Monday, October 29, 2007

A Conservative Foreign Policy

In light of David Cameron's speech in Berlin on Friday on foreign policy, I thought it might be a reasonable idea of I were to attempt to explain what I see as being the basis for a truly Conservative foreign policy. Foreign policy has been essentially divided recently between 'idealists' and 'realists', with both terms being stretched beyond their traditional meanings. David Cameron's speech has been both heralded and regretted as being a repudiation of American liberal interventionism (which is not quite the same thing as neo-Conservatism) and a re-statement of traditional Tory pragmatism, but what is it that should characterise Conservative foreign policy?
When Labour came to power a decade ago, one of the most eye-catching (and widely derided) aspects of their ideas was that all British foreign policy should have 'an ethical element'. This idea of foreign policy as sixth form debating society rapidly proved unworkable, to the extent that even in a situation with a clear moral imperative, the civil war in Sierra Leone, the Government was caught in a bind by its own peculiar ethical concerns. Pure ethics is no basis for a foreign policy. It should be accepted that whatever the policy, and whatever the Government, John Pilger will not support it and Noam Chomsky will call it akin to the Nazis. These are basic truths, and happily mean that the opinions of both men can be discounted.
But the 'ethical' nature of Blair's foreign policy continued throughout his term in office. We can argue about Iraq, and I will address it more directly later, but one characteristic of that war was that it fitted neatly along the line of a foreign policy that encompassed Serbia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo amd Afghanistan - the intervention of British troops to improve or stabilise or protect the internal politics of another country. Iraq was simply the continuance of this policy a l'outrance.
Old-fashioned Conservatives said about all these conflicts, and particularly the last, "Why?" Why should British blood and treasure be spent on conflicts in which we have little interest? Where is the British dog in these fights? What, was ultimately the question, is in it for us? These are all perfectly valid questions from a Conservative point of view. If you do not accept the position that the role of the British in the modern world is to leave it better governed everywhere it can possibly reach (and note that this is a parody of intentions, not a description of outcomes) then there is a perfectly reasonable question of interest. Should not the primary motivation of every policy, foreign and domestic, be the furtherance of the British national interest?
Outcomes thereby become more important that motivations. Let us look, for example, at Zimbabwe - a subject close to my heart. An 'idealistic' foreign policy would surely say that the reign of Robert Mugabe is a murderous absurdity; that the people of Zimbabwe need our help immediately; that the immediate cause of this need is the government of Robert Mugabe; and that therefore the right policy is to remove Mugabe and the entire stinking edifice of ZANU-PF with all speed. Yee-hah and send in the Commandos. And a 'realist' might reply, yes but. We have no local base from which to send troops. We have no regional support. We have no real idea of how to put Zimbabwe back together again. Ultimately, callous as this might sound, this isn't our problem. So - what to do?
I suspect that a Conservative foreign policy would be a re-balancing towards the realist school. In truth, of course, there is never as much difference between the parties as they like to pretend. The little differences that are shouted about tend to be differences of emphasis and of style. Emphasis can be important, however. A few principles might be adduced: ask how, not why; what's in it for us?; every difficult question has a solution that is straightforward, understandable, and wrong.

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