The background to Britain’s future foreign policy

David Miliband: allies but not values? (picture Munich Security Conference)

Different visions of Britain’s future foreign policy lie behind the disputes at the top of both Labour and Conservative parties at the moment.  Those different visions are crystallised in personal clashes, but the debate goes beyond mere personalities.

In Labour’s case, the victory by Ed Miliband over his older brother David in the leadership election has led the latter to quit front bench politics.  David Miliband’s resignation can’t be attributed merely to his expectation that, because of his age, he should have been given priority: younger brothers are entitled to their own goals and ambitions, too.  (Full disclosure: your blogger is a younger brother.)  No, I think there is an issue of policy at stake.

David Miliband was, until the general election, foreign secretary, and he still stands by his achievements in government.  Indeed, as he showed in his aside to Harriet Harman at the moment in the leadership speech when Ed Miliband denounced the Iraq war – “You voted for it: why are you clapping?” – he even stands by his mistakes.

So he can’t have been happy to hear his work dismissed like this:

“This generation wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances.”

No recent former foreign secretary would be happy to be trashed so lightly.  Who wants to be accused of having no values?  And what good are values without any power to back them up?

The crucial insight from federalism is that alliances are a value in their own right.  Federalism seeks to institutionalise and make permanent those alliances, in order to make them more effective and to make the decision-making within them more accountable.  Lightly to dismiss loyalty to allies makes no sense, but, as we shall see, those alliances must be chosen carefully.

This is the substance of the argument within the Tory party, where defence secretary Liam Fox has seen leaked a private letter to the prime minister protesting at the likely scale of the forthcoming cuts in his budget.

The Conservatives promised in their manifesto before the election a Strategic Defence and Security Review, but are conducting it on a timetable and according to objectives set down by the Treasury.  The biggest priority for government right now is spending less money.  The service chiefs are up in arms about this, protesting that their own work is being simply dismissed, too.

There is right on both sides in this argument.  It is certainly the case that the British military has have all kinds of equipment it does not need – if ever there was an instance of vested interests driving procurement, it is here – but it makes no sense to make fundamental and far-reaching decisions about the future of the armed forces without considering the wider context.  Who will be our allies in the future?  What capacities do they have which we do not need to duplicate?  What capacities do they lack which we can supply?

The almost total absence of this discussion from the debate about the armed forces is absurd.  We could make some very serious mistakes as a result.  For example, the intention to equip Britain with two large aircraft carriers is redundant if we are going to fight alongside the Americans, who have 11, and can afford the planes to fly from them.  However, if we are to fight alongside the rest of Europe, the British will be relied upon to provide much of the naval power.

It is not only Britain that has difficulty affording enough defence capability, the rest of Europe has the same problem.  Unless the defence review is founded on this point, it will leave Britain no better defended and no more secure.  Hard decisions are needed: who at the top of politics is able to take them?

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