Bilateralism is a neat policy, which doesn’t actually work

by Nick Keehan

We live in an uncertain and dangerous world. Look at North Korea. It is a world of international terrorism, nuclear proliferation and cyber attack, as well as of good old-fashioned state-versus-state conflict. A world in which threats in one region can quickly spread to others.

As David Cameron noted in his foreign policy speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet last week, such a world requires that Britain adopt a strategic approach to its national security. To this end, the government, immediately on entering office, established a national security council. This would bring together defence, development, diplomacy and domestic policy, “to consider Britain’s strategic interest in the round and to ensure that foreign policy runs through the veins of the whole of government”. Which would be all well and good, had not foreign policy ceased to run through the veins of the foreign office.

For the Tory-Liberal government has put at the heart of its foreign policy two distinct principles: bilateralism and commercialism. Diplomats are to prioritise trade and investment in meetings with foreign counterparts; while, to emphasise the new importance given to commercial interests, the government appointed as permanent secretary at the foreign office not a diplomat, but the former head of the department for business, innovation and skills. And it has put these principles into practice in a series of ministerial visits aimed at “elevating relationships” with a number of growing economic powers: Brazil, Turkey, the Gulf states and, most importantly, India.

A new partnership with India is the flagship policy for this government in foreign affairs. It was included in the Queen’s speech, while the coalition agreement talked of a “new special relationship”. The attractions of good relations with India are obvious: it is a fast-growing economy and the world’s largest democracy. However, good relations are not the same as a strategic partnership. In the rush to take advantage of the commercial opportunities that India offers, the government seems to have forgotten this.

In its drive for a new partnership with India, the government is following in the footsteps of George W. Bush, who also prioritised closer relations with India. This is generally regarded as one of President Bush’s few foreign policy successes; and, in terms of improving relations between India and the United States, it was. In terms of promoting any concrete US national interests, however, the policy was a failure. India rejected any suggestion of joining the military coalition in Iraq, it blocked efforts to restart world trade liberalisation and it refused to go along with efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear programme. Furthermore, anyone hoping that the world’s largest and the world’s most powerful democracies would join together in democracy promotion would also be disappointed: India remained steadfast in putting state sovereignty over human rights.

What this made clear was, first, that India will pursue its own interests, and, second, that those interests are rarely the same as those of the US. This was the mistake Bush made. It is the same mistake that the Tory-Liberal government is making over UK-India relations.

The UK has a number of vital security interests at stake in South Asia. The government’s approach to relations with India does little to advance any of them.

Take nuclear proliferation and terrorism. In relation to this threat there is no more important dispute for Britain than that between India and Pakistan. Pakistan, with however little justification, sees India as its main rival and threat. However, India’s conventional military strength greatly outweighs that of Pakistan. Pakistan’s military therefore chooses to support terrorist groups which act against India. At the same time, it adopts an aggressive first-use nuclear posture, in order to deter a conventional military response from India to any terrorist attack. In order to maintain the credibility of this posture, however, the Pakistani army has to devolve control over its nuclear arms lower down the chain of command, which increases the risk of them falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

The UK’s national security strategy places international terrorism, including a nuclear attack by terrorists, as a tier one threat to the UK. So Britain has a clear interest in relations between India and Pakistan. But what is the government’s stance on this issue? Well, in his speech in India in July, David Cameron stated it clearly: “your relations with [Pakistan] are a matter for you and you alone”.

To be fair, that the solution to the dispute between India and Pakistan is a matter for the two governments is longstanding UK policy. It is also to the prime minister’s credit that he followed the above statement with remarks that suggested he believes relations with Pakistan should be a matter for discussion between India and the UK. However, a bilateral policy focused on trade interests undermines any chance of the UK being able to engage with India on this issue in a way that effectively advances our interests.

For example, this week Liam Fox was in India to promote a £7 billion deal to supply fighter jets to the Indian government. This deal would safeguard thousands of British jobs and, since India is expanding its defence budget, could point the way to more contracts in the years ahead. It therefore represents an important interest for the UK. However, there is strong competition for the contract from the US, France and Russia. Any attempt by the UK to raise with India its dispute with Pakistan could therefore see the contract given instead to another country by an Indian government highly averse to outside interference in its relations with its neighbour.

It does not have to be this way. The US and, to a lesser extent, France share our interests when it comes to India-Pakistan relations and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. A coordinated, multilateral approach to security issues in relations with India could therefore allow us to pursue our commercial interests responsibly, without sacrificing important security interests. This is true not only of relations with India; a similar principle applies in our relations with China, with Russia and even with the US.

A multilateral approach will allow us to make the most of our own and allies’ strengths. Bilateralism will only serve to put us in competition with our allies and weaken our influence. Labour should not hesitate in asking the Tory-Liberal government why it has put such a principle at the heart of its foreign policy.

Nick Keehan works in Parliament.

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