Remember the ethical foreign policy? It seemed like a good idea at the time. The man who had it was Robin Cook. In 1997, 12 days after he became Foreign Secretary, he vowed to "put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy".
Thirteen years on, William Hague, the latest occupant of the red leather-buttoned chair, has now offered us his "big vision" in an all-encompassing post-election manifesto, though he had the sense to wait a full seven weeks before attempting it.
To be fair, Cook had some initial successes. Under his aegis, Britain intervened in Kosovo to end Slobodan Milosevic's massacre of Albanian Muslims, sent troops to Sierra Leone to prevent rebels from overturning a democratically elected government, banned the use and manufacture of anti-personnel landmines, and reshaped the training the British Army gives to foreign troops to include concern for human rights and for the military to be accountable to elected politicians. The Labour government also took overseas aid out of the Foreign Office, made it a separate department, and turned a tool of foreign policy into a device for reducing world poverty.
But in other areas the promise of a new improved ethics dimension rang hollow. Labour refused to extradite General Pinochet to Spain, allowing him home to Chile. It approved the selling of a costly military air traffic control system to the poverty-stricken debt-ridden government of Tanzania. And Cook allowed the delivery of nine British Aerospace Hawk jets to Indonesia, despite evidence that they might be used for internal repression in East Timor. Cook's much-vaunted "ethical dimension" was clearly outweighed by the need to support the British defence industry.
All this illustrates the dual impulses that run through any government's foreign policy: to advance Britain's interests and also its values – the two not always being the same thing in this do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do world. At least Hague was honest about that in his big speech. He was more oblique than Cook when he said: "It is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience or to repudiate our obligation to help those less fortunate." But he showed that his words meant something when he announced that the Government, despite massive public spending cuts, will honour its promise to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid and enshrine that commitment in law. The Department for International Development will remain separate from the Foreign Office and the Government will push the Millennium Development Goals to halve world poverty by 2015.
We might have expected a lot worse than this. In opposition, Hague's party made all manner of populist vote-attracting noises. So much so that the Conservative's soon-to-be coalition partner, Nick Clegg, denounced the Tories allies in the European Parliament as a bunch of climate-change deniers, anti-Semites, homophobes and "nutters". Yet, in office, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat coalition has prioritised building good relations with Germany and France. David Cameron, for all that his beer-swapping and helicopter ride with Barack Obama echoed the worst mateyness of the Bush/Blair era, has not been afraid to distance himself from his closest ally; he was quietly robust in his warning of the dangers of scapegoating BP over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, shrewdly pointing out that it is now as much an American oil company as a British one.
Hague has now set out the ideological underpinning for all that – and it sounds rather sensible. In a world where the power of the G8 is being challenged by the emerging economies of China, India, Brazil and the rest, Britain needs to reassess its place in the world as we slip slowly down the league table of economic power. The US may remain our biggest single international partner, but our loyalty should be solid not slavish.
For all the crowd-pleasing eurosceptic rhetoric of the past, Britain will now become more active in the EU. Better relations will be built with China and the other big new trading nations, but also with Turkey, which could soon become the EU's largest emerging economy. Hague intends to rejuvenate relations with the Commonwealth which contains six of the world's fastest-growing economies. This is all commendable. In a world where the big challenges – from banking reform to climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism to energy security – are all global, the policy of building networks of influence makes sense.
Some will detect the tempering influence of the Lib Dems, though it may well be a throwback to a pre-Thatcherite Tory pragmatism. Either way, there is an attractive balance about seeing policies like keeping our promises on international aid as simultaneously fulfilling a moral obligation, protecting the UK's long-term security, and nurturing a positive image of Britain as a nation that embodies the values it seeks to promote.
Having said that, we all know where the road of good intentions can lead. There are internal contradictions in the coalition's policy that will create friction. Building international relations won't be easy if the Foreign Office budget is to be slashed by 25 per cent. The fat on British diplomacy is long gone, Lord Kerr, a former head of the diplomatic service, has warned. You can't wield the knife again and not lose global reach and influence.
There will be tensions in building good relations with Brazil so long as it continues to build links with that nuclear aspirant, Iran. And the Tory policy of capping non-EU immigration, in which the Lib Dems have so shamefully acquiesced, will keep out entrepreneurs and key workers coming from the very countries with which Hague so wants to improve relations. His reference to "the appeal of our world-class education system" will sound ironic if the Government is determined to exclude students from India, China and the Far East whose fees are vital to our top universities as their budgets are slashed. And caps on immigration could easily undermine Hague's determination to be seen to take greater account of international public opinion – and that of the British Pakistani community – to build a global alliance against radicalised terrorism.
The big testing ground will be Afghanistan. That was shown by the mixed signals Tory politicians have been sending out – with Hague hinting that Britain's fighting troops will be gone by 2014 and the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, insisting that "strategic patience" was required and predicting that British forces could be among the last to leave. There are a number of contradictory imperatives here. On one hand, it is an unwinnable war. On the other, staying is the most important single plank in maintaining good relations with Washington.
With Iraq, Tony Blair decided that it was better to be with George Bush in the wrong than with Europe in the right. David Cameron will not want Afghanistan to become his Iraq. There will be trouble ahead. But by leaving the yah-boo politics of opposition well behind it, the Government has made a better start than many expected.
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