Friday, March 26, 2010

British Foreign Policy and the Forthcoming General Election

Britain will have the general election, which will most likely to be held on May 6 (“The most likely date for the next election is May 6th, 2010”; Spectator――Coffee House; 1 May 2009). This election is expected to be highly competitive, and it is important to compare foreign policy viewpoints between those of the Labour and the Conservative.

In order to explore British foreign policy and the election, I would like to talk of the panel discussion, entitled “Britain's Place in a Changing World” at Chatham House on March 3, and a lecture called “How to understand and influence the EU, or The UK attitude Toward the Future of the EU" at the LSE Forum in Tokyo on March 20.

The panel discussion at the Royal Institute of International Affairs was moderated by Director Robin Niblett, and Acting and Shadow Foreign Secretaries participated in it. They are David Miliband of the Labour Party, William Hague of the Conservative Party, and Edward Davey of the Liberal Democratic Party. Throughout the panel, Labour Miliband stressed that Britain be at the heart of the European Union, while Conservative Hague emphasized British national sovereignty and importance of bilateral relations. See the video below (the text here).

Currently, Britain is involved with tackling Middle East threats, notably Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. Also, the world faces challenges by reemerging nationalism and rising economies, such as Russia, China, and India. In a changing global political environment, Britain needs to rearrange the relationship with the United States and the European Union.

Miliband foresees the world led by G3 (United States, China, and EU), not G2 (United States and China), and Britain will play a key role in global political economy through the EU. Also, he said that enlarged EU is upgrading its capability to manage relations with Russia, India, and Brazil, and also, fight wars like counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Hague places more emphasis on relations with the United States, and he insists that Britain advise America to change its policy in case of wrong behavior such as mistreatment of Guantánamo prisoners. Also, he said the EU improve joint military capabilities to manage crisis like Bosnia.

Despite the above differences, both Acting and Shadow Foreign Secretaries agree that Britain has a distinct role as a hub of global political interactions through NATO, the Commonwealth, UN Security Council, and the EU. In my view, this role is strongly founded on imperial history and multiculturalism. The Japanese feel Britain “the most accessible” nation in Europe, though Japan has never been a British colony.

At the LSE Forum in Tokyo, Adam Steinhouse, Head of the School of European Studies at the National School of Government, talked about EU bureaucracy and successful lobbying process in Brussels. Also, he talked of British foreign policy between the EU and its own national interests.

Quite puzzlingly, the EU does not have sufficient personnel and financial resources to make pan-European policies. Steinhouse told the attendants that the decision making process in Brussels is bottom-up from Director’s level to the “Ministerial” level. Also, due to sectionalism among EU institutions, it is not clear who assumes the ultimate responsibility. For example, the EU has four “Presidents” in the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, and the European Parliament. Furthermore, Steinhouse told that Brussels bureaucracy has less budget resource than each member state.

Considering these points, it is understandable that the British, particularly Conservatives, prefer bilateral diplomacy rather than EU based approaches. Steinhouse points out that Britain has more bilateral relations with nations like India and Pakistan. Certainly, Britain talks with them bilaterally on the Afghan War and South Asian security without EU channels.

However, the Obama administration prefers integrated Europe to bilateral diplomacy. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remarked that she would rather hope pro-EU Labour to win the election over bilateralist Conservative, as Edward Davies asked a question about this to William Hague in the video above. However, such pan-Europeanist approaches could ruin transatlantic alliance, because European nations act as sovereign states when necessary. Moreover, Steinhouse told us that European politicians see Barack Obama a “light weight” deep at the bottom of their heart. When Obama visited Europe as a presidential candidate, the media and youngsters were overjoyed but consummate policymakers were not well-impressed with such a “rock star”.

Regarding Anglo-American relations, highly possible victory of Atlanticist Conservative may paradoxically be at odds with pan-Europeanist Obama administration.

US President Barack Obama may not regard the relationship with Britain as “special”, since he is more inclined to engage challengers and adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran rather than allies with common values and interests. However, no other countries make so great a contribution to the War on Terror as Britain does. Also, EU member states give priorities to their national interests when Brussels bureaucracy does not satisfy their necessities.

The forthcoming general election between Europhile Labour and bilateralist Conservative will have crucial influence on transatlantic and global security. At the same time, we must remember that Britain will continue to play a hub role in global policy interactions, whoever wins the election. The panel discussion at Chatham House and a lecture by Dr. Adam Steinhouse must be understood in such contexts.

For further information on the forthcoming UK general election, see this blog.