indicate that subtlety and guile are not likely to be the main features of his foreign policy.
However, if the coalition really wants to try a different direction in foreign policy, it might begin by restoring the idea that diplomacy is a delicate exercise, with its own particular virtues and vices. Subtlety, humility, patience and wisdom are characteristics that are valuable in this sphere. At the moment, the contrast between a truly diplomatic strategy and Cameron’s hectoring is akin to the difference between a virtuoso pianist and a man bashing the keys with a hammer.
Recognising that diplomacy requires expertise involves valuing the status and skills of the experts at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Here, the coalition’s early movements are troubling. The ministry’s research analysis division — the section most responsible for maintaining the knowledge base of the whole organisation — has been dissolved. The Foreign Office faces cuts of a third in its domestic operations.
In these circumstances, developing political wisdom about foreign cultures to achieve a nuanced policy is not possible. Hague’s desire to create a more “agile” foreign policy sounds more like a recipe for policy made on the hoof.
There is more to the making of foreign policy than flogging jets and berating allies. Diplomacy is required to persuade others to support your goals. This is more likely to be effective if conducted in a careful, respectful and private manner. The quiet diplomacy that brought Libya back into the fold is a better example to follow from New Labour’s time in office than Blair and Cook’s hubris. Posturing, especially when coupled with ulterior economic motives, gets us nowhere.
Instead of grandstanding, David Cameron and William Hague would do well to seek Henry Kissinger’s goal of the “patient accumulation of partial successes”. The world will not be remade in a week — and especially not through inflammatory press conferences.
Dr Jamie Gaskarth is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Plymouth and the co-ordinator of the British International Studies Association’s British Foreign Policy Working Group. He is working on two books on British foreign policy during the New Labour years.