Adrian Hamilton: Back to the past with foreign policy

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First, credit where credit is due. David Cameron may be overdoing things a bit in his drive for trade opportunities in India – it could be called hypocritical to demand that India opens its doors to free trade whilst we close our doors to free immigration – but in terms of recalibrating British foreign policy, the Prime Minister has picked up the ball and is playing it with quite astonishing panache.

He said before the election that he wanted to take the country away from its excessive pursuit of influence through a "junior partnership" with the United States to a more genuinely worldwide view based on our interests, country by country, and that he is doing. Last week he made it pretty clear in Washington that Britain was rebalancing its priorities. This week he started to make clear where that might be.

His speech in Ankara didn't just lay out Britain's support for Turkish entry to the EU, against the doubts, if not outright opposition, of Germany and France. That has long been British policy. But for a Conservative leader and known Eurosceptic to embrace the EU as the club to join is rather more radical. Even more surprising was his description – accusation, in effect – of Gaza as a "prison camp".

You'd be naive to expect this to represent a total reversal of British policy. Ministers and officials are already expressing Britain's undying devotion to Israel as it reacts with immediate dudgeon. Cameron couched his speech of devotion to Turkey with an awful lot of praise for its role as a Nato ally in Afghanistan – a contribution which Ankara may not be anxious to see highlighted at the moment in its search for Muslim leadership. Sympathy for Turkey's upset at Israel over Gaza has to be balanced against Britain's yap-dog support of US and Israeli hostility to Iran.

Nonetheless, the very fact that the Prime Minister is prepared to set out Britain's stall as having an independent and sympathetic policy towards a Muslim country, and could go on to India to express the desire for a new, more equal relationship with the rising economies, does say something important about Cameron's confidence in his approach to foreign affairs. It also says something about the way in which he defines British interests as primarily commercial.

Plus ça change, as he might say if the language of diplomacy was still French and not English. It is now 35 years since a British Prime Minister defined "export-led growth" as the "Holy Grail of British policy". It is 33 years since the "black-eyed beauties" Tessa Blackstone and Kate Mortimer produced a report on the Foreign Office for the Central Policy Review Staff that recommended redirecting its efforts towards commercial support and merging it with parts of the Home Civil Service (the FO soon saw that one off).

And it was 31 years ago that I went as a reporter on the first trip of industrialists led by the then Industry Secretary, Eric Varley, to take advantage of the newly opening world of China. The trip contained nearly all the leaders of British industry and was enlivened by Beijing's decision, mid-visit, to invade neighbouring Vietnam, reminding the captains of industry that even in the China of post-Cultural Revolution, nationalist politics still overrode peace and prosperity.

Which remains the point. It's easy enough to declare trade as the fundament of national interest and it is easy enough to scoff at the pretensions of seeking special relationships with new countries as with old (I don't actually think Cameron is that illusioned about India – he shares with Tony Blair a total indifference and ignorance of history).

Of course, we are living in a world of rising new powers and declining old ones. The numbers of books proclaiming it so is never-ending. But it is also true that the era of untrammelled growth, when finance and economics was all (and which also spawned a host of books), has also passed. We are in a period when politics matters and understanding the politics and pressures of each country and their region have become all-important. What, according to David Cameron, is the biggest single foreign issue of the country today? It is Afghanistan. And what is our, and the US's, greatest failing in that country, as it is in Iraq? It is that we have gone in, and continue, with precious little understanding of how it works in its own terms. We remain intruders, and ignorant ones at that.

The Foreign Office used to be very good at the local understanding. But, battered by Margaret Thatcher's assault on its officials as "going native" and emaciated by cuts, it has in many ways lost its way. Over the past decades it has veered between concentrating on America, then Europe and then on "global themes" such as counter- terror, each time behind the curve. The evidence of its officials to the Chilcot inquiry has looked desperate, not so much because it lacked knowledge (which, in part, it did) but for the extent to which it had become irrelevant to decision-making.

Turning the Foreign Office into a commercial marketing organisation under its new permanent secretary, moved across from heading the Department for Business, is not going to help. This is a world of change, and a very unpredictable and potentially (and actually) violent one. It is far more important for businessmen to understand the context in which they will be operating than to have advice on which official in government can be bribed, however more immediately useful this information may be.

Does Cameron understand this? He's a broad-brush man for whom the particular power dynamics seem something for experts to understand. But at least in foreign politics, as he is discovering, you can make a difference purely through policy announcement. It is at home, where pronouncement has to be made real by effective implementation, that his real difficulties lie and where the measure of the man will be assessed.

For further reading

Central Policy Review Staff, Review of Overseas Representation (London: HMSO, 1977)