Signals of Foreign Policy Vigor in London

Britain’s coalition government has an ambitious agenda that includes strong transatlantic and European ties, says expert Fred Kempe. But success will depend on how well the government manages British finances and its massive debt.

May 13, 2010

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

After forming the first coalition government in sixty-five years, Conservative David Cameron, now prime minister, and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, his deputy, touted their shotgun marriage as what Cameron called a "seismic shift" in British politics. That shift stresses moving forward on a long list of items topped by the need to deal with Britain’s soaring deficit, says Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based public policy group. But Kempe says the new government has also indicated a robust foreign policy agenda spearheaded by William Hague, who he described as a "strong, capable, and ambitious" foreign minister. While Kempe says "Britain’s foreign policy capabilities will flow from its success in managing its financial and debt problems," he sees the Cameron government seeking to reset relations with the Obama administration, adding rigor to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, and striking an activist tone with Europe.

Cameron is likely to be focused on holding together a coalition government, and he won’t have much job security. Will he be able to move forward any kind of foreign affairs agenda?

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I’m surprised by the initial strength the coalition has shown. The body language has been surprisingly good. The tolerance arrangements the Conservatives have reached with the Lib Dems are remarkably detailed on policy areas where they might have had deep, divisive disagreements. It reads much more like a German coalition agreement than anything we expected to see in Britain.

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One good example is how they will handle the controversial question of developing nuclear power stations. The Conservatives are for and the Lib Dems are against. So their solution is that they will put this to a vote in the House of Commons, and the Lib Dems would abstain. This isn’t the biggest issue that divides them, and it is telling that they worked even this out. So this may be a stronger concert than people expect as both sides have a deep interest in making this work--and showing leadership at a difficult economic time. On foreign policy, Cameron may be more capable than other areas to move forward an agenda.

What are Cameron’s foreign policy aims?

Cameron’s primary focus has to be the economy. But one shouldn’t underestimate his government’s ability to walk and chew gum at the same time due to the choice of an extremely strong, capable, and ambitious foreign minister, William Hague, and a determined and resourceful defense minister, Liam Fox.

This may be a stronger concert than people expect, as both sides have a deep interest in making this work--and showing leadership at a difficult economic time.

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Hague has made his five priorities clear. First, Downing Street will increase cross-government coordination on global security issues--a frequent problem in Britain--by creating a new National Security Council to be run by Sir Peter Ricketts. Second, it will try to increase the focus right from the beginning on the transatlantic relationship and put more pressure on NATO partners to get Afghanistan right. Third, it will focus more attention on what it considers "ignored powers" with whom Britain has a close historic relationship: the Gulf, Latin America, and North Africa, among others. Fourth, it will be active and activist within Europe, striking a positive tone toward Europe’s global role while resisting interference in domestic affairs best left to states and excessive business regulation. Finally, it will undertake a far-reaching strategic defense review, just as Secretary [Robert] Gates is doing in the United States. Britain will have to better match reduced resources with foreign policy priorities.

How will Britain’s ailing economy impact on the new government’s international goals? What kinds of choices will have to be made?

Britain’s foreign policy capabilities will flow from its success in managing its financial and debt problems. I wouldn’t expect significant new and costly foreign policy initiatives, and there will be efforts to cut costs also in defense fields. Tough choices will have to be made. Clegg, for example, has importantly agreed that the British nuclear deterrent should not be ditched, but he wants more value for money.

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The difficulty here is that none of the candidates have prepared the British public for the sorts of cuts that are going to be required. This is an area where one could have significant public and labor union backlash, and because of that it is likely that the coalition will be at pains to stay on the same page.

Britain has generally punched above its weight as an international power for some time. Do you see a narrowing of ambitions internationally now, and would that have widespread British support?

Under Hague, ambitions will not be narrowed. He will seek and get a lot of running room. Britain’s role on the UN Security Council also ensures its continued ability to hit above its weight. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron were very quick to stress the concept of the U.S.-British "special relationship." Both sides were keen to reaffirm it and signal its central importance, and they will make much of Cameron’s already agreed trip to the U.S. in June. And although Clegg and the Lib Dems opposed the Iraq War, they have been supportive of engagement in Afghanistan, so the coalition will remain on the same page there with its U.S. partners.

British Conservatives have generally been skeptical of European integration. What impact will a Tory government have on the British relationship with the EU?

Tory-Labour differences on Europe have largely evaporated in growing overall atmosphere of skepticism toward Europe. Differences are more tone than policy. Blair and Brown didn’t take Britain into the euro, and British public opinion is the most important brake on further integration, as evidenced by the recent success of the UKIP [UK Independence Party] in European elections.

The litmus test for British-European relations could come if the eurozone or Britain face even greater financial crisis. Britain’s participation in the eurozone bailout was less than the French and others would have hoped.

That said, Cameron’s coalition with someone as pro-European as Clegg and his Lib Dems will make it easier to resist the more stridently anti-EU elements of his own base. Hague has already rolled back talk over repatriating powers from Brussels, and so the potential for conflict with EU partners is reduced.

At the same time, the Lib Dems have agreed there would be a public referendum on transferring new powers to Brussels and promised the coalition government would not propose joining the euro--an easy agreement to make at the moment. What will be interesting to watch is how the Conservatives build bilateral links with Germany and particularly France, a country in Europe they consider a natural partner because of its international role and defense capabilities. You may see greater emphasis on building such bilateral links in Europe.

The litmus test for British-European relations, however, could come if the eurozone or Britain face even greater financial crisis. Britain’s participation in the eurozone bailout was less than the French and others would have hoped. It remains to be seen how other European countries respond if Britain and the pound come under greater pressure.

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