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…