Written by Jamie Gaskarth.
Downing Street has been a social whirl in the last few weeks. A procession of leaders have traipsed through the large black door of Number 10 and been warmly welcomed, including the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt and Narendra Modi of India. These visits form a part of the prosperity agenda that is driving Britain’s foreign and security policy. In many cases, they coincide with the announcement of trade and investment deals worth billions. Thus the Chinese Premier’s visit on 20 October was said to involve £30 billion worth of business, Nazarbayev met UK business leaders, and Modi’s trip was said to herald over £9 billion in agreements between UK and Indian firms.
This kind of bilateral diplomacy has been a feature of government policy since William Hague in the last parliament announced a ‘networked foreign policy’. In theory, this involved a more adaptive policy framework in which the UK could engage with individual countries to advance the national interest. In practice, it meant an ad hoc and often confused foreign policy that seemed to lack an overall rationale. In this vacuum, the Treasury emerged as the dominant influence on external policy. The desire to increase trade has dominated Britain’s relations with other states in recent years, and spread its influence into defence and security policy. Prosperity is now a central plank of the country’s security agenda.
Well prosperity is nice, but, to paraphrase Morrissey, prosperity can stop you from saying all the things in life you’d like to. Many of the above leaders preside over governments with poor human rights records. From a liberal perspective, trade might seem to be a step towards a more general opening of these societies to pluralistic values. In practice, it can threaten to curtail the UK’s capacity to promote them in fear of losing economic opportunities. It could also be skewing our understanding of the sources of security threats such as terrorism. The rise of ISIS was substantially assisted by wealthy private donations from individuals in Qatar and Saudi Arabia (indeed the spread of Islamist extremism across the world was facilitated by the Gulf states’ promotion of Wahhabism) but the government refuses to acknowledge this or challenge these states due to the significant Qatari investment in London and lucrative defence deals with Saudi Arabia.
To paraphrase Morrissey again, prosperity also stops you from doing all the things in life you’d like to. This was starkly illustrated during the Crimea crisis last year when a national security official’s papers were photographed indicating the government would ‘Not support, for now, trade sanctions … or close London’s financial centre to Russians.’ The desire to encourage investment in the UK, regardless of the ethical nature of the investor, creates significant