A foreign-policy-free election?

RAF lightning II aircraft photo by defence imagesFor all its crudeness, the barrel bomb has to be one of the most brutally effective weapons around. An old oil drum, filled with that now all too familiar combination of explosives and steel detritus, dropped onto its fuse-laden nose from a helicopter, it seems, kills and maims in just the right proportions to terrorise those left behind.

It is little wonder, then, that the barrel bomb is Bashar al-Assad’s weapon of choice in his effort to wear down those parts of Syria with the impudence to have thought they could do better. It tells you all you need to know about the man that, having discovered that the wretched things seem to be particularly effective when aimed at young children, the regime, like so many despots before, has found schools to be an especially desirable target.

I hope you will forgive me, then, for finding it more than a little distasteful when, in what I think was the only mention of foreign affairs in the whole of Channel 4’s non-debate, Ed Miliband sought to demonstrate his toughness by claiming (falsely, in any event) that his ‘principled’ objection to even the very prospect of military action against the very same Bashar al-Assad’s regime pulled the rug from under the international community’s proposed response. It’s worth remembering (given that we actually do seem to have forgotten) that Assad’s infraction on this occasion was the gassing to death of civilians (including, need I say, children).

Almost as concerning as what Miliband actually said is what is being left unsaid. In the phoney war that’s been taking place for months, and in the campaign proper so far, events outside our borders have been almost entirely absent. Even when the news features issues with a link to world affairs (such as the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence), the political conversation is parochial and largely irrelevant to current world affairs.

I could at least begin to understand, though certainly not excuse, such a lack of interest if Syria was the only point of concern. Yes, it is the biggest humanitarian crisis of the century (200,000 dead, 3 million refugees). And it is certainly yet another appalling failure of the international institutions which we at least still pretend are intended to check that sort of barbarism. But it is also yet another conflict in the Middle East, a region we now seem to treat with general weariness. And being in that region it can once again unite right-wing nationalists with left-wing anti-Americans in the cause of isolationism.

The nonchalance over ISIS is slightly more difficult to comprehend, given the number of rather more self-interested reasons to be concerned. Here too, it seems, recent history has taught is little at all.

Surely, then, a war right here on our European doorstep would at least register in the political debate? Not so, it seems. The Russian annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory, and its sponsoring of a war in the east of the country, barely merit a mention. The Budapest Memorandum, always referred to in slightly whispered tones, is now forgotten altogether.

That’s to say nothing of events in Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria or Mexico, to pick a few.

Last week’s Economist quoted John McCain, chairman of the US Senate’s armed services committee and former presidential candidate:

Every witness to our committee, from Henry Kissinger to Madeleine Albright, says these are the most tumultuous times they have seen in their lives…

However much there is to disagree with in the career of at least one of those individuals, looking at the list above the committee’s witnesses are surely right on this point. And yet there is little sign that foreign affairs will feature at all in Britain’s election campaign.

For internationalists, the parochialism of modern British politics is a frequent source of irritation. The inward-looking election campaign in which we are engaged will be bad for democratic politics here, but it will be all the more depressing to those around the world who have looked to Britain to uphold the values we purport to espouse and found that we are nowhere to be seen.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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  • mike clements 9th Apr '15 - 1:18pm

    The silence of all parties regarding foreign policy is deafening, painfully deafening to my ears because I dread to visualise what may happen if the situation in Ukraine escalates and also have strong views on the Middle East which I fear may not be shared by the party in government after May 7th

  • “…The nonchalance over ISIS is slightly more difficult to comprehend, given the number of rather more self-interested reasons to be concerned. Here too, it seems, recent history has taught is little at all.”

    I share the frustration at the llack of policy discussion in the media.

    This seems to contrary to the concerns of ordinary people, especially those who have family or other interests in those countries which stretch from Mali to Malaysia and are being one by one undermined by the Saudi inspired (and in many cases Saudi financed) religious / military extremists.

