On the face of it, this week’s spending review—in which the ministry of defence was cut but the department for international development (DfID) protected—suggests that Prime Minister Cameron is more interested in a values-driven foreign policy than projecting hard power. This is only half true. While the prime minister is no military hawk, there is evidence that it is trade, not ethics, that is currently dictating UK foreign policy.
On his trip to the US this summer, David Cameron stressed that he was keen to “refashion British foreign policy… to make us much more focused on the commercial aspects…I want to re-orientate the foreign office to be much more commercially minded.” He has made a start. The foreign & commonwealth office is now jokingly dubbed the foreign & commerce office. An enormous government delegation recently visited India, Cameron accompanied by the chancellor, foreign secretary, business secretary and 50 Footsie chief executives. There was even discussion of offering India a direct say in British immigration policy—an extraordinary move considering what the importance of immigration to voters across Britain. Cameron also chose trade over tradition by appointing not a diplomat to be permanent secretary at the foreign office, but a top civil servant from the department for business.
This might all be sound policy, and boosting the British economy via trade is clearly to be encouraged. However, this focus on business comes at the expense of other key issues—particularly promoting democratic values. For example, Cameron has been virtually silent on the gravest human rights issues today – Burma, Darfur, North Korea, Zimbabwe. Yet he has found time to make a trip to the emerging economy of Turkey to applaud his hosts’ somewhat dubious human rights record and describe Gaza as a ‘prison camp’—insulting Israel, our only true democratic ally in that region. Tony Blair, in contrast to Cameron, was always intransigent in his support of democratic allies even when domestically unpopular—just take his closeness with George W. Bush and his response to the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006.
The prime minister has tried to pre-empt the ethical foreign policy issue by ringfencing the DfID budget, with a previous commitment that Britain must spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid ensuring an actual budgetary rise of 37% over the next four years. Yet this is the wrong way to approach the problem. Domestically, an increase in any international aid is a tough sell. Most sections of British society will suffer a decline in their standards of living because of the recession, and DfID has spent its money terribly in the past. They should not be immune from cuts just because they happen to mean well. It is hard for the government to justify giving more money to DfID to spend on teaching young people capoeira on one hand, but then say that families may lose housing benefit on the other. To this end, it is at least encouraging to hear that aid will be spent in a more effective way under the new government, with the focus now falling more on conflict management and security.
Cameron should try and take himself above the fray by treating DfID as it would any other department but taking a stronger stance on key human rights issues and ensuring Britain is offering all the support it can to dissidents and democratic opposition groups in the world’s worst dictatorships. This is a much cheaper, more meaningful and more effective way of conducting an ethical foreign policy than simply throwing money at it. Democracy promotion is not especially fashionable, and now militarily unaffordable. However, this should not stop it from being a crucial part of British foreign policy in some form. Cultivating trade is important—but not at the expense of sacrificing traditional friendships, and not at the expense of our core values.
Click here to read Paul Collier’s defence of the government’s’s decision to ringfence aid