The Foreign Office has not grasped how utterly the world has changed over the past decade. David Howell, chairman of the Commons' foreign affairs committee, argues that Britain's interests lie increasingly outside Europe, where Commonwealth connections provide a unique advantageby David Howell / January 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the past decade the world has been embroiled in an upheaval in power and influence comparable to anything in recorded history-from the splitting of the Roman empire in 364 to the final fall of the Holy Roman empire in 1918. British foreign policy has not yet fully acknowledged this upheaval, let alone reacted in a suitable manner to the new realities.
That this should be the case is, however, brushed aside by many of the opinion pollsters and public relations experts who advise politicians on how to win support. These people repeat the view that the British public is not interested in foreign policy. This assumption is based, in turn, on surveys asking people which item they regard as most important-education, health, house prices and so on. Foreign policy always comes at the bottom of the list.
But foreign policy, most broadly defined, is central to people’s sense of national identity, and to an understanding of their nation’s purpose, role and values. A nation, and an administration, without a realistic and well articulated foreign policy, which explains the bewildering present and illuminates the uncertain future, is rudderless.
Confront people with a fuzzy, all-things-to-all-men picture of their country’s activities in the world, and they will turn crossly to every other domestic issue. By contrast, a serious and persuasive articulation of the nation’s unique role in unfamiliar conditions provides the bedrock for all judgements about the state of the world, the country, the locality, even the family.
Crude nationalism will not fill the British foreign policy void, nor will woolly internationalism. Nor will a role as just another European state (as described in Simon Head’s article in the August/ September Prospect ); nor yet a position as America’s loyal little cousin.
How can British foreign policy find its place? Let us first list the components of today’s new landscape. First, although still only dimly perceived, is the shift in power, both economic and political, away from the G7 countries towards the rising nations of Asia and Latin America. Old categories such as north and south, first and third world, are largely meaningless. Second, and intertwined with this, the cold war has ended, the Soviet Union has dissolved and attention has switched to the nations of central Asia, while an uncertain US blinks in the cold war aftermath, half inclined to unilateralism and half wondering to which other countries or multilateral institutions to turn for support. Third, Europe’s centre of gravity has shifted eastward following the arrival of the new democracies of east and central Europe and the unification of Germany. This has been reinforced by western Europe’s fading economic performance and by the attempt to push the EU from economic to ever closer political integration. Fourth, there has been the securitisation of world wealth, which gives new impetus to capital formation and development, and replaces old preoccupations with trade, trade blocs and protectionism. The power of international capital markets has redrawn the limits of national action, further downgraded the effectiveness of traditional policy instruments and accelerated the wealth accumulation of the developing world. Fifth, the new threats to world peace come from territorial fragmentation, ethnic rivalries, internationally organised crime, rogue regimes with their hands on horrifyingly simple and ever cheaper, and more accessible, weapons of mass destruction, and from an unpredictable China. The next war could begin not in Europe but in northeast or central Asia.