A refreshingly new approach to British Foreign Policy

Friday 27th January 2017

John Baron, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay
Theresa May’s speech to Republican Congressmen not only recognised the error of our recent interventions, but also suggested a more pragmatic approach to our foreign policy.

Liberal intervention was a concept given great prominence by Tony Blair’s 1999 speech in Chicago. That approach of altruistically using the military instrument to further humanitarian goals, greatly informed his premiership, was highly influential over Presidents Clinton and Bush, and was strongly endorsed by David Cameron as Prime Minister.

As a consistent critic of our foreign interventions over the 15 years I have been an MP – I opposed and voted against military action in Iraq, Helmand, Libya and Syria – I was therefore pleased to hear Theresa May’s remarks in Philadelphia, in which she said that there must be “no return to the failed policies of the past”. Our adherence to the doctrine of liberal intervention has not served us well; rather, it resulted in us becoming bogged down in costly and questionable military operations across the Middle East, Afghanistan and Libya.

Perhaps most importantly, liberal intervention has inevitably failed to provide the intended improvement for the local populations; indeed, in all cases, the instability caused by our interventions has fuelled conflict, rather than resolving it. In previously secure Iraq and Libya, intervention gave rise to vicious civil wars, with settled minorities, such as the Iraqi Christians, suffering from terrible sectarian violence, their centuries-old communities scattered to the winds. Even Tony Blair has had to admit that there were “elements of truth” to the assertion that emergence of Daesh was linked to the 2003 invasion.

For Britain, it is concerning that we have been slow to learn the lessons of our successive interventions. That is linked to the overall underinvestment in our foreign policy-making process. Successive Governments have reduced the budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, resulting in the cumulative loss of essential skills, institutional memory and deep country know-how, as experts leave and are not replaced. During the Arab Spring, the FCO found itself short of Arabic speakers, whilst our muddled response to the Russian annexation of Crimea was not helped by the fact there was no in-house area expert at the time.

It is no coincidence that Parliament has become substantially more questioning of our foreign policy in recent years. Mindful of the experience of Iraq, MPs have raised the bar when it comes to intervention, as was strikingly seen during the debate on, and vote against, military action in Syria in the summer of 2013. That was one of Parliament’s finest hours of recent times. Two years later, and the Government had, indeed, realised that the greater threat came from Daesh, and not from President Assad.

There is also a danger that our foreign policy misadventures since 2001 blinded us to the potentially greater danger posed by hostile nation states, which never went away. No one can deny that President Putin caught the West napping when he sent his forces into Eastern Ukraine, whilst the Chinese Government has been steadily building up a sizeable military presence in the South China Sea.

Western distractions in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa, and our consequent loss of confidence in using the military instrument, have not gone unnoticed – nor has the tendency amongst western nations to steadily reduce their military budgets, even as other countries, who are not necessarily friendly to the West, have significantly increased their defence spending and capabilities.

For all of those reasons, we should welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has chosen to re-tune our foreign policy. There will always be scope to intervene when necessary, and it would be wrong to interpret her words as stepping back from the global stage. However, the belief that western nations could create fully-fledged democracies through force of arms has had its day. Instead, a more pragmatic and realistic way of going about foreign affairs is required, coupled with increased investment in our policy-making apparatus. If the Prime Minister manages that, then Britain can truly complement the United States as its greatest ally.

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