A popular alternative to the Tories’ seedy foreign policy, by Nick Keehan

The spending review leaves no doubt about the government’s priorities when it comes to foreign policy: those diplomats and civil servants remaining at the foreign office after it has undergone budget cuts of 24 per cent will focus on championing British companies abroad and increasing business links and market information for UK exporters. The foreign office will become, in effect, a consultancy and PR firm for business, underwritten by the UK taxpayer.

In this, the spending review simply reaffirms what the foreign secretary has been saying since entering the job in May. In his speech to a Tokyo audience in July, “Britain’s prosperity in a networked world”’, William Hague made it clear that promoting trade and commercial interests would be at the heart of Britain’s foreign policy. The government would “inject a new commercialism into the work of the foreign office and into the definition of our international objectives”; it would give “significant new emphasis to helping British business secure new opportunities”; and it would use its political influence “to help unblock obstacles to commercial success”.

Not any old obstacles, obviously. There would be some red lines which the government would “never, ever cross” in pursuit of British interests, as David Cameron told the Conservative party conference. Under the Tories, a devolved Scottish government would never again exercise its constitutional right to release a convicted foreign terrorist on compassionate grounds, for example. Cameron said this in a very stern voice, lest it seem like a cynical platitude which he doesn’t have the power to deliver.

If the obstacles to your commercial success include only an indictment for genocide, however, you are in luck.

In August, foreign office minister Henry Bellingham visited Sudan, whose president Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the international criminal court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. While there, Bellingham met with Sudanese officials to discuss trade opportunities between the UK and Sudan. “One of our top priorities is to increase trade with different countries around the world, particularly in Africa. The trade we have with Sudan at the moment is very good but we feel the scope for that trade can increase”, he said.

Then, in late September, one week before the prime minister told the Conservative party what the government would never do in pursuit of British interests and that Britain’s reputation was about doing what is right, the government hosted a networking reception, “Opportunities in Sudan”, bringing a trade delegation from Sudan together with representatives of major British oil, engineering, agriculture and banking companies.

Of course, this sort of thing can be seen as just part of being in government. Certainly, there were instances of such seedy dealing during Labour’s time in office. Even discounting the case of Libya, there remains the issue of arms to Indonesia which served to undermine Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” in Labour’s first term and Tony Blair’s blocking of the serious fraud office’s prosecution of BAE Systems over an arms deal with Saudi Arabia. But under the direction of William Hague, the Tory-Lib Dem government appears to have elevated the squalid periphery of Labour’s foreign policy to pride of place in King Charles Street.

The natural Labour response to this new focus is to accuse the government of putting profit before people. This will be the reaction of human rights groups and it will be tempting for the Labour party simply to join in with and echo such adverse criticism. There is nothing wrong with this approach as far as it goes, but it cannot form the central plank of our response to this issue.

This summer, a YouGov poll of the general public for Chatham House found that 51 per cent of respondents preferred the statement, “British foreign policy should pursue our national interest at all times, even if this means doing things that some people regard as unethical”, compared to 35 per cent who chose the alternative, “British foreign policy should be based at least in part on ethical considerations, even if this means sometimes not acting in our immediate national interest”. The popular judgement is clear: the purpose of the foreign office is not to protect the rights of foreigners but to promote the interests of British citizens.

The Labour party in opposition must look like a potential government. We will not do this if we give the impression that we are more concerned with the effects of our foreign policy on people overseas than the benefits for people here in the UK. The task is therefore to develop a foreign policy that is clearly based on the British national interest, while retaining distinct Labour values. Two further findings from the Chatham House poll point the way in this regard.

The three countries that enjoyed the best reputation among respondents to the poll were New Zealand, Australia and Canada. No other country came close to these three in terms of the number of people feeling especially positive about it. What is notable about these countries in particular is the priority that they give to enjoying a reputation as what former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, calls “good international citizens”.

The substance of good international citizenship is nothing new. The idea that the pursuit of national interests should be influenced by the values of the international community, a belief in enlightened self-interest and cooperation in tackling global problems, and a commitment to humanitarian values and respect for international law have been mainstays of UK foreign policy, at least rhetorically, since New Labour’s first term. What Labour should take from the examples of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, then, is the need to make a commitment to being seen as a good international citizen a clear and explicit priority of our foreign policy. A good reputation should be a core foreign policy goal.

62 per cent of respondents to the Chatham House poll said that the UK should seek to remain a great power, with substantial armed forces and a permanent seat on the UN security council. Only 22 per cent thought that the UK should give up on being a great power. The public still clearly cares about the UK’s status and reputation in the world. In opposing the government, we must show how its foreign policy will diminish Britain’s status and reputation.

We must show how a penny-pinching diplomacy built around sniffing out business opportunities and lobbying in favour of private interests is inconsistent with the status of a major player in the international community. How a willingness to say whatever your present audience wants to hear for the sake of commercial interests makes us look desperate, fickle and grasping. And how a Britain that wants to be a major force in the world must play a proper role in providing the global public goods of international stability, security and justice upon which our long-term prosperity ultimately depends.

Nick Keehan works in Parliament.

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