As observed in a recent Policy Critical post, this election campaign is giving short shrift to foreign affairs. This is understandable in the context of campaign speeches and promises, since voters want to hear most about the issues that have the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives: taxes, healthcare, education and so on.
But how the government conducts its relations with its international partners – and the trade-offs that it must make in deciding what issues to prioritise – also has profound implications for the country’s economy and national security, broadly defined, so these issues deserve to be addressed in much more detail.
It is encouraging that the manifesto statements of all three parties appear to have recognised that Britain’s place in the world has changed in recent decades. Without making too much of the argument that we are a power in decline, it is clear that we cannot afford to maintain the kind of full-spectrum combat capabilities that we enjoyed in the past. In the short term, this is because the financial crisis has limited the resources available to spend on security and defence.
More significantly, the changing nature of the security challenges we face – which include extreme weather, pandemic diseases, nuclear proliferation and transnational crime, as well as more conventional threats such as inter-state conflict and terrorism – mean that the tools and strategies we use to tackle them must also change. Greater specialisation is required, and a commitment to working in partnership with allies old and new should be seen as a strategic imperative, rather than an optional add-on to a unilateral foreign policy.
However, Labour and Conservative acceptance of this principle has not led either party to offer particularly specific suggestions for what Britain should be doing more of and what it should be doing less of. Both manifestos offer long laundry lists of desirable foreign policies – which include maintaining current spending on aid, improving conditions for the Armed Forces and delivering a sustainable peace settlement in Afghanistan – while kicking difficult questions about the cuts that must be made in order to achieve these goals to the strategic defence and security review due to be carried out in post-election period. Only the Liberal Democrats have given a firmer indication of their position on this, through their pledge to rule out the like-for-like replacement of Trident on the grounds that a price tag of £100 billion over the course of its lifetime is unaffordable.
A more realistic debate about the future contours of British foreign policy among the electorate is urgently required: it is a shame that none of the manifestos published this week have seized the opportunity to bring this about.