Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Possibly the Most Experienced Panel Ever Assembled on the Future of British Foreign Policy

Yesterday evening I went to see a debate at the LSE on the subject “British Foreign Policy – Challenges facing the next Prime Minister”. The speakers were Lord Owen, Lord Howe, Lord Hurd, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, Gideon Rachman and Dr. Robin Niblett. The first four are all ex-Foreign Secretaries. Lord Owen from 1977 to 1979 was the only Labour Foreign Secretary on the panel. Lord Howe was Foreign Secretary from 1983 to 1989 after having been Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lord Hurd was Foreign Secretary from 1989 to 1995 straddling both the Major and Thatcher years and the end of the Cold War. Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP was Foreign Secretary in the later Major years. Robin Niblett was an Executive Vice-President of the Institute for Strategic Studies in the United States but is now returning to become head of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. Gideon Rachman is the Financial Times’ Foreign Affairs Correspondent.

In short, it was an absolutely spectacular panel. I’m not sure there has ever been a collection of speakers assembled for a single meeting quite so well qualified to talk about the prospects for British foreign policy in the coming years. All six were fitted into an hour and a half including questions at the end. It was a stunning concentration of wisdom and intellect. I’ll go through what they said, reconstructed from my notes I’m afraid, in order and then conclude with a few short comments of my own. This is something of a report in place of this blog’s traditional focus on analysis.

The event was convened to support a book “British Diplomacy – Foreign Secretaries Reflect” released in March and based on an earlier series of lectures at the LSE. If this short event was anything to go by the book is well worth a read.

Lord Owen

Lord Owen discussed the framework of British foreign policy. He argued that we needed change to ensure that the Prime Minister was properly kept in contact with the foreign policy establishment. He split his case into two key changes.

First, he described how it was necessary to abolish the new secretariats and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff and reinstate the old cabinet secretary with full access to the same intelligence as the Prime Minister. His case was that the new arrangements had been conceived to give Blair freedom. However, they had, instead, managed to make it that there wasn’t anyone able to give Blair the benefit of the experience and knowledge of Foreign Service officialdom. This meant that Blair did not have the advice he needed at crucial stages of his time as Prime Minister.

Second, Owen contended that Blair was too attached to the Presidential style. Instead of being prepared by the cabinet before summits he discussed foreign policy on first name terms with the President. Owen argues this informality further hurt the extent that Blair could benefit from the quality of the British foreign policy establishment.

During the questions Owen revealed that he is the only one of the panel who was in favour of the Iraq war and remains convinced the fundamental logic behind the war was good. His case is that British diplomacy failed because it did not properly “play its hand” and ensure that the Iraq War was conducted as well as it could have been. In particular, he argues that when the US State Department’s plans for the post-war were discarded unceremoniously by Rumsfeld’s Defense Department the United Kingdom could have played a key role in getting them taken up again. Owen described the State Department as desperate for our Foreign Office to write an eloquent case for proper post-war planning and against lunacies like disbanding the army and attempting to DeBaath Iraq. We never made that case and the consequences were dire. Had Blair and the political framework been better at involving the foreign office the war might have gone very differently.

He hoped Brown would not make the same mistakes.

Lord Howe

Lord Howe first noted that he agreed with what had been said by Lord Owen. This would become a theme through the evening as the different former secretaries agreed with each other on a great many issues. This might tell us something about the effect the pressures of the role of Foreign Secretary can have in shaping someone’s opinions. He was sceptical that Brown would get right what Lord Owen had described Blair getting wrong. His understanding was that Prime Ministers tend to form a more authoritarian approach to their cabinet during their time in office. As Brown has already been in office for ten years before becoming Prime Minister this does not bode well.

His introduction, by Professor Christopher Hill as chair, had mentioned his rupture with Thatcher at the end of his ministerial career. He implored us, at the start of his speech, to pay more attention to the fifteen years in which they worked together, “longer than most marriages these days”, rather than the period of their “divorce”. Later on he expressed enormous admiration for her as a leader. This speaks volumes to his character.

Lord Howe’s central case was on our relations with Europe. He argued that we faced a choice between attempting to maintain our status as a great power and making the contribution of a great nation. Certain brilliant leaders, such as Churchill or Lady Thatcher, had enabled us to act as a great power once again but it was not something that could be sustained. We keep on trying to remain a great power because, since the Second World War, we have “lost our pride but kept our conceit”. This conceit led us to be disdainful of the movement to co-operation within Europe, believing that as a great power we were above it.

Howe’s manifesto was for us to undertake far greater co-operation with the rest of Europe in the field of defence and foreign policy. His case was that it was our conceited staying out of Europe at its inception that had meant we were unable to prevent the creation of the worst aspects of the European Union such as the CAP. He implied by this that by avoiding such conceit in the future we could ensure that European co-operation was of a form more to our liking.

