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Foreign policy for the new age

Self-interest demands that Britain play a leading role—as it always has done

By Tom Tugendhat  

The UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. Photo: ROGER ASKEW/SHUTTERSTOCK

Britain’s traditions point to our international role. Building on the best of our past, while being honest with ourselves about our place in the world today, we can defend the values that have seen us prosper in a—mostly—peaceful world. That means standing up for the fundamental principles of all free societies: democracy, free speech and the rule of law.

We could choose to do so for idealistic reasons, but clear-eyed self-interest explains why we have no choice—we must. The spread of political and economic freedom since the end of the Second World War 
has not only improved our security; it has enriched our trade and culture. The creeping authoritarianism we see today threatens not only the liberties of those under the dictators, but our security and prosperity as well. This is not the first time this has happened, of course. But we have lowered our defences in recent decades, leaving us unprepared for the new age of competition between nations.

Too much is at stake for us to stand by. Unlike others, our history and geography mean we cannot choose isolation. But our old methods are
looking tired. We need to overhaul how we do foreign policy. We need to put the Foreign Office back in control of setting our overall strategy, and make the foreign secretary responsible for co-ordinating the considerable assets we command.

Buffeted by the destabilising effects
of intense globalisation, rapid changes
in technology, demographic and climate change, and the shift of economic power eastwards, the international system is creaking. The EU looks increasingly divided with the recent dispute between Italy and France’s governments only one symptom
of a deeper struggle. Its core goal of ever closer union runs against the temper of the times—and Brexit was only one response. But this is wider than Europe. The UN has been hobbled by Russia’s repeated use of
its Security Council veto and the question mark hanging over the US’s long-term commitment to Nato since the election of Donald Trump is not an aberration but part of a longer trend.

All of these issues emerge from an appeal to people who do not see foreign policy as meetings in embassies in faraway lands but about national governments defending their interests at home. That challenge is one every government must now face. That is why, over the past year, the Foreign Affairs Committee, which I chair, has held sessions around the country to ask people what our post-Brexit foreign policy should look like. Foreign policy, as we see time and again, isn’t about foreigners. It’s about us—and how we want to live in this world.

“We have lowered our defences, leaving us unprepared for the new age of competition between nations”

Most recently we were in south Wales having visited Southampton, Fife, and Birmingham. The message we hear is remarkably consistent, shared by people who voted both Leave and Remain. They want Britain to be more involved in world affairs, not less. They want to see our diplomats, armed forces and aid workers collaborating as one to advance freedom and prosperity in our national interest. And that also chimes with what I hear abroad, and from the foreign politicians and ambassadors I meet each week. Few, if any, doubt that our place is at the top table. But our allies are disturbed by our current tendency towards introspection and self-doubt.

The angst-ridden debate that Brexit
has become makes it easy to overlook the fact that we have strong friendships and firm alliances, but we do. In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s failed attempt to kill Sergei Skripal last year, those allies rallied round us, trusting our evidence over the smokescreen of disinformation Moscow produced. The speed with which they
did so is a reminder not only of the skill of our diplomats but also of the fact that the values we hold dear are shared by many others and they are willing to act together—through partnerships and bilaterally—to help.

After an era when multilateralism was fashionable, the nation state is now back as the driving force in foreign policy. Our role hasn’t changed—we must once again become the stabilising force that builds alliances and defends values, as our nation has for generations.

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