16 July 2008

Shouldn't Brown and Cameron do "foreign"?

A little while ago I was asked by the BBC Russian Service to comment on the ongoing problems in Russo-British relationship. What will happen at the Brown-Medvedev meeting at the G8 Summit? Not a lot, was my prediction, and I seem to have been right.

The larger point is one that I had made before in the selfsame studio: Gordon Brown’s views on foreign policy are completely unknown. Does he even have any views? Does he even know that there is a world out there? He certainly has no concept of what Britain’s foreign policy might be based on. And, sad to say, neither does the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, whose Shadow Foreign Secretary seems to be a part-time member of the front bench, even though he is shadowing one of the great offices of state.

This became painfully obvious during the last NATO summit when important matters were discussed. The question of whether Ukraine and Georgia should be asked to participate in the Membership Action Plan (MAP) went to the heart of several rather tricky problems. How far should NATO extend? What is to be done about making the Caucasus – important for all sorts of reasons, not least oil – secure? And, above all, is Russia to be allowed to interfere in internal NATO matters? Subsequent developments in the Caucasus with Russia, to all intents and purposes, invading Abkhazia, known as the break-away region of Georgia, have confirmed the importance of all these issues.

The summit divided rather sharply between those, led by the United States and Canada, who wanted to invite Ukraine and Georgia to participate in MAP and those, led by Germany and France, who opposed it, largely because they did not want to upset Russia, from whom Germany and some other West European countries are buying an ever larger proportion of their gas and oil and will do unless, as seems likely, Russian production is steeply reduced.

The final outcome was unexpected. While Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy with their acolytes, the Spanish and the Benelux governments, strutted round boasting of how they had stood up to America, President Bush quietly lined up his allies and the final statement promised both Ukraine and Georgia eventual membership of NATO. This went further than the original offer of the Membership Action Plan that had been defeated by Russia’s proxies.

What was Britain’s position? Did Gordon Brown line up with George Bush and Stephen Harper with their allies or with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy and their allies? Neither. Prime Minister Brown sat on the fence, whining that there was no consensus he could adhere to. What was the Opposition’s attitude? Did they think Britain should go with the pro-MAP or the anti-MAP group and did they demand a debate because HMG had shown itself to be so utterly feeble? Well, no. The whole episode seemed to pass Messrs Cameron, Hague and Fox by without so much as a raised eyebrow.

The main problem here is the European Union, a subject, which seems to mesmerize most politicians, particularly the Conservatives. When asked what their views on foreign policy are, they (and their Labour counterparts) inevitably start talking of the EU and, possibly, the Lisbon (formerly known as Constitutional) Treaty. The trouble is that the EU is not a matter for foreign policy only. As it is the fount of most of this country’s legislation it has to be discussed under domestic matters. At the same time, it is well-nigh impossible for Britain to develop a coherent foreign policy as long as such matters as international trade agreements remain in the hands of the European Union and the Common Foreign Policy is an avowed aim of the integration process.

Of course, if neither the Government nor the Opposition express any ideas of what Britain’s foreign policy should be, the situation becomes even more difficult. Apart from an insistence that we must ratify the Lisbon Treaty, no matter what happens with promises to support the French desire to create a European force and a generalized bleating about the situation in Zimbabwe, we have heard very little from the youthful Foreign Secretary. Gordon Brown makes the odd comment about the need to send either more aid or just as much aid to countries that clearly need to be weaned off it in order to develop their economy. He is also sometimes in favour of a close alliance with the United States and sometimes against it.

On the other side David Cameron shows no interest in matters of foreign policy beyond the odd trip to help some African country and getting into a muddle as to what he intends to do or not do about the Lisbon Treaty. This would not matter if the Shadow Foreign Secretary made it clear what the Conservative ideas on British foreign policy are. William Hague, who cannot be seriously described as an opponent of the European Union or even of the integration process, has been known to make the odd comment about the Lisbon Treaty (he is against it) and the remote possibility of Tony Blair becoming the first President of the European Council (he thinks it’s funny).

There are the compulsory comments on the need to help poor countries without any serious ideas as to how this might be done and there was at least one major speech. In it the Shadow Foreign Secretary explained that Britain should move away from a close relationship with the United States and look to other countries, the growing economies of Asia such as China and India. The speech appeared to be rather random, written after a cursory glance at the atlas.

Surely Mr Hague must know that Britain’s relationship with India, with whom there are historic links, which is an Anglospheric country with similar political, legal, constitutional and, intermittently, economic ideas must be different from that with China, which is an oppressive Communist gerontocracy where political and economic tensions are becoming more and more apparent. Surely Mr Hague is aware of that entity we call the Anglosphere. Perhaps not, as he has never referred to it and has ignored the fact that both India and Australia have separate and close relations with America and both are developing into serious regional powers. In other words, there is no suggestion that under William Hague’s guidance and David Cameron’s leadership the Conservative Party has the slightest intention of developing a foreign policy.

Given Britain’s history it is, to put it mildly, disconcerting to find the country in a situation where neither the Government nor Her Majesty’s Opposition has the slightest interest in her position in the world.