It takes more than hugs to steer a righteous course through the new world order

Progressive Foreign Policy

November 16, 2007

The timing of the publication of this collection of essays is impeccable. UK foreign policy is ripe for renegotiation at the end of a decade in which Tony Blair has been the principal architect in the construction of British strategic priorities. Changes in the leadership of key allies in the US and France further suggest possibilities for new coalitions and strategic adjustments. Official policy statements by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office indicate that the supply of strategic thinking on foreign and security policy has been short at a time when demand is high.

What course ought to be charted for the next decade? Progressive Foreign Policy suggests a range of possible answers to a wide range of sectors, including security (Michael Clarke), democratisation (Mary Kaldor), development (Kevin Watkins), environment (Nick Mabey), special relationship (Andrew Gamble and Ian Kearns), Europe (Charles Grant), the Middle East (David Mepham), China (Steve Tsang), global governance (David Held), economic governance (Ngaire Woods) and machinery of foreign policy (Leni Wild and Paul Williams). That the book unites leading academic specialists and policy experts from non-governmental organisations is a major attraction. Let us hope the activities of this broad coalition is sustained; foreign policy is too important to be left to politicians and civil servants.

What do these diverse contributors agree on? All believe the UK needs to consider "new directions" across all the major foreign and security policy domains. And instead of haplessly stumbling on a new direction, the authors believe in the importance of using a moral compass to find our way in the world. In place of the "ethical" label deployed by Robin Cook in the first few days of Labour's victory in 1997, the editors Held and Mepham have opted for "progressive". Their fellow contributors have followed suit, referring frequently to policies that progressives ought to champion. But how do we recognise a progressive policy option when we see one?

The book does not provide a strong answer to this question. Held and Mepham offer the following pointer: "A progressive foreign policy is one defined by values but grounded in a realist understanding of the diverse world that it operates within." it is hard to think of a UK Prime Minister in the post-1945 period who would dissent.

The point here is not to contest the validity of the search for a progressive foreign policy but to reveal the limits of a realist-idealist synthesis from a policy perspective. In the absence of a clear set of criteria for what is progressive, there is a danger it will unravel as soon as it encounters a challenge about what the right thing means in a specific context, and for whom.

This is exactly what happened to Cook's idea of an ethical dimension in UK foreign policy. His bold mission statement was undermined in part by an unthinking media who believed that morality in international relations meant relegating the national interest. The second Blair Government retreated from an open commitment to internationalist values not just because of media hostility but also because it became clear that the doctrine was so loosely formulated that it gave little or no clue as to how to decide between rival ethical claims. Was it better to close armaments factories, with significant social and economic dislocation for the thousands of employees and their families, or was it better to grant permits for the export of armaments to regimes that were undemocratic?

Iraq posed this dilemma in different but equally stark terms. Do progressives deploy their armed forces to engage in wars of regime change against brutal tyrants? Unsurprisingly, there is unanimity in the book that if the question is Iraq then the answer is "no". But it was not so obvious during 2002 that progressives ought to support disengagement from Iraq after the collapse of the UN inspections regime.

The Gamble and Kearns chapter on "recasting the special relationship" explains why the Blair Government stood shoulder to shoulder with the Bush Administration in its war of regime change. The authors provide a rich account of the power of Atlanticism in determining the course of UK foreign policy after 1945.

The third phase in the relationship - beginning in the late 1970s - has, they argue, been the closest of all. In this period, the UK and the US shared a commitment to neoliberal macro-economic management and were conjoined by the heightened threat posed by the new Cold War. More recently, there has also been the personal chemistry between the leaders; Tony Blair and Bill Clinton seemed to have had this in spades. At the end of Clinton's second Administration, Blair asked his advice on how to deal with the incoming Republican leadership. Clinton replied that, on security issues, Blair had to "hug them close". And how he did.

What made this transatlantic hug easy to enact was the fact that liberal internationalism and neoconservativism share a number of significant foreign policy goals. Such an inconvenient truth is hidden in this book. Many in the academic community have argued that the only major difference between the two traditions of thought on the intervention question is that neoconservatives are prepared to act unilaterally whereas liberal internationalists are polite enough to ask for the UN's permission. In his chapter on human rights, Mepham even questions whether a progressivist account of intervention ought to insist on multilateral backing. Should the legitimacy of intervention, he asks, "depend on the votes of countries like China that deny democratic elections to their own people"? Perhaps there is not such a wide expanse separating liberalism and neoconservative perspectives on foreign policy.

Clarke's excellent chapter on "rethinking security and power" concludes that the US-UK alliance is likely to unravel as the US becomes a "Pacific first" rather than an "Atlantic first" power. Such a geopolitical reconfiguration does not diminish the part the UK can play in multilateralising US hegemony. At the same time, an opportunity is opening up for it to play an influential role in the reconstruction of international order in the wake of 9/11.

To do this, Clarke argues convincingly, the Government must sever its connection to a traditional military conception of security in favour of an approach that commits our considerable diplomatic and soft-power leverage to build a new consensus around human security challenges such as how to respond to climate change, transnational crime, trafficking in weapons of mass destruction and humanitarian crises caused by failing states and civil wars. After the Blair decade, when foreign policy was militarily led, the next decade needs to be institutionally driven. There is a domestic dimension here: Iraq exposed the woefully inadequate scrutiny of foreign policy decision-making in Cabinet and in Parliament.

The international dimension is even more challenging. Held's chapter on global governance suggests a "global legal convention" to kick-start the process of multilateralism. While it is possible to imagine participants at such a convention agreeing to progressive principles in the abstract, it is inconceivable that they would attach the same meaning and priority to achieving them. In pursuit of their cause, self-styled progressives will have to proceed pragmatically.

Tim Dunne is professor of international relations at Exeter University.

Progressive Foreign Policy

Editor - David Held and David Mepham
Publisher - Polity Press
Pages - 2
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 9780745641140

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