    Although it has to be said that it is not just the mainstream media that is guilty of looking the other way. LDV shared in January’s ‘JE SUIS CHARLIE’ popular revulsion at the gunning down of cartoonists. Although that event seems to have been cooped since to the cause of Netanyahu. Meanwhile there are no outbursts of ‘JE SUIS KENYAN’ following the systematic massacre of more than 140 Christian students at their university. There has been no ‘JE SUIS NIGERIAN’ on the repated occasions that hundreds of Nigerians have been raped or killed by the cut-throat thugs who are allowed to get away with mass murder.
    If only they had been in a supermarket in January in Paris instead!

    Failure to discuss these issues serves the interest of the rich and powerful 100,000 non doms whose interest in this country is to use it as a safe environment, but it does not serve the interest of the many, in this cntrybor abroad.

    We need political discussion about how we organise our society both at home and abroad on democratic and economc lines to the benefit of all and not just a tiny minority of the super-rich.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Apr '15 - 1:40pm

    I agree that foreign policy is getting neglected, but I would have a greater emphasis on security and law in order in general.


  • Jonathan Brown 9th Apr '15 - 11:55pm

    Good article Nick.

    For understandable reasons perhaps, there has been very little discussion of foreign affairs since Blair, not just during this election.

    I didn’t actually join the Lib Dems until 2010, but had supported them for years. One of the big factors in my support was the party’s opposition to the Iraq war. But another big factor ws the party’s earlier support for intervention to prevent genocide in the Balkans.

    If as a country we have lost all interest in the rest of the world, you do have to wonder why we bother to hold on to our seat at the UN security council. It’s not like we’re doing anything with it.

    This seems to be a good moment to shamelessly promote my article also published today on the case for enforcing a no fly zone on Syria: https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-the-humanitarian-catastrophe-in-syria-and-the-need-for-a-nofly-zone-45405.html

  • Interestingly no mention of the hell hole that is Libya that was held up by the coalition as such a foreign intervention success.. I believed at the etime of the Syria vote, and still do, that the unintended consequences of action made it another folly.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Apr ’15 – 11:55pm
    “….you do have to wonder why we bother to hold on to our seat at the UN security council. It’s not like we’re doing anything with it.”

    Yes, indeed.

    Why does the UK cling on to this 1940s relic of its great colonial past?

    Well one reason is to justify hanging on to that other much more expensive relic, Trident.
    The argument goes that we are a member of the security council so we must have Trident or nobody will take us seriously.
    Trident proves we are an important “world power”. Important world powers are members of the security council.

    We might as well ask why senior UK Diplomats wear silly hats with plumes of birds feathers to welcome the Queen on her frequent visits to The Falklands, The Pitcairn Islands, Tristan Da Cunha and her other glorious dominions.

    The answer is of course might just be to do with the vanity and posturing of the ruling elite, who really cannot believe that George III lost the colonies in the Americas and are still trying to compensate for that.

  • John Tilley – “Why does the UK cling on to this 1940s relic of its great colonial past?”

    Well, one reason is that if we’ve got it someone else doesn’t have it. Who else would you rather have as a permanent member of the UNSC? Saudi Arabia? Iran?

    The UNSC is how it is – usually deadlocked because of the conflicting interests of the 5 permanent members.

  • I think the loss of interest – which I do not share – is down to the lack of effective levers the west has in its foreign policy armoury.
    As liberals we should do whatever we can to defend human rights and democracy. However I am struck by a rather brutal phrase that Rory Stewart uses; we are NOT morally obliged to do where we cannot deliver.
    We have had disastrous failures of policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Even sanctions against Russia is not working and there seems no way back for Crimea. And I notice in your list of countries you do not even mention Saudi Arabia or Israel. No mention also of the impact of drone strikes by the U.S. against countries we are not officially at war with.
    I would like a foreign policy that aims to support democracy and human rights but without being counter productive in doing so. A policy like that is well worth having but hard to pin down where it’s principles are.
    But I do not see any alternative.

  • “Tragically the only person I have heard to espouse anything like that view in the last five years is Rory Stewart, a bloody Tory!”

    I have a lot of time for Rory Stewart who is a Tory by tribe rather than by conviction.

    Personally I don’t judge people by their declared allegiance, but by whether what they say makes sense or not. There are plenty of Lib Dems who make no sense at all.

