Since entering office, the coalition government has attempted to shape a 'distinctive' British foreign policy. One year after the election, this survey tested impressions of the coalition's foreign policy among the general public and opinion-formers.
A sizeable majority - 69% - of opinion-formers, who would be expected to pay the greatest attention to UK foreign policy, felt that it had stayed on much the same path. Only 20% (and 26% of the general public) believed that the new government had changed direction.
Of those thinking that British foreign policy had changed, there was a striking divergence between the views of the opinion-formers and the public. Among the public, 65% thought it had changed for the worse and only 17% thought 'for the better'. By contrast, 47% of opinion-formers considered it a change for the better, as opposed to 39% seeing it as having changed for the worse.
More worryingly, only 6% of the general public believed the coalition's foreign policy had enhanced the country's reputation, while 40% believed it had been damaged. At this early stage in the government's term, it is possible that concern over its foreign policy is principally a by-product of concern over the country's economic prospects or of the Libya intervention. It is important, therefore, to delve more deeply into specific aspects of the public's attitudes.
The ambition to craft a distinctive foreign policy has centred around four priorities:
What do the survey data tell us about British attitudes to these four priorities?
Promoting British business and trade was ranked highly by both the public and opinion-formers - only 'protecting the UK at its borders including counter-terrorism' and 'securing the supply of vital resources' were rated higher. That said, the general public showed little appetite for strengthening Britain's relations with key emerging economies (for example, only 18% thought Britain should have stronger relations with Brazil and 19% with India). But there was one notable exception - China. Despite its comparatively high 'unfavourability' rating, 34% of the public favoured stronger relations; only 10% said relations should be weaker.
Predictably, public attitudes towards the EU remain negative. It was placed last in a list of nine institutions in terms of a positive/negative rating, and a majority of both the public (64%) and opinion-formers (56%) believed the UK spent too much on its EU contributions. However, both groups believed - by a wide margin - that the UK should work closely with the EU on a wide range of policy priorities. Even on the contested issue of defence and security policy, the result for the general public was 63% 'total closely' versus 26% 'total not closely'. All respondents, including prospective Conservative voters, supported a close working relationship with the EU, especially on counter-terrorism and illegal migration.
The desire for the UK to work closely with the US on specific policies was widespread in every category, the top three areas being counter-terrorism, defence and security policy, and international trade. But results in favour of cooperation with the US were generally 5-10% lower than working with the EU; overall, they appear to coincide with the coalition's attempt to redefine the UK-US relationship as 'essential'.
For the public, international terrorism is the overriding threat (53%). A strong majority (62%) believed that protecting the UK at its borders (including counter-terrorism) should be the main focus of British foreign policy. The risks from other security threats and policy priorities, such as preventing WMD proliferation, tackling international crises or dealing with weak and broken states, did not register as highly with either group. The government's conception of security, linking spending on development with a direct enhancement of the security of British citizens, has yet to resonate with the public. While opinion-formers believe that development assistance is a crucial part of the UK's international policy, 57% of the public believe that such assistance should be reduced.
Respondents in both groups are optimistic regarding the UK's international strengths, ranking 'English as a global language of business and diplomacy' as the most important factor behind its international reputation.
The opinion-formers also ranked the BBC World Service as the top asset in serving the UK's national interests. However, the public rated the armed forces as Britain's most important international asset, while also seeming to be more hard-nosed with regard to ethics and foreign policy. Only 39% believed that ethical considerations should be a factor in making foreign policy, as opposed to 68% of the opinion-formers. This divergence was not as apparent, however, when it came to the Arab Spring and military intervention. Only 21% of the public and 36% of the opinion-formers believed that Britain had a moral responsibility to support the uprisings regardless of whether they benefited its national interests; while 47% of the public and 31% of the opinion-formers said Britain should not involve itself in uprisings of this sort.
Undertaking structural shifts in foreign policy at a time of deepening economic austerity requires paying greater attention than usual to public attitudes. This survey shows that government and public perceptions of the external risks and opportunities facing the country do not always tally. But it also reveals public perceptions on which the government may be able to draw in order to construct a more coherent foreign policy. The key will be to set to one side the contradictions and focus instead on drawing more explicit linkages between areas where public opinion can reinforce the government's foreign policy.
For example, the high levels of public support for working closely with the EU on external challenges should be used to promote a more credible UK commercial diplomacy. Coordinated action at the EU level will be important to negotiate the lifting of restrictions for British businesses in markets in China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies.
The government might also have more success in building support for increases in development spending if it could show that this spending can help lessen the pressures on migration into the UK and Europe, the risk of interruptions to imports of vital resources and the spread of organized crime, all of which were ranked among the public's most pressing threats.
Lastly, although UK public opinion showed relatively low 'favourability' ratings towards the emerging economies that will play an increasingly important role in the UK's future prosperity and security, the public appears willing to support stronger diplomatic ties with those at the vanguard, such as China, India and Russia. This suggests that Britons are adjusting their attitudes in ways that may support the government's efforts to pursue its 'distinctive' foreign policy.