Sitting in his room on the first floor of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, William Hague looks over at a small bust of the former Prime Minister William Pitt that sits at one end of the mantelpiece above a grand Victorian fireplace. “Pitt is my hero on all policies,” says the Foreign Secretary of the man who ran Britain at the time of the French revolution and Napoleonic wars. “He’s been brought into the office to watch over me. The thing you have to realise about him is that, on many things, he was a principled pragmatist.”
As Hague settles into the role of Foreign Secretary in the new coalition government, this assessment of Pitt goes some way to defining his outlook. For it is pragmatism – rather than the pursuit of rigid ideology – that Hague wants Britain’s diplomacy to be about.
Throughout the life of the last government, there was a constant attempt by government ministers to try to define foreign policy from a firm moral standpoint. In 1997, Robin Cook became Foreign Secretary and advocated the need to pursue an “ethical foreign policy”. Tony Blair then dominated the past decade with the belief that the UK had a Gladstonian duty to pursue moral interventionism in foreign affairs, and lead Britain into the conflicts in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, with mixed results.
Hague, together with David Cameron, has now eschewed all that. He still believes that British foreign policy should have a “conscience” and an “obligation to help those less fortunate”, but Gladstonian interventionism has given way to a narrower and more prosaic view of the world – one in which the driving phrase is “enlightened national interest”.
For Hague, this means British diplomacy is no longer about abstract ideas or pursuing some great moral crusade. Instead, it is about establishing enduring bilateral relationships with emerging economies to boost the UK’s trade and business links. Above all, it is not a policy driven by a Prime Minister who makes decisions based on his personal conscience. Rather, it involves all the major departments of state coming together in coordinated decision-making.
This approach is certainly in tune with the national mood. After the controversy over Iraq and Afghanistan, the country has little taste for a return to ‘Blair’s wars’. Moreover, as the new government pursues deep cuts in public spending, it is essential that every branch of government, including the Foreign Office, demonstrates genuine value, boosting ‘UK PLC’.
New business makers
Some sceptics wonder what this new commitment to a pragmatic, business-orientated foreign policy really means. Is the FCO an organisation that can make an impact in drumming up new business for the UK in the thick of the global economic crisis? How much can it arrest the decline in British influence in a world increasingly dominated by emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil? And what implications will this have for Britain’s approach to its principal international partners – the US and European Union?
Hague and his colleagues are keen to trumpet a range of things they have done to change the nature of foreign policy, reforms that mark a big shift away from the Blair years. In the time they have been in power, the new government’s pragmatic approach appears to have had a number of key themes.
First, it is bringing an adjustment in the way the UK views relations with the US and Europe. The Blair years were dominated by a romantic view of US-UK alliance in which it was deemed essential to “hug Washington close”. But Cameron has been far more hard-headed than his predecessors, arguing that the Blair approach ultimately led to the debacle over Iraq. His government is still closely aligned to the US on policy regarding the Afghanistan conflict and the need to confront Iran over its nuclear ambitions. But Cameron has bluntly acknowledged that the UK is the US’s “junior partner” – and that Britain must be more frank with the White House than it has been in the past when it disagrees with Washington’s policy.
There has been a similar approach to the EU. Before the election, many had assumed that Cameron and Hague (both eurosceptics) would take Britain into a new era of acutely hostile relations between London and Brussels. But that has not happened.
The new government is determined not to surrender any more sovereignty to the EU. However, the tone of Conservative foreign policy towards the EU is far more conciliatory and non-ideological than had been expected. As Cameron said before the election: “I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the constructive approach we take to the EU.”
Second, a concerted attempt is being made to put business support at the heart of the FCO. The government wants to recruit business leaders to a number of prominent jobs in the Foreign Office, potentially moving closer to the US model. It has taken an important step by appointing Simon Fraser, the top civil servant at the business department as the new Head of the Foreign Office, and Leon Brittan, a former European Commissioner for Trade as a trade adviser. Some of the foreign visits that Hague and Cameron have conducted in their first few weeks in office – to India, Turkey and China – have all had a strong focus on trade.
Third, Hague is making a big attempt to put the FCO at the heart of decision-making on diplomacy: “I was struck by how much people had got used to the ‘line to take’ coming from elsewhere in foreign policy,” he said. All that is changing. “There’s a Prime Minister who has opened the door again,” he says. This means the FCO is becoming the source of proposals that define policy-making and get pushed up to Number 10.
Finally, Hague and Cameron have taken steps to get more coordination across government in terms of the way policy is made. The Blair years were often dominated by criticism that the Prime Minister was indulging in a ‘sofa government’ – taking decisions with small coteries of advisers and failing to consult senior figures in departments across Whitehall. Hague and Cameron have set up a new National Security Council at Number 10 that regularly brings together ministers and discusses key diplomatic and defence issues. Cameron also took no fewer than five other cabinet ministers with him on his official visit to India.
Clearly, there is a serious attempt to change the mechanics of foreign policy-making. What will the effect of all this be?
It is worth pointing out that the emphasis that the new government is putting on using diplomacy to drum up business for Britain is nothing new. After all, in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s government made a concerted effort to achieve greater coordination between the work of the Department for Trade and Industry and the FCO. Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow, said: “The image of unworldly aristocratic diplomats disdaining commercial work… has long been no more than comfortable mythology.” Sir Tony Brenton claims that at the start of his career in Cairo in the 1970s, the British ambassador of the time probably devoted more time to boosting British exports than to any other issue. “And at the end, as ambassador in Moscow, a key task for me was to protect British commercial interests through a period of very difficult political relations.”
The global stage
Many will also question how long the primacy of the FCO in foreign policy-making will last. Right now, Cameron’s focus is on dealing with the UK’s domestic economic woes; he will be happy for Hague to take the reins as the UK’s chief diplomat. As time passes, this may well change. The global stage often proves to be a seductive place for the Prime Ministers of middle-ranking powers. Labour ministers recall that when Blair entered Number 10 he had shown only modest interest in international affairs. That soon changed once he was in office.
Above all, there is the question over the extent to which any rearranging of the furniture of foreign policy-making can really arrest the decline of British influence in the world. Hague faces a huge challenge in terms of resources. In the forthcoming public spending round, he will have to fight to keep the current network of embassies. But far more significantly, the Ministry of Defence’s budget will be slashed by at least 10% over the next four years, with cuts worth £17 billion. This scaling-back in the size of the UK armed forces may well bring a big diminution in the UK’s global prestige and weight.
The paradox for Hague may well be that, if he cannot deploy a strong British contribution to global security, a powerful Foreign Secretary is ultimately ineffective. Hague is working hard to reorganise the way in which Whitehall formulates foreign policy. He is building up the FCO, concentrating resources on relations with rising powers such as India and Turkey, and better exploiting Britain’s diplomatic advantages. But in the wider scheme of things, the problem he faces is that Britain’s place in the world seems destined to decline as emerging powers such as Brazil, India and China rise and the UK grapples with the burden of its fiscal crisis. Hague may well turn out to be the most powerful Foreign Secretary Britain has seen in decades – but one whose term of office also marks a significant decline in Britain’s voice in the world.