UK Politics: Forged In The Crucible Of Austerity

One year into office, foreign policy is unexpectedly proving a defining theme of Britain’s coalition government. Faced with economic austerity at home and geopolitical uncertainty abroad, the challenge has been to match ambitions to changing realities. Add to this the wave of popular dissent across the Arab world and military intervention in Libya, and it is not hard to see why international affairs have risen to the top of the government’s agenda. All of this presents the ideal opportunity, twelve months in, to assess the emerging contours of the coalition’s approach.

The World Today Updated 10 March 2020 Published 1 May 2011 3 minute READ

Unsurprisingly, the current government has been keen to define its foreign policy as distinct from the New Labour years. Predictably, this has seen its approach suffused with a greater degree of pragmatism. Gone is the hyperbole surrounding talk of an ‘ethical dimension’, a ‘doctrine of the international community’, or aspirations of realising a ‘truly global society’ that provided the lens through which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown saw the world.

Instead, the guiding doctrine has been one of ‘liberal conservatism’; an approach that, in opposition, William Hague suggested ‘combine[s] a belief in freedom, human rights and democracy with a scepticism of utopian schemes to remake the world, a cherishing of what works well in practice and a strong belief in the continued relevance of the nation state.’ Indeed, the coalition’s foreign policy appears to have liberalism at its core - whether the emphasis on promoting trade and open societies, the ‘muscular liberalism’ that Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to in the context of national identity and multiculturalism, or the revival of liberal interventionism, at least in its pre-Iraq humanitarian guise, to protect the Libyan people from the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Philosophical compass aside, it is the country’s economic plight that has cast a shadow over the government’s ambitions and animated its priorities. Governing ‘in the national interest’ - a phrase usually reserved for the foreign policy sphere - has become the default retort used to describe the coalition’s founding purpose: namely, tackling the budget deficit. Indeed, as the autumn 2010 Spending Review demonstrated, diplomacy has not been immune from austerity.

As I wrote in the November edition of The World Today, though the decline in defence spending has understandably filled the headlines, cuts to the BBC World Service, British Council, and higher education - instruments of soft power - also have the potential to erode Britain’s global influence, albeit over the longer term. The link between economic prosperity and international standing is, as the foreign secretary has emphasised, a close one. By necessity, therefore, the government’s foreign policy has been one forged in the crucible of austerity.

Core Totems

Indeed, the economic situation has provided the rationale behind the government’s stated foreign policy totems - specifically, reinvigorating Britain’s bilateral relationships and infusing international engagement with a commercial focus. The first twelve months in office have seen Cameron and Hague visit awide range of countries in an attempt to reinvigorate relationships with traditional allies - Japan, Australia, and the Gulf states among others - while at the same time strengthening ties with rising powers such as Brazil, India, and China. In part, this represents a response to the shifting balance of global power, reorienting British foreign policy away from its traditional transatlantic anchor. It also, however, marks an attempt to adapt foreign policy to what Hague has called the ‘networked world’, recognising the importance of diverse linkages - whether diplomatic, economic, or cultural - in sustaining British influence.

Detractors have been critical of the government’s focus on bilateralism, suggesting that this has been at the expense of multilateral engagement. Indeed, it is important not to underestimate the value of multilateralism, especially in aworldwhere solutions to the main global issues - whether climate change, transnational terrorism, or global economic stability -are often shared. The issue of Europe, which many predicted would become an early crack in the coalition’s edifice, has yet to prove overly contentious, despite Conservative backbenchers being increasingly restive on the matter.

Critics have labelled the drive for a ‘new commercialism’ as little more than traditional mercantilism; a perception not helped by Cameron’s recent tour around the Middle East with defence industry executives, highlighting the delicate balancing act between trade promotion and values in foreign policy. The focus on commercialism certainly represents a shift in emphasis, particularly in light of budgetary constraints and the prime minister’s appeal for diplomats to ‘do more with less’.


Undoubtedly, military intervention in Libya - Cameron’s first war - marks the most significant moment of the government’s foreign policy so far. Though the outcome is still far from certain, combined with the wave of popular uprisings across the Arab world, it has already served to challenge some of the coalition’s initial assumptions; not least the analysis underpinning last autumn’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Inevitably, the decision to intervene was shrouded by the legacy of Iraq. Indeed, the criteria outlined for intervention - ‘demonstrable need’, ‘regional support’, and ‘a clear legal base’ - show an attempt to learn from past experience. Notably, Cameron’s response to the crisis has been devoid of the missionary zeal that often accompanied the Blairite interventions, and is instead tinged by a pragmatic awareness of the bounds of the possible.

That said, the Libyan crisis has certainly served to dispel the post-Iraq clarion sounding the end of the interventionist moment. As Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stated in an underreported speech in Mexico at the end of March: ‘Liberal vigilantism is dead. Law-abiding liberal interventionismis not.’

Particularly interesting then is what the Libya intervention says about the type of nation the government thinks Britain should be in the world. Acting in accord with the French and a reluctant United States, the ambition is clearly for Britain to maintain an activist role on the world stage. Responding in the face of humanitarian crisis has shown a willingness to shoulder responsibilities consistent with the rules of the international order. At the same time however, recent events have also raised questions about Britain’s ability to play such a role, particularly in light of domestic economic conditions. As such, the debate between the chorus of decline on the one hand, and ambitions of playing a leading role on the other, looks set to rumble on.

Set against a backdrop of austerity and uncertainty, international affairs have provided one of the most testing arenas for the coalition’s first year in office. While the tone and substance of British foreign policy have demonstrably changed, like all new governments their approach will undoubtedly evolve further with experience.

Just as 9/11 crystallised the purpose of Blair’s premiership and the global financial crisis dominated Brown’s, the wave of uprisings across the Arab world have the potential for a similar effect on the current government. Hague intimated as much when he suggested they could represent the defining event of the 21st century so far. Indeed, how the prime minister chooses to reflect on recent events may well serve to define the coalition’s foreign policy in the years to come.