Written evidence by Alex Evans and the Center for Global Development’s Owen Barder to the UK Parliament International Development Committee inquiry on the future of the Department for International Development and the ‘beyond aid’ agenda (September 2014).
Article by David Steven published in World Politics Review on current American foreign policy and what the QDDR could mean. Available from World Politics Review here (subscription required) or download below (January 2011)
Three weeks, three party conferences, but what did they tell us about where the parties see Britain’s place in the world?
First up were the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool.Their first conference as a party of government and junior Foreign Office Minister, Jeremy Browne, who described himself as the longest serving Liberal in the Foreign Office since 1919, gave the foreign affairs speech.
He made the now obligatory reference to the rise of China, India, Brazil and other powers and said Britain and Europe can’t stop this, but instead should seek to make it a force for good.He also argued that Britain still has a lot to offer and should be a catalyst for this new world order. It was short on specifics or examples of how this could be done, and how different is this from David Miliband’s talk when he was Foreign Secretary, that Britain should be a ‘global hub’?
The Lib Dems’ junior Defence Minister, Nick Harvey, focussed on one of the party’s keynote policies – a review of the need for a like-for-like replacement of Trident. In his speech, Nick Harvey argued for delaying the decision until after the next election, but his reasons appeared less about giving more time to consideration of the options and more about wrong footing the Labour Party. An argument that could give the impression that debate on a fundamental issue like the future of Britain’s nuclear weapons capability is being used as a tool to embarrass political opponents.
Next to Manchester and Labour’s conference. Being the first since losing power, it, perhaps understandably, witnessed quite a bit of raking over the recent past – both from internal critics of the last government and from former ministers defending their records.
A fringe meeting on the future of defence policy I went to heard concerns from trade unions and defence contractors about the potential impact on jobs and the industrial base of the defence cuts expected from the ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review. The former Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, was on the panel and on the defensive, responding to questions about his record with jibes back at some of his questioners.
The thing lacking was much discussion of what kind of role Britain should play in the world and what kind of military forces will be required for that. The defeat of David Miliband for the leadership and his decision to return to the backbenches inevitably meant there was less focus on his foreign policy speech to the conference than on discussion of his legacy, including as Foreign Secretary. On The World Tonight, journalist Ann McElvoy argued his main legacy was that in the wake of the Iraq war, which many believe was a big mistake, he made the case for Britain to retain its global reach and the need for intervention when the time is right, especially in Afghanistan.
On to the Conservatives in Birmingham.In the wake of the leak to the Daily Telegraph of Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s letter to David Cameron arguing against deep cuts to his budget, the mood among the Tories’ defence team seemed more upbeat, suggesting their rearguard action ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review may be having some success. And, almost inevitably, discussion over Britain’s role in the world at the conference was dominated by the defence review as it nears completion.
The defence fringe I went to was a bit more wide-ranging than its Labour equivalent. The Defence Minister, Peter Luff, said the government is looking to France to be a strategic partner along with the US. He also suggested Britain would seek to work with France to develop new weapons systems bi-laterally, rather than enter new multilateral projects like the Eurofighter ‘Typhoon’. But the argument over what role Britain should play in the world came mainly from Nick Witney of the European Council on Foreign Relations rather than the politicians on the panel.
All this left me thinking that if the party conferences reflect the way the main parties are looking at Britain’s future global role, it does seem their focus is still very much on the defence review and cuts, rather than the more fundamental question of what role the UK should play in the changing world order. If there is a wider debate going on about what the UK’s military forces should be for, rather than simply what can be afforded, it seems to be going on largely behind the scenes. Whether that is wise is another matter.
It’s a fitting end to the British general election.
We have had thirty years of entrenched majorities – as a dominant party defined the terms of the debate, and the media made sure the opposition never caught a break. In 1997, the swing from Conservative to Labour dominance was sudden and decisive.
Now we have an utterly unpredictable polling day. Tiny shifts in the share of vote between parties and, especially, its geographical distribution could have a disproportionate impact on the political landscape that emerges on Friday.
If it’s close, it will all come down to spur-of-the-moment decisions by three very tired men. Constitutionally, Brown remains Prime Minister until someone else can command ‘the confidence of the House.’
As incumbent, he also should get first dibs on forming a new government, though it is widely expected that Cameron will declare victory early, and use the media to establish his right to govern.
As Alex has warned, there’s also a possibility that the bond markets will push the pace, as they open at 1 a.m. tomorrow morning to react to election news. Yields on UK 10-year bonds have spiked this morning, but are still lower than they have been for much of the year.
If Cameron gets the most votes and the most seats, he’ll surely go on to form a government. If not, a period of Florida-style uncertainty seems more than possible. What, one wonders, will be the UK’s equivalent of the hanging chad?
Either way, we can expect some exceptionally close Commons votes, perhaps a referendum on electoral reform, and – surely – a Parliament that won’t last for a full term. That means more elections for parties that have bankrupted themselves during this one.
This unaccustomed volatility in the electoral system seems curiously appropriate. As the past few years have shown, we now live in an era where the UK is far from being in control of its own destiny.
Look forward and we can expect the following forces to frame the government’s strategic choices.
First, global risks will continue to drive domestic policy. Voters will not actively call for a more effective foreign policy, but they will notice and bemoan its absence.
Global forces will continue to have considerable impact on their lives, with the main sources of strategic surprise coming from beyond the UK’s borders.
Over the next ten years, moreover, most risks will be on the downside. We have lived, as I have argued, through a volatile decade. There is every reason to expect risks to continue to proliferate.
Each new crisis will create political aftershocks with demands for governments to clear up the mess, matched by inquiries into why they failed to prevent the problem in the first place.
Finally, the government will find that, in most cases, it does not have the levers to manage risks as effectively as it would like to.
Whatever the next Prime Minister wants to do, he is going to find that global volatility, a lack of money, and government mechanisms that are equipped for the problems of another age, constrain his scope for action.
On top of that, he’ll only be able to solve problems if he can rustle up a coalition of other countries, all of whom will be beset by the same problems.
If – and it’s a big if – there is to be a new dominant paradigm in British politics, replacing those established by Thatcher and New Labour, then it will be because a leader emerges who has the skill to govern well in an age of global uncertainty.
I can’t imagine a more exciting time to pitch up in Downing Street, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]
There are many reasons why American foreign policy has been so teeth-grindingly awful during the Bush years, but the hiring policy for ambassadors probably didn’t help.
Thomas Schweich had three senior diplomatic jobs under Bush. Each time, he had to run the gamut of the politically-appointed ‘kids’ (sons and daughters of Bush supporters, campaign workers etc) who had taken over the personnel department. What they lacked in experience, they made up for in attitude, he says.
“For two of these jobs, my appointment was preceded by an effort by a 20-something in personnel to place an unqualified friend in the job,” he writes. “In the third instance, the State Department went out of its way to avoid the personnel office by appealing directly to a senior assistant to the president.”
Others had a similar experience:
Another top foreign service officer called me after his interview to be ambassador to a volatile African country. “The problem was,” he told me, “the kid interviewing me could not pronounce the name of the country I was being interviewed for. It made for an awkward interview until he just started saying ‘the country we are considering you for.'”