The world might have been forgiven for thinking that under the Conservatives British foreign policy would turn inward-looking, small-minded and defensively bellicose. After all, in opposition David Cameron had taken his party out of its alliance with the European centre-right and aligned it with a political grouping which his coalition partner, Nick Clegg, described as a bunch of "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists and homophobes". Leading Tory thinkers such as George Osborne, Liam Fox and Michael Gove had a touch of the neo-con night about them. Mr Cameron had been unequivocal in his support for the war in Afghanistan. And over everything hung the shadow of an ideological Euroscepticism.
Thankfully we have seen little of all that. The first visits the new Prime Minister made were to Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy; relations with Europe are flourishing. And though Mr Cameron has established a good relationship with President Obama – all beer and helicopter rides – it has not been one of Blair-like fawning; he has been pragmatic in his statements on BP, pointing out that the oil company, whatever the provenance of its name, is as much an American business as a British one. And he has let it be known that he would like to see British forces out of Afghanistan by 2015, though some have questioned the wisdom of announcing a departure date to the Taliban.
Yesterday William Hague, in his first major speech as Foreign Secretary, revealed that a vision of breadth and liberality underlies the new Government's analysis of Britain's place in a world where power is shifting, where traditional power blocks are being challenged by emerging economies, and where the UK is slipping down the league table of economic power.
The strategy Mr Hague outlined in response shows a sense of balance. The US will remain our biggest single international partner but our loyalty will not be slavish. Britain will become more active in the European Union but with an activist's eye for change. Bilateral relations will be built up not just with China, India and Brazil but also Turkey, which is set to become the EU's largest emerging economy. And there will be new emphasis on the Commonwealth, which contains six of the world's fastest -growing economies and which is underpinned by a framework of common values.
In this shifting world Britain must inspire other nations by adhering to the values we espouse. Not since Robin Cook has a British Foreign Secretary set out a vision so clearly driven by the twin engines of idealism and realpolitik. Mr Hague avoided the hostage to fortune of promising an ethical foreign policy but nonetheless noted that it is not in our character as a nation to have a world view without a conscience. So he said, with commendable directness, that the new Government must honour the promise to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on aid to the world's poor. To do that is not just to fulfil a moral obligation, it will strengthen Britain's long-term security and set out to the world the values that the UK seeks to embody and promote worldwide.
This is not a policy without tensions. Building good relations with Brazil, India, China and the rest – and creating a new generation of pro-British opinion-formers in those nations – will not be helped by the declared policy of restricting how many workers and students from those same areas can enter the UK. The same immigration cap could undermine Mr Hague's insistence on taking greater account of international public opinion – in particular that of the British Pakistani community – as an essential part of the struggle against radicalised terrorism worldwide. The coalition will have to work through those tensions. But it will do so within a framework which seems principled, pragmatic and realistic. It is a promising beginning.