So foreign policy issues are hitting the election headlines? Not exactly. All I’ve seen across the media has been synthetic outrage at Miliband’s supposed ‘slur’ against David Cameron over the lack of post-conflict planning in Libya.
Those bodies in European waters did not become an election issue. The election issue is whether there is a ‘personal attack’ on the Prime Minister. That, in summary, is precisely the problem.
British politics too often has small horizons, small ambitions, and petty policy prescriptions. ‘English votes for English laws’. ‘Full fiscal autonomy’. ‘New runway for Heathrow’. All these things matter, if not necessarily in the terms in which they are framed, but foreign policy matters, too, and it matters big time. Ultimately all else follows from it.
Perhaps the problem lies in the label? “Foreign policy” – it has a curiously old fashioned ring to it. It reeks of FCO mandarins sending amusing despatches, or moustachioed Premiers intent on gun boat diplomacy. A world of far away countries of which we know nothing.
The far away countries of which we know nothing tend to be the Channel Islands, or Monaco, where the press barons squirrel their squillions. The rest of the world is very much our business, and we need to know what our government-to-be intends to do.
The world was carved-up and conceptualised by European powers and the USA in the centuries preceding this one, but that order has been crumbling away for a long time. Some old fissures have re-emerged, most notably in the Middle East, or the former Soviet, former Tzarist empire. But there are new questions, such as the impact of climate change upon involuntary population movements, food, water and energy security, and human rights and dignity. The Mediterranean’s human tide is caused by a combination of all of these issues.
Planning for post-conflict state-building in Libya is a mere detail in all of this. Indeed, I’d argue that ‘liberal interventionism’, that macho pose so beloved of modern boy-politicians, is less a doctrine than a tag-line to justify playing with big weaponry. Arguably (and I’d argue it) speedier, less timid intervention in the Balkans in the early 1990s could have saved lives and been no more costly or messy than what actually happened. Intervention in Sierra Leone was probably the crucial one. Blair was feted as a hero over than one, and I suspect it gave him a taste for military adventures. But since then – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria – disasters all, and only partly because there was no credible strategy for ‘after’ the firestorm. The bigger problem was in not seeing things in historical and sociological context. Countries aren’t like real estate – they have histories, cultures, world views of their own.
Then there is Europe. We are part of the largest economy in the world. Not China, not the USA – Europe. So we want out, do we? Cameron would risk this, for reasons of expedient internal party management. For all his metropolitan gloss, Cameron reveals himself to be a little Englander.
But the EU is in a mess. It has been badly run for a long time, not least in part because of British disengagement or mischief. Thatcher and Major urged overly hasty eastward expansion and were cheerleaders for the single market, including free movement of labour. The Euro project wasn’t wrong, but it was executed with ineptitude. There is a need for a new UK government to be serious about taking a stronger, more constructively critical position.
Does much of this feature in the election debate? Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary who is so grey he makes John Major look like Conchita Wurst, isn’t the man for the job, that’s for sure. I’ll watch Miliband’s speech with interest, but the best I can say is, we’ll see…..