Where Britain gets it wrong

The leading Conservative David Howell calls for a less submissive approach to foreign policy
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The whole foreign policy context has now changed for Britain. Bosnia is the culmination of this, where in the space of days the "white" soldiery has been replaced by the "green" combat troops and the whole concept of "neutral" military peace-keeping has evaporated. We are in a war and we need to redefine our interests with the sharpest-edged clarity.

But it is not only Bosnia. There has been growing unease about other key aspects of policy as well, and it is certainly a priority, as well as an excellent opportunity, for the new Foreign Secretary to review the whole foreign policy situation radically.

Pollsters tell us that foreign policy does not much interest the public, but I question whether this is so. Nowadays foreign policy concerns preoccupy people greatly in this country. Indeed, foreign policy and "home" or "bread and butter" issues are closely intertwined - especially, of course, where Europe is involved. And meanwhile the Balkan horrors fill every informed conversation.

All foreign policy issues are complex and there are no easy and simple solutions. By definition, foreign policy involves other countries and their approach towards us, as well as ours towards them. That is obvious.

But general stance, tone and emphasis are also important and there must be growing doubts as to whether we still have these things quite right at the moment, in view of the rapidly altering situation.

We still seem too ready to go along with other countries' schemes, interests and projects and not yet robust enough in defining and projecting our own aims and interests in the fast-changing scene. I will give four examples:

First, we have surely been much too quick to back American diplomacy in former Yugoslavia uncritically, when their efforts, although well-intentioned, could be making matters worse than ever. A peace deal would be good, but not if it is the sort which collapses in renewed assaults on the Bosnians as soon as the allies withdraw.

As Malcolm Rifkind has argued, one cannot just bomb people to the negotiating table. Balkan life is not like that, as the Americans will sadly learn. The right course now should be to make the latest Nato air strikes part of a sustained and widened strategy to deter Serbian aggression permanently. And that must mean building up the Bosnian nation to defend itself - which must also mean arming the Bosnian government forces. That is the quickest way to end the killing.

Second, we are participating - again much too readily, in my view - in the UN Conference on Women in Peking, when it is far from certain that this sort of event assists free and stable societies, or helps the cause of women, or reinforces the values and virtues we support. Attendance may be necessary, but it should not be uncritical, or condone for one moment many of the deeply disturbing and negative statements which the conference preparations are inspiring.

Third, we have been too ready to appease Russia over matters such as future members of Nato. That may be the American view, but again we should be careful to distinguish our own interests when it suits us in the new world conditions which have emerged.

Our true and best friends are the new democracies of East ern and Central Europe. If the Americans want to put Russia first - on the argument that unless Russian demands are pandered to, extremists will take over - let them do so. But that is not an argument which the British, with all our experience of realities in Europe, should accept.

Fourth, and most importantly, we still seem too reluctant to press our own views, based on our own interests, on the EU front. The glaring and dominant point about Britain's interests today is that there are many more of them outside the EU than within it.

Global capital assets and flows are the decisive factor in economic prosperity today. Britain is in the super league as a global investor, giving us tremendous punching power and market opportunities in the coming decades.

But where are these huge assets to be found? Answer - the EU accounts for only 21 per cent of them. The rest lie in North America, Africa and, above all, increasingly in booming Asia, where our fellow Commonwealth members are of growing significance.

As to flows of capital investment, 61 per cent went outside the EU in 1993. In 1994 it was probably higher still, while no less than 74 per cent of our vast portfolio income from overseas assets comes from outside the EU.

So why has policy been so hopelessly preoccupied with the EU? Why has the Commonwealth been so neglected? Why have the facts of our colossal global economic reach been so diffidently paraded, if at all? It makes no sense and it must be changed.

Of course the EU remains very important to us - all aspects of our bilateral relations with France and Germany in particular. But even here our posture has been too defensive. Our task is not only to stick to our own interests but also to rescue Europe from the federalists and their projects.

These projects - especially the plan for a single currency - now threaten to divide and embitter the great Single Market Europe which Britain has always supported - indeed, led the way on.

Far from being reticent or defeatist in the face of these plans, we must now take a vigorous and high-profile lead. The Prime Minister has started on this course, but the rest of the policy-making entourage must follow. The misguided "expert" view that the intergovernmental conference next year can be safely "batted away" or played in a low key must be replaced by a European approach 10 times more positive.

Enlargement, diversity and decentralisation must be the themes, together with full and open exposure of the vast dangers to European monetary stability posed by the attempt to bring in a single currency on a political timetable. John Major's hard ecu idea, allowing the retention of national currencies, was far more appropriate, but where are its proselytisers?

So we should seize the moment to change our tune, to make boldness our friend, to have confidence in our own enormous achievements and the opportunities they offer for the future. Five years after the end of the Cold War there is no particular reason why we should have our interests and policy dictated either by Washington or Brussels. We should work with both our continental and transatlantic neighbours when appropriate but also quite firmly plough our own furrow.

Quite contrary to the opinion poll experts and others, British foreign policy will play a vital role in regaining that respect and determining whether the Conservatives gain another term.

The writer is chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee.