The Foreign Secretary James Cleverly set out his strategy for the UK’s diplomacy today (12 December). In a speech at the Foreign Office he adopted a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor, Liz Truss, but the content was not radically new.
In a December speech last year, Truss promised to build a “network of liberty” with other freedom-loving countries around the world to “advance the frontiers of freedom”. The tone from Cleverly today was more modest. The UK, he said, should pursue a “patient diplomacy” based on a “willingness to listen” to developing countries because “the world’s geopolitical centre of gravity is moving south and east”. The Foreign Secretary, perhaps trying to rebuild the UK’s reputation for multilateralism, spent most of the talk praising the international system. He suggested the reason the UK even has a foreign policy – despite being prosperous, at peace and an island – is to renew the international institutions set up amid the wreckage of the Second World War. There were also warm words about a deal with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Despite the conciliatory tone, there was no major departure from the policy of his predecessors. The tilt to the Indo-Pacific stays. The UK’s support for Ukraine remains steadfast. Cleverly’s ambition to engage with developing countries reflects the G7’s commitment in February to compete with China’s global development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, through green investment. Indeed, Truss made clear in her “Network of Liberty” speech that engaging with developing countries was vital to “winning the battle for economic influence”. The key difference is that Cleverly’s rhetoric is less idealistic, less bullish about freedom, and more pragmatic.
There’s another reason why today’s speech wasn’t as transformative as a major announcement from a relatively new foreign secretary might have been. There have been six foreign secretaries in the past six years. The last time that happened Napoleon Bonaparte was rampaging through Europe. Cleverly talks about the importance of thinking 25 years ahead, but the government’s crumbling authority in parliament and the Conservative Party’s dismal position in the polls means he – and his foreign policy – could quickly follow his predecessors out the door.