Britain’s Foreign Office and diplomatic service have a proud history. Moreover, Britain’s engagement with the outside world goes back a few thousand years. These islands have historically been good at absorbing external influences within and influencing the internal situation of others.
One hundred years ago, I would be writing about the glorious empire on which the sun never sets, and the growing fortunes of our war against Germany. This was a time when Britain was looked to as the center of geopolitics and the map was red.
How times have changed!
In the recent-ish past Britain has re-asked the questions ‘who are we?’ and ‘what are we for?’ Be sure, Iraq has left a sour taste in the mouths of the British people and created a more cautious approach from the state in foreign interventions. Look at Libya and Syria. Yet as we try to figure out what we want from Europe, British foreign policy is at a tremendous standstill by a fork in the road. What we once were cannot be returned to (however much UKIP and the Tory right would like), but at the same time, the road ahead is not obvious or clear-cut.
Of course, the United Kingdom is one of the Big Five on the UN Security Council, but the response to that seems to be so what? It is not enough for many. The loss of empire and growing ties to Europe since created the impression that we are no longer the great and influential power we once were. But this is just a scratch on the bonnet.
In brutal terms, British foreign policy in the twenty first century is short-term in focus and aims. Currently, it centers on Brexit, migration and trade. These are not visions of Britain, rather self-inflicted issues. We have always been a maritime trading hub, but what is never considered is what trade means. Suppose a post-Brexit Britain leaves the European Single Market. What does trade with, for example, the Eurasian Economic Union mean or say about us? The answer is nothing. Trading more with America means nothing but trade.
The Brexit negotiations are not showing global leadership or obvious glories ahead – they are a chaotic shambles. This is not my opinion; it is a clear to anyone paying attention. Moreover, the idea of Europe will not just go away because Britain decides to revoke its club membership. European problems will always seek Britain’s voice. Other long-term problems such as climate change, terror and so on require the involvement and co-operation of the UK. This is the main problem of a short-term approach. What is Britain’s voice for if it cannot think ahead?
Let’s now look at the political context. Parties generally avoid issues like civil atrocities overseas. The reason is actually quite simple. In a democracy, the people set the agenda. The electorate are less likely to hear of civil atrocities or human rights abuses, and therefore, do not care. Domestic issues such as health and housing then become highly politicised as a result.
There is ample proof of this. Firstly, during any election campaign, foreign policy sections are often at the back of manifestos. Even when it comes up in public events, questions tend to be generalised and are satisfied with sound bite answers. Jeremy Corbyn for instance was asked whether or not he would use nuclear weapons by two elderly working class gentlemen. All they wanted to hear was ‘yes’, not an in depth analysis of various scenarios that may arise. However, during the 2017 general election, what lost it for the Conservatives was domestic issues, not Brexit. Likewise, Labour’s stance on immigration alienated some voters, but not enough to swing the election.
This is significant however, because when issues at home become more politicised it detracts from any progress on international matters of common interest. Brexit is struggling because it became politically toxic at home, thus, the parties refuse to work together and disagree too much amongst themselves. The reality is Brexit will not change things back to the way they were nor will remaining in the EU deliver us from evil.
What Britain has lacked for a long time is a wider more rounded discussion of foreign policy and international affairs. The population feels less affected by foreign policy so show little interest. As such, the population is ready to believe the worst lies and a great deal of hypocrisy runs through public opinion. Different countries are held to different and double standards. Then again, one might argue this demonstrates that international relations do not really exist; there are only national interests.
Although, this lack of discussion around foreign policy is a drawback of democracy itself. British governments (usually) serve for five years. A party could be voted out at any time and therefore any changes must be immediately effective. That means long-term planning is not doable and foreign policy suffers the most and changes little from one government to the next. Also, as the population is largely indifferent, parties can avoid discussing it altogether. The Liberal Democrats have in the last three general elections. After all, elections are fought on the economy, not foreign policy or social issues.
Britain is now something of a second tier global leader. The world still looks to us for answers, just not the same as it does the US or even Germany. This reality causes us a headache. Our diplomatic service is massively respected worldwide, yet the population does not see our government as respectable or acting as a global leader. We stand up on certain issues but not others the government would gain a lot of support for. To top it off, the British media rarely challenges foreign policy decisions unless controversial.
The UK could be ‘the shining city on a hill’ in many areas of foreign policy, but unfortunately, we are too consumed with our own nonsense to think ahead.