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Rethinking British Foreign Policy

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About this Event

02 Jun 2011 @ 12:45

About the Speaker:

Dr Robin Niblett became Director of Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) in January 2007. He leads the Chatham House project on Rethinking the UK's International Ambitions and Choices.

Before joining Chatham House, from 2001 to 2006 Dr Niblett was the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), one of America's largest and most influential foreign policy think tanks.

About the Event:

Just over one year on from the historic formation of a Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition government, the IIEA was delighted to welcome one of Britain's leading foreign policy analysts to offer his reflections on the changing nature of the UK's international ambitions and choices.

Dr Niblett's wide-ranging presentation covered the ambitions, but also the limits, of the UK's foreign policy across a number of key areas.

In outlining the context in which the government's choices must be made, he first noted the shift in global economic gravity from west to east, which has speeded up the transition from a G8 to a G20 mode of global governance. He then underlined the significance of the proliferation of failed and failing states, arguing that political risk has taken on a new dimension in that the 'export of fragility' from troubled states to developed ones is now far more likely than in the past.  A third constraint identified was that the UK has 'hit a wall' in its economic growth model. Over-reliance on a credit-fueled, services-led economy has been exposed as foolhardy. In the medium term, the UK must think past austerity to find new ways to grow its economy if it wants to continue to project power abroad.

If there was one overarching theme that might address all three of these trends, Niblett argued, it would be 'Open Markets'. The new government seems to get this, and has placed great emphasis on reinvigorating Britain's commercial diplomacy. Other new priorities are to make the most of the UK's strong position in a 'networked' world and to strengthen bilateral ties with medium-sized as well as major powers.

In evaluating the coalition's first year, Dr Niblett argued that the UK has in fact recalibrated its foreign policy in a very active way. The relationship with the US has been rebalanced. To the greatest extent possible, EU issues have been placed in 'cold storage'. There has been a push on free trade issues, promoting the Doha Round and the European Single Market, and a major rearrangement of diplomatic posture, with a meaningful new focus on fragile states. This has been accompanied by new priorities in international development with a much more explicit emphasis on security. A strategic defence and security review is set to result in major changes to the defence forces.

Is it all working? Dr Niblett offered a mixed review. The national security strategy is the element most explicitly inconsistent with the vision that has been articulated by Prime Minister Cameron and Foreign Secretary Hague. If open markets and emerging powers are to be the focus, then the UK should be boosting its navy, not downgrading it. But the government has been forced to instead bolster the army because of legacy issues such as Afghanistan.

On commercial diplomacy, it may be too soon to tell, but looking at early indicators it is hard to discern much of an impact. These efforts are only likely to bear fruit after years of dedicated relationship-building. There is also a danger that commercial diplomacy will begin to look like mercantilism, particularly in light of likely reactions to the 'Arab Spring'.

In summary, the UK must remain conscious of the limits to its ambitions, while being careful not to sacrifice long-term strategic goals – whether they relate to security and defence, the global promotion of open markets, or the continuation of solid relations with European and American allies – in pursuit of immediate results.

The IIEA wishes to acknowledge the support it has received from the European Commission throughout 2011.

Theme: Foreign Policy and ESDP 

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