16 May, 2010

Foreign Affairs and the new government: will they be all that much different?

A new British government has been formed under Prime Minister David Cameron. It is a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  However, so far, there is very little solid evidence that foreign policy will change very much from that of the predecessor Labour government.

A meeting between the new Foreign Secretary (William Hague) and the United States Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) has reaffirmed the so-called "special relationship" between the UK and the US.  See Foreign Office.  In recent years, many people have viewed this "special relationship" as placing the UK in a subservient position to the US and would wish to see a much more "equal" and critical partnership.  It now appears that Cameron and Hague might be trying to - (at least) - create an impression of independence from Washington - "a solid but not slavish relationship" - see Express 16th May.  There are also serious concerns which have not been adequately addressed regarding possible involvement of UK personnel in matters such as extraordinary rendition and torture - see, for example, APPG on Extraordinary Rendition

It is also noticeable that the PM met with President Karzai of Afghanistan.  See Downing Street.  Very little detail has been released about their discussions though some reports suggest that Hague has stated that Karzai must "meet his commitments".  The UK's involvement in Afghanistan is a matter of huge public concern.  It is also a commitment with massive financial costs which weighs heavily at a time of serious financial crisis with the new UK government being faced with an unprecedented deficit.  Hague has indicated that Britain's military would stay involved in Afghanistan until "their job is done" but clear definition of what is required for it to "be done" is lacking.  To the general public in the UK the exact role remains unclear and the timescale endless.

A further worry is the stance being taken via-a-vis Iran.  There is no doubt that even the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is a major concern but it has been announced that the US and UK will be seeking a stronger Security Council Resolution against Iran and one which will threaten "serious consequences".  Maybe there ought to be a very serious consideration about just what the UK, with its present fragile economy, can offer in terms of enforcement of any such resolution.

A further question is - just what will the UK try to do to secure better regard for Human Rights in Iran and in many other countries?  A necessary pre-condition to achieving anything must be that the UK's own stance on human rights both at home and abroad.

Another development is the designation of the waters around the Chagos Islands as a Marine Reserve. This was announced in early April - just prior to the UK General election being called - see BBC News.  The removal of the Chagossians from their homeland is now seen as an appalling foreign policy decision by the Labour government of Harold Wilson though little has been done since to resolve the issue.  The airbase of Diego Garcia is of strategic military importance.  Although the British government has indicated that the territory might be ceded to Mauritius, this is unlikely until such time as the base is not required.  The cynic might say that amounts to "never".  See also Chagos Conservation Trust

In the recent meeting between Hague and Clinton, it is thought that Hague raised the question of the Falkland Islands.   It is rather unlikely that the new British government will adopt a markedly different stance to its predecessor and there are domestic political difficulties in the way of them doing so.  Previously, Clinton had suggested that she might act as a "go between" in seeking to resolve the dispute between London and Buenos Aires.  Perhaps some re-appraisal is called for though falling short of a transfer of sovereignty.  After all, the dispute is not going to miraculously disappear.

It will be essential that a careful watch is maintained as to just how the new government takes foreign policy forwards.  So far, in foreign affairs, the outcome of a change of government has been "more of the same" or just a continuation of the Labour government policy in a number of areas of crucial importance for the UK.

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