  • Tabman 10th Apr ’15 – 12:56pm

    membership of the security council is not exclusive to the five permanent members.   So your argument about preventing other states from being members does not hold water.

    The Council is composed of 15 Members:

    five permanent members: 
    China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States,

    and ten non-permanent members elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly (with end of term date):
    Angola (2016)
    Chad (2015)
    Chile (2015)
    Jordan (2015)
    Lithuania (2015)
    Malaysia (2016)
    New Zealand (2016)
    Nigeria (2015)
    Spain (2016)
    Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) (2016)


  • John Tilley. Yes, but only the 5 permanent members have a veto.

  • jedibeeftrix 12th Apr ’15 – 9:22am

    An interesting and information packed comment. I will give it some thought and get ack to you.

  • Tabman 12th Apr ’15 – 9:08am

    I do not recall precisely how often in my lifetime (I was born in 1952) the UK has used its veto in the security council.
    Do you know?

    More importantly, do you know how often the UK has used its veto separately from the USA?

    Are we just on the security council to be big brother’s little brother?

  • Jedi
    RUSI commissioned a report to ask two questions:
    1. Is it still desirable and appropriate for the UK to wish to act as a Great Power?
    2. If it is desirable to remain a Great Power, how can this be achieved?

    It is a long time since I read anything from RUSI. This is much better than some reports. It is at least written in English instead of jargon.

    The options for the future which exclude “Great Power” status are highly attractive both from a practical point of view as well as from a Liberal Democrat point of view.

    Your personal preference is for ” Britain to pursue the Strategic Raiding Doctrine.”.
    Because that is based on Great Power status it does not really fit with a Liberal Democrat outlook.
    Liberals since the 1940s have been questioning the doctne of Great Power status even in the decades when we could afford to pay the bills to achieve it.

    My personal preference from the options set out in this paper would be the position of Denmark or Ireland as set out as the Gendarmerie Doctrine – i.e.highly out of high intensity warfare outside of defence of our own national borders, but remain capable of providing peace-keeping forces for multinational operations.

    Of course in the world of the Daesh, Cyber Terrorism and much closer EU cooperation of foreign affairs and defence in concert with the non- EU members of NATO provide other layers to this complicated onion.

    Thanks for providing the link to the report. You probably did to expect me to cme to the same conclusion, ButIt was interesting to read through.

  • My last sentence should have started –
    “Your probably did not expect me to come to the same conclusion as you … “

  • Jonathan Brown 12th Apr '15 - 3:25pm

    @Jedibeeftrix – interesting summary; thanks for providing.

    Personally, I think I would support something similar to the ‘strategic raiding’ doctrine, even if the name implies a more aggressive attitude than I would want the UK to take. When I asked ‘why we bother holding on to our seat at the UN’ I was meaning to ask the British public and British politicians to make a choice. If we don’t want to contribute much international security, then we ought to admit it and resign from the UNSC. Whether we aimed to exercise influence like Belgium or Germany, we’d have options, but we ought to stop taking up space in an arena we’re not serious about doing anything in.

    I think we can and ought to contribute to international security, and ought to resource the FCO and the armed forces sufficiently for us to do so. (Which is why I think we should scrap Trident: it does not meaningfully contribute anything useful to our objectives or those of our allies, and is sucking resources out of things we could usefully do but may not be able to do for much longer.) Of course, we would also play a more constructive role by being more actively engaged within the EU too.

    On another note, I also read the link to the summary of the Chatham House Yougov survey, but I draw rather different conclusions to you. The UK public may have said that they’d like to remain a great power in a very non-specific sense, but all of the questions relating to what that means in practice (such as being willing to support democratic movements in other countries) got much less enthusiastic answers.

    So perhaps our current policy reflects the wishes of the public after all: pretend to be a great power, proudly display the trappings of one, but don’t actually act like one or pay any attention to the fact that our ability to act like one is being steadily undermined by our foreign and domestic policy choices.

  • Tabman

    An answer to one of my questions about the UK veto.

    The UK has used the veto 32 times between 1945 and 2014.

    The vast majority of these were in connection with Rhodesia, South Africa and Namibia.

    From a Liberal Democrat perspective,  the world would have been a better place without a UK veto on those votes.


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