Foreign policy has generated little attention in the run up to the General Election. With the debate on tackling the deficit while protecting key public services, the political battle has focused on the future of Britain here at home. The role that the Britain plays abroad has largely been on the political sidelines.
It was interesting, then, when Labour’s Shadow Europe Minister, Pat McFadden, addressed a Fabian Society Conference on Wednesday discussing the issue of Britain and Europe in 2020. Not because McFadden reaffirmed Labour’s already well known commitment to staying in a reformed EU, but because of the way he developed the issue, tying the future of Britain’s national security to its membership of the EU. “The security dimension of the EU is becoming much more important than before,” McFadden told those gathered, before warning “If the EU were to splinter or split, no one would be more pleased than President Putin.”
This strong rhetoric from McFadden had been preceded earlier in the week by Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, who wrote a critical assessment of the government’s foreign policy record, writing that “in response to the twin challenges of a US administration whose stated aim was a diplomatic pivot towards Asia, and a eurozone considering even greater consolidation”, the coalition government had instead pursued a path of isolationism in the EU which threatened the UK’s strategic importance to the US. It was President Obama, after all, who said in June last year that the UK should remain a part of the EU.
As the election approaches it is inevitable that Labour will set out in greater detail how it would approach foreign policy, especially given how quiet the party has been on the subject in the last five years, minus the vote against military intervention in Syria back in 2013. This week has not just been about setting out a Labour position on foreign policy – which still has many unanswered questions – it has been about turning the way Prime Minister David Cameron has overseen, or mismanaged, foreign policy into an election issue.
Labour clearly feels there is joy to be had in this area, perhaps somewhat surprisingly. The rumblings around the UK’s future commitment to meet the NATO obligation of spending 2 per cent of national GDP have been going on for quite a while now, since it emerged in February that Obama had pressed Cameron on the issue when the leaders met at the White House the previous month.
Cameron has not been able to quash the issue simply because he has been unable to publicly come out and say the UK will meet its NATO obligation. A number of Conservative backbenchers have also joined those voicing their concerns, while the former head of the British army, Sir Peter Wall, said this week that the armed forces would be “hollowed out” if further cuts were implemented.
The fact that criticism is not just coming from Labour illustrates the difficulties Cameron is having with regards to explaining his record on foreign policy. In a rare and rather embarrassing episode, an unnamed senior White House official briefed the Financial Times on Thursday that the Obama administration was worried that the UK had not consulted them over its application to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which the US sees as a potential challenger to the World Bank.
These two interventions by the Obama administration over defence spending and the UK’s growing commercial relationship with China have undoubtedly come at an unfortunate time for Cameron. Only in January Labour made it publicly known that Cameron’s trip to visit Obama was encroaching on what is acceptable in the months leading up to an election. No one from the Labour front bench has complained over the most recent interventions from the White House into UK politics.
The result in the upcoming general election will clearly not be determined by how voters view Cameron’s record on foreign policy. But Labour’s recent attacks, along with the increasing questions about what role Britain will play in the world, signify that whatever the next colour of government is, hard choices lie ahead. The UK’s relationship with the EU, future commitments on defence spending, the commercial diplomacy agenda, the situation in Eastern Ukraine and the fight against IS in the Middle East all represent challenges that await the next government. Foreign policy may not win votes, but resolving these issues will arguably prove the most difficult task facing the next Prime Minister.