He described China and India growing not just in their power to change the world but their wisdom in doing so. To highlight their progress he pointed out that at the last Indian election a Hindu lost and handed power to a Roman Catholic who then gave up the position to a Sikh who was duly made Prime Minister by the President, a Muslim. In the face of these new powers he argued that our contribution would only be felt if we acted like a great nation, and co-operated particularly with other European nations, instead of continuing the conceit of behaving like a great power.

Howe concluded that by co-operating with Europe we might have made a difference to the rush to war with Iraq. He described how Blair had received two standing ovations from Congress where even Thatcher had only received one. He suggested this kind of treatment can affect a Prime Minister's judgement.

Lord Hurd

Hurd’s theme was humanitarian intervention. He saw this as being in a process of flux as international law would respond to rather than dictate the choices made by the international community in the coming years. The question of when states were justified in violating another state’s sovereignty would be settled by practice rather than theory.

He described a waxing and waning of the popular appetite for humanitarian intervention in response to the success and failure of particular interventions. Intervention in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone appeared successful. The costs of not intervening were made clear in Rwanda. This appetite for humanitarian intervention was then given a severe knock by Iraq and the apparent inability of Western intervention to bring stability.

Hurd proposed a response to the crisis in Darfur as a case study for the way ahead. Armed intervention would probably not be a solution as it might cause as much harm as good in such a complicated situation. Selective bombing would be ineffective. Economic sanctions coupled with dialogue had to be the way forward. He described the key as being the diplomatic effort to convince China that its investments in Sudan would be safer if it were to help curb the regime’s behaviour than if it attempted to block all action and let the humanitarian catastrophe continue.

Interestingly, Hurd singled out the ICC for criticism. He argued that indicting people like the Sudanese leaders before peace had been achieved prevented important trade-offs being made between peace and justice. Northern Ireland had proven the importance of being able to make that trade-off.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP

Rifkind’s central case was around the relationship with the United States. He made two points before getting into his main arguments.

  1. Blair looks a lot like Neville Chamberlain. Of course, he cannot be accused of attempting to appease evil. However, in the same way he sought to be his own Foreign Secretary. He also had the same supreme faith in his own persuasive abilities. Rifkind cited Blair’s, bizarre in retrospect, attempt to convince the Syrian party to change fifty years of foreign policy and support an invasion of Iraq just before the coalition went in as similar to Munich.
  2. Being close to the President would usually be very popular with the public. Since the Second World War the British public have generally been instinctively supportive of a close alliance with the US. This is no longer the case and we don’t know if that is a temporary or lasting change.

In discussing the special relationship he started out by looking at where Brown would start. He noted that there was no way Blair could have gotten his parliamentary party behind the Iraq War without Brown’s, at least tacit, support. Next, he described how Brown could not simply wait for Bush to leave as our general election would not take place long after the US Presidential race.

Rifkind described Blair’s key failure as his unwillingness to openly challenge Bush when it was necessary. He also quoted Sir Christopher Meyer, ambassador to the United States at the time, as saying that Blair hadn’t been forceful in private either. Restoring the capacity of the Prime Minister to challenge the President without giving comfort to our common enemies when necessary was the crucial task facing Brown when he became leader.

Disagreement would not need to have a catastrophic effect on the special relationship. Thatcher and Reagan had been very close but had disagreed over Grenada. Britain did not join the war in Vietnam and this did not kill the special relationship. Finally, Lord Hurd disagreed with the United States over its approach to the former Yugoslavia and was, despite this, later urged by the US to become the next leader of NATO.

In particular, one stand he wanted to see the United Kingdom take was against the doctrine of pre-emptive war.

Robin Niblett

Niblett started out by discussing the context the next Prime Minister would face. The United States, post-Bush, would be on the defensive which would make the United Kingdom’s relationship with it more complex. However, whoever replaces Bush in the White House, the UK and the rest of Europe will still have to grapple with the change in US perspective post 9/11. The Americans will still see the War on Terror differently to the Europeans.

The European Union will face difficulties too thanks to the failure of the constitution. However, it will be pulled into acting in foreign policy by crises in which it is the best placed to respond. Niblett argued that Britain could no longer be a bridge between the United States and Europe following Iraq and would have to recognise that its positions on most pressing international issues were European.

Either way Britain would be responding to an increasingly complex external situation. In particular, stalling democratic progress in Russia and rising powers changing regional balances of power. These and other changes make the international situation far more complex.

Gideon Rachman

Gideon Rachman started out by asking whether the special relationship would be rethought. Essentially, this would come down to whether the damage to public perceptions of American leadership by Iraq would be temporary or lasting. Back to the Second World War there had always been a far greater level of trust in American leadership, rather than European, in the event of a crisis. Will this balance of public opinion be restored?

