There is a large vacuum at the heart of this general election campaign. Aside from the topic of our relations with the EU, and Nicola Sturgeon’s statement that she would decline to press a nuclear button which is never going to be hers to press in any case, no leader has had anything of interest to say on foreign policy.
This is not for want of matters to discuss. The elections in Hong Kong at the weekend presented an ideal opportunity to bring up foreign policy. A small political earthquake occurred in a former British colony, with reformers triumphing at the polls just as they had drawn huge support on the streets. It was the strongest sign yet that the people of Hong Kong are not going to stand for the erosion of democratic rights and that the Chinese model of consumer capitalism combined with the suppression of political freedom is crumbling. Yet from our own political leaders there was hardly a word in response — they were as silent, for different reasons, as Xi Jinping and his government in Beijing.
It has become commonplace to say that Britain will lose power and influence in foreign affairs after Brexit. As if trying to prove the point, British political leaders seem unilaterally to have withdrawn from international statesmanship. Inasmuch as we have had a debate over international affairs at all, it has tended to centre on the character of the President of the United States and on the misery of Venezuela — the latter only cropping up because of Jeremy Corbyn’s previous enthusiastic support for the country’s failed socialist regime.
The disappearance of foreign affairs as an election issue is odd in one sense, in that it was only 14 years ago that we had an election dominated by them: the post-Iraq war election, in which Tony Blair lost large numbers of Labour voters. His experience in 2005 perhaps goes some way to explaining why the main parties are now reluctant to discuss Britain’s place in the wider world. This time around, it has been left to voters to imagine what kind of foreign policy the candidates for this election would follow. Prior to becoming Labour leader, Corbyn often seemed more interested in foreign affairs than in domestic ones — usually siding with Britain’s enemies. It is fair to assume that as prime minister he would distance Britain from the US and lead a non-interventionist UK defence policy, possibly standing aside even if a UK sovereign territory were to be invaded, as it was in 1982.
But Boris Johnson? It is hard to discern. It is easy to forget that prior to becoming PM he had already held one of the great offices of state, so light an impression did he leave in his time as foreign secretary. To his credit, he did take the lead for a while on sanctions against Putin following the Salisbury poisoning, but even that was short-lived. Since then, the government’s only response to the Russian leader’s growing authoritarianism and his expansionism in Syria (and now in Egypt) was for ministers to stay away from the World Cup last year. Boris’s two successors as foreign secretary have had little more to say; Jeremy Hunt was inaudible even when Iran started seizing western oil tankers in the Gulf.
What we have learned from the Conservative manifesto is that a Johnson government will maintain defence spending at the bare minimum of 2 per cent of GDP, would support sanctions against foreign nationals suspected of corruption, in the style of the US Magnitsky Act, would keep David Cameron’s target of spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid, and would host an inter-national LGBT conference. But where is the ambition to, say, lead the world on freeing up trade — a leadership role which the US has, for the moment, vacated? Or the will to inspire other Nato countries to increase their spending on defence? That is a role in which we already have moral leadership. We are one of only seven of the 29 Nato member states which currently spend more than the 2 per cent target. There is no other country in a position to broker the survival of Nato, between a US President who is reluctant to continue to pay disproportionately for the defence of Europe, and European countries which are loth to increase military spending.
The idea that Britain’s influence will necessarily diminish as a result of Brexit is wrong. Little of Britain’s power and influence in the world derives from our membership of the EU; it comes from our senior role in Nato and our position in the Commonwealth. As for economic matters, our power as a nation will be enhanced by regaining the ability to negotiate our own trade deals. What is going to have the greater influence on developing countries: a protectionist EU which keeps its markets closed to their food imports, or a UK which is prepared to offer them greater access? It is not the EU which is employing its economic might in development in Africa; it is China. We can’t out-invest the Chinese, but we can at least outperform fortress Europe when it comes to setting a direction for global development.
But there is no guarantee that Britain will remain a big player on the world stage. We will only do so if we have a government which is prepared to assert itself. The Iraq war has cast a long shadow over UK foreign policy, feeding the idea that Britain is either a US puppet or a non-entity in global affairs. For that not to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, we need our leaders and would-be leaders to show a lot more ambition.