The General Election and its campaign are over; and David Cameron has been returned to Downing Street with an increased majority, something which mystified commentators, humiliated pollsters, and seemingly drove a substantial portion of the nation into a state of profound political nihilism. All of this is certainly important – not least because it was so unexpected – but the rush to analyse certain aspects of the election campaign has left other facets almost entirely unexamined. Some of them are very interesting, while others are deeply concerning; the seeming decline in the importance of British foreign policy fits into both categories – and the effects of this shift could be tremendous not just for us here on some windswept islands in the North Sea, but for the world at large.
British elections are, in general, fairly complicated affairs. There are more parties seemingly in contention for office than is usual: despite the newfound Tory majority in the House of Commons, it seems safe to suggest that the two party system of the post-war era has fractured, and five parties now feature in election debates and regular news coverage. In the midst of the campaign itself, and in general discourse, voters also have to contend with detailed policy proposals and their rebuttals. (Compare a campaign speech by Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, or David Cameron – both of whom gave orations frequently saturated with detail – to Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her intention to run for President of the United States, for example, which consisted of empty promises and even emptier smiles.) Say what you like about British politics, but at least it has some collective substance.
It is therefore surprising that the campaign featured such little discussion of foreign policy matters. The usual domestic concerns predominated, and that is no surprise, but beyond a few token remarks about the need to reform the European Union, and the low-wattage flickering of a small debate about the possibility of an EU referendum, there was depressingly little said about anything outside of the British Isles.
British politicians used to derive great pleasure from the opportunity both to invoke and to dominate the world stage. Winston Churchill made his most famous post-war speech in Fulton, Missouri, and he went on to win the Premiership a second time; Margaret Thatcher relished the Soviets calling her the ‘Iron Lady’, and she used the sobriquet for domestic effect; Tony Blair outlined the foreign policy doctrine which bears his name in a 1999 speech in Chicago, and many British commentators were delighted at his international standing and internationalist thinking.
More recently, however, these indicators have begun to reverse course. Phillip Hammond – the foreign secretary, who was, perhaps ironically, secretary of state for Defence before his elevation – is said to have declared that there are ‘no votes in defence’. That even rather parochial aspects of foreign affairs (those relating to immediate threats to ourselves) are being ignored by those running for office is indicative of two things: first, a lack of interest among the powerful; and second, a perception that voters too will share this apparent apathy. When the electorate cannot be counted upon even to care about issues of national security, what hope can there be for more complex and geographically distant matters, crucial and imperative though they are?
This approach is rendered all the more myopic by a simple glance at world events. Russia has invaded Ukraine – this particular fact cannot be stated enough – and is, in conjunction with unpleasant proxy forces currently in action in the east, using Vladislav Surkov’s concept of ‘non-linear war’ to destabilise the region, imperilling the European status quo and the stability of the vital Nato alliance. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin personally allies with and funds the European far-right, and finds willing partners in Egypt’s military junta under General Sisi and Greece’s anti-European Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
Elsewhere Iran, whose nuclear programme remains fundamentally unrestrained, is on the verge of achieving the status of a regional power, interfering intimately in the affairs of at least four other Middle Eastern nations – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Furthermore, ISIS persists, adding to Syria’s vast humanitarian disaster with its unceasing brutality, and has recently taken Ramadi, an important regional capital in Iraq’s Anbar province. In addition, Shia militias, many of them aided and assisted by the IRGC Quds Force (under the command of the apparently omnipresent Qassem Suleimani), have committed what are effectively parallel atrocities; and the Assad regime remains (however tenuously) in power, and is more than prepared to use barrel bombs and poison gas on civilian populations in order to maintain its grip on the country.
These are not unimportant issues – in fact, the Syrian situation has been described in the gravest terms for several years – yet Britain and her politicians seek to remain aloof and detached from potentially momentous events as they unfold.
If this state of affairs is continued by the new government, the effects could be very great indeed. Britain has already seen a decline in her relative importance of late – when the French and German leaders went to Minsk to negotiate with Putin, David Cameron was nowhere to be seen. Expect this event to metamorphose into a trend, and then into national policy.
These potential circumstances are not just bad for Britain, which has managed to punch above its national weight for many years on the back of an engaged and decisive influence in matters international. If implemented they would also be, I would argue, profoundly detrimental to the wider world. Europe is disunited and economically vulnerable; without a strong British influence it could soon feel the effects of more Russian geopolitical manoeuvring – perhaps in the Baltic States, or in Poland.
At a time when the United States has begun to withdraw from its customary international primacy – with the much-vaunted ‘shift to the Pacific’ and President Obama’s pledge to end wars and not to start them – the world needs strong, determined leadership. And if this leadership does not come from a democracy, those who are intent on destroying the present international economic and political set up will take the initiative. We need only look eastwards to see the terrifying consequences of what tyrannies will do to other nations and their own citizens if left unchecked.
This is not a call for another Pax Britannica. We are very far indeed from those much mythologised days; and I would not bring them back even if I could. Rather, I can only hope for an engaged, internationalist Britain – one which does not shy away from confronting the opponents of western democracy and those who seek to derail the prosperity and freedom which that system has sought to guarantee. Only when Britain once again seeks to influence events – through increased support of NATO and the EU, and a genuine willingness to act on the global stage – can she truly reassume that much-needed position. And with voters adopting ever more parochial positions, and politicians gamely giving in and making no attempt to raise truly urgent issues of international importance, it looks as if the sad status quo will be with us in the long term.
This article, originally published at Harry’s Place, is based on a piece the author wrote for The Transnational Review, a journal of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. It has been updated and expanded in light of the results of the General Election.