Next, he challenged Rifkind and described how Blair had been faced with a ‘with us or against us’ challenge by Bush. That made disagreement far harder than in the cases Rifkind cited. We responded with ‘with you’ as a part of our general post-Suez judgement that we could not effectively act independently of the super-power. The question was whether we would form a new response to the post-Suez world.

However, he cautioned that the French response of building up the European Union, which might be able to act independently of the superpower, was also in trouble. When it had tried to rally European nations in opposition to the Iraq War it found it could not lead them. Europe was divided and would not be led. Rachman argued that frustration at this was behind the failure of the Constitution in France.

This led on neatly to his discussion of why Britain might also face problems with a European co-operation in foreign policy which had been supported by many of the other speakers. First, he argued that while a partnership of equals might be an enticing alternative to a subordinate position in alliance with the United States it could turn out to be a partnership of rivals. There are serious disagreements not just in opinions about foreign affairs but of interests between the European states. Second, a common foreign policy would require majority voting and European states will not accept the risk of being forced into a foreign policy they dislike.


One questioner argued that Blair’s European policy had been successful. Rifkind responded to this by citing three of Blair’s European priorities: joining the Euro, approving the Constitution and support for the Iraq War. Blair failed to get anything close to his desired objective on any of these priorities.

Lord Owen was asked about Iraq and argued that the fundamental logic was good. However, it had been the “most bungled” operation since Gallipolli. He still did not believe it had been doomed to fail but had been doomed by bad decisions.

Niblett saw no prospect that Latin America would rise up the United Kingdom’s list of priorities although it might get more attention under a European foreign policy. Howe said that Brazil was caught between the high growth states like India and China and the rich states of the West. It was only included as a BRIC country because it was felt Latin America should be in there somewhere and could not really justify its place alongside those states in terms of geopolitical importance.

On Turkey the panel was supportive of its entry to the EU. Rifkind argued that Britain could see all the benefits of Turkey joining but not the big negative, as other states saw it, of Turkey making integration harder. Rachman cautioned that migration from Turkey would become a huge political issue if it moved nearer to joining the EU.

Hurd argued that the test of a European foreign policy would be its response to Russia. Whether European states could collectively resist Russia’s attempts to exercise leverage through its natural resources or would continue to go, individually, to Russia and plead for special treatment. He thought Putin marked something of a return to reality after the days of Yeltsin and the privatisations to oligarchs but that it was unclear how far the return to autocracy would go.

On Kosovo Hurd argued that we should back the plan for Kosovan independence. He also described how Russia’s response would tell us a lot about where that regime was going. The response could be noisy but transient or more hard-line. Owen argued that accepting Kosovan independence was simply a realpolitik acknowledgement that the Kosovan Albanians could take independence if we didn’t give it to them. Rifkind argued this was an example of how, once a war was begun, you could easily lose control of where it went. The NATO action in Kosovo was not undertaken to create an independent Kosovo. Finally, Rachman expected a relatively hard-line response from Moscow.


I think that Rachman established well the limitations of European co-operation in foreign policy. Howe’s speech was one of the most interesting but he did not properly address these limitations. It would seem that co-operating with European states will have to continue to be the ad hoc process it is today for the foreseeable future.

Owen’s arguments for restoring cabinet-style government in foreign policy were very persuasive and one hopes that Cameron, in particular, might adopt his recommendations. Cameron has come out in favour of a more cabinet-oriented position in general and Owen’s recommendations might suggest how that could be achieved.

The biggest disappointment, for me, was that no one was making a strong realist, national interest case for the future of British foreign policy. Hurd argued that the Iraq war hurt the general case for humanitarian intervention but I think Somalia was even more damaging. Somalia demonstrated that when national interests are not at stake Western states struggle to sustain public support for a war involving casualties. Purely humanitarian missions were always fragile and those opposed to them, as the Janjaweed in Darfur would be, will know that if they cause casualties a humanitarian force can be made to withdraw relatively easily. No one was making the case that the best way forward for British foreign policy was a hard-nosed, George H. W. Bush style approach.

It is expecting too much of a single hour and half discussion by any panel that it should resolve the question of the future of British foreign policy. However, the panel at the talk yesterday evening clearly made some very interesting contributions to that ongoing debate.


Peter Risdon said...

Thanks for taking the trouble to post this.

Anonymous said...

Yes, thanks for the time. Very interesting read. Will definitely be buying their book.

timmyhawk said...

Great posting.
I know your frustration about the lack of a robust British interest foreign policy. The only name I could think of who comes close is Robin Harris. Have a look here for some of his writing
Although that's not entirely satisfactory either. I guess if I had the time on my hands . . . .