Did we once have a UK foreign policy?

The Duke of Wellington, once the British Foreign Minister

The Duke of Wellington, once the British Foreign Minister

The BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on May 27th (Bank Holiday) carried a discussion of Foreign Secretary William Hague’s efforts to persuade the EU to lift its arms embargo on Syria, so that Hague could pursue his pet project of arming “moderate” Syrian rebels, to help them overthrow President Assad.  And I was struck by a question asked by the interviewer: “Didn’t we (the UK) once have our own foreign policy?”  Good question.  Yes we did.

We’re frequently assured that within the EU, we retain control over our foreign policy, and indeed we appeared to exercise that right with regard to Libya.  But it does appear to be the case that we can’t arm Syrian rebels without first getting permission from Brussels.

There is of course the broader question of whether we should be arming the Syrian rebels at all.  In my view, it’s naïve to imagine that we can arm the “good” rebels, and thereby isolate, or at least by-pass, the bad guys from Al Qaeda.  We have a confused and chaotic situation on the ground in Syria, and we would have no control over what happened to our equipment when it got into the country.  Nor is it clear that we can rely on the good guys to stay good if and when they finally remove Assad.

Our experience of intervening in Middle Eastern countries to remove oppressive dictators has not been entirely positive, and it’s not at all clear that what follows is predictable, or orderly, or democratic, or pro-Western.  The verdict is still out on the “Arab Spring”, but the auguries are worrying.  It is just not good enough to say “The status quo is so bad that anything that follows must be better”.  Often it is not.

The Bible has some good advice on the question.  “What king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14.31).  Before we intervene in foreign wars, we should ask “Can we afford it?  Do we have the resources?  Can we achieve a good outcome and a permanent settlement?  And will the benefit we confidently expect to achieve actually be enough to justify our costs in terms of blood and treasure?”

It is debatable whether any of our recent interventions satisfy that test.  But I have one incontrovertible proposition for Defence Secretary Philip Hammond: You can’t keep cutting the defence budget whilst also escalating the demands made of our armed forces.  If you want foreign adventures, you must be prepared to pay for them.

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20 Responses to Did we once have a UK foreign policy?

  1. Jane Davies says:

    I agree with your comments Roger…but please leave the quotes from the bible out. More and more of us are atheists these days and frequent quoting from the oldest book of fiction can get right up ones beak!

    • DougS says:

      Jane: I don’t think that Roger is ramming any religious teachings down our throats here!

      He’s simply quoting a piece of good logical advice, which could have come from any number of different sources.

    • I quote from Shakespeare and Tolkien as well — and they’re fiction! The Bible is literature, and a great part of our cultural hgeritage, whether you choose to believe it or not.

  2. Bellevue says:

    Oh but, Jane….there is so much wisdom in the Bible. And surely we need all the wisdom we can get these days.

  3. DougS says:

    I personally don’t think that we should be arming the rebels. Such arms could come back and bite us if they fall into the wrong hands – as in the past they so often have!

    • David says:

      I agree, the rebels are a mixed bunch, who knows who will end up using these arms.

      Do not do it Dave!

  4. I agree with Roger wholeheartedly on this. I take the view that history has shown us we cannot trust anyone in Islamic countries, or a significant minority of Muslims within our own borders, when we intervene in Islamic countries, for whatever reason. We have all suffered violent fallout from Iraq and Afghanistan. After helping the people oust the evil and oppressive Taliban in the latter, we soon saw the tide turn against us and our forces, and as usual, large numbers of Muslims here and elsewhere in the world protesting and pretending that it was all really an excuse to attack Islam.

    As long as we live in a world so heavily dependent on stable oil supplies, we have to continue to support stability in the middle east but we are dealing with a religious power base which views all non Muslims as enemies of Islam. Consequently, whatever we do or do not do in these countries, we will be damned and attacked

    • catalanbrian says:

      In your list of questions in your penultimate paragraph you miss out one vital, and perhaps the most important question “is our intervention morally right?”

      And you are absolutely spot on in your proposition to Phillip Hammond

  5. Patryk says:

    “Before we intervene in foreign wars, we should ask “Can we afford it? Do we have the resources?”
    Wise words Mr Helmer! I hope UKIP policy makers will remember them when they (yet again) promise everything to everyone. Tax cuts for everyone! Stop the “bedroom tax”! Double the prison places! Double the defence spending! Cut the Council Tax! Councils to build more council houses! Students grant guaranteed by the government!
    I may have missed one or two things but all the above things (bar the bedroom tax which wasn’t an issue in 2010) are taken from UKIP 2010 general election manifesto!

    • John Kemp says:

      …and what is wrong with them patryk?
      Perfectly sensible libertarian policies from a libertarian party.

      Being libertarians means that we will NOT go hopping off to join wars for any other reason than a direct and obvious threat to the UK -not some third party idea of direct threat either.

    • Patryk: What you’ve missed is the £100 billion a year we’ll save by leaving the EU!

  6. Mike Stallard says:

    The Syrians, on both sides, are not members of the Liberal government here. Neither are they American Rebels of 1776.

    Syrians have a long history dating right back to the Bible, but Islam has superimposed a different set of beliefs. The Shias do not believe in the same things as the Sunni (majority). The Syriac Christians are very vulnerable. Then there are Westernisers (like the President?)

    Just sort of drifting in as we did in Afghanistan is, therefore, simply silly. When will people understand that everyone in the world is not a person from England with our way of life, our ideals and our faults too?


  7. John Kemp says:

    Cameron is continuing Bliar’s policy of getting into as many wars as possible with as few men and materials as possible. The purpose of this of course is to go down in history as …….as What precisely?

    Surely the only people who want to intervene in this messy tribal dispute are those fluffy liberal/socialists who Dave listens to all the time, and who see themselves as arbiter of right and wrong.

    • tallbloke says:

      Oh I’m quite certain British weapons manufacturers will be gung ho. And so will those invested in their companies…

      • John Kemp says:

        Well I’d rather hope that the interests of the nation as a whole would trump that lobby group -but then again I’d have thought that the interests of the nation would trump the europhiles.

  8. Anthony says:

    I agree with your views on Syria and the questions you pose. However, I would add one further question: Is intervention in the internal affairs of the Syrian state lawful under the UN Charter?

    • Me_Again says:

      Absolutely. I asked the same questions over Libya.
      What bloody right do we have to interfere even if the guy is a nutjob, once HMG have acknowledged that he leads the country and we have diplomatic ties with them we should not be undermining them and aiding armed resistance.

      I’m sure Cameron would love it if various European countries were debating whether to arm rebels in this country….

      As ye sow, so shall ye reap Mr Cameron.

  9. They will, John. They will. I hope to stand again for the European parliament in 2014 — not least, because I think it will probably be the last European parliament term in which the UK continues to be represented. In for the finish!

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