Out of the conference hall, and back on to the campaign trail, it would nice to see the Tories talking about the things which make them ready for government. In particular, William Hague should make a foreign policy speech setting out what ideas he has, and which would merit him being referred to as the likely “greatest foreign secretary in a generation” by David Cameron.
Hague’s past foreign policy speeches have been solid, but unspectacular. He ticks off the likely issues, talks about global trends and looks knowledgeable about the crises that could emerge. But there is no overaching concept, such David Miliband’s idea of Britain as a "global hub". There is no Hague Doctrine.
British governments – Tony Blair excepted – have not historically come to power with a commitment to a new foreign policy. In developing a Tory foreign policy doctrine there are two additional obstacles: first, an anti-intellectualism that makes developing a "vision" difficult; and unwillingness by the Tory leader to favour one of the different policy factions in the party over another. But so much has changed since 1997, that a new government should take the opportunity to lay out a strategic vision of where it wants Britain to be, covering at the very least the following issues:
1. China. The move by the West to make China a “responsible stakeholder” through engagement has failed (cf COP 15, Iran) while Beijing’s drive for regional hegemony is unabated. In ten years, the People’s Liberation Army will be able to deny the US Navy defence of Taiwan. What should British policy aim to do? Bank on India to counter-balance China or let developments take their course?
2. International bodies. The international system set up after World War II is no longer fit for purpose; but any efforts to reform it wholesale seem unlikely to succeed. What can be done, and what should the UK prioritise?
3. Russia. Vladmir Putin’s Russia may have taken a hit in the economic crisis, but its anti-Western, revisionist foreign policy is likely to continue. How should this be addressed – with a view to confronting Russia or in a partnership, much as the German government wants?
4. The Middle East. The region is still run by corrupt, undemocratic regimes, challenged by popular Islamist forces, and is likely to be the scene of future conflicts. Though Al Qaeda has failed to ignite the Muslim masses, its message remains potent. Terrorism is a real threat, and the Middle East peace processes have stalled. What would a new Tory government do?
5. Nucelar proliferation. The growing availability of sensitive nuclear technology; the ability of North Korea to withdraw from the NPT with relative impunity; and Iran’s illegal nuclear programme – all show the dire situation of the world’s nuclear regime. Given the power, how would the Shadow Foreign Secretary update the ideas he laid out at IISS?
6. Involving Europe? European governments have failed to become more effective foreign policy actors though the EU, yet they cannot address many global issues single-handedly; while the US clearly wants to see more common European action. What does a sensible British policy look like, which brings Germany and France along on the big issues?
7. Afghanistan. Even if British troops remain in Helmand for another three years, they are not likely to remain in situ another ten. What does a post-American Afghanistan look like? And what should British policy towards the entire region be focused on in such a future scenario?
8. Dealing with America. As Will Inboden has said, “Cameron and Hague peer towards American leadership on front-burner issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East Peace Process, as well as relations with China or strategic shifts such as the ill-fated ‘reset button’ with Russia”. But is that Atlantic instinct still right in a post-American world?
The Tory foreign policy team is as strong as anything that the Labour government can muster: Hague is popular and commanding, Liddington is likeable and engaging, Mark Francois the team’s attack dog, and Keith Simpson its intellectual supplier. But the team needs a doctrine, a narrative about how they see the changes in the world – not a repetition of clichéd nostrums – as well as a clear view of what they would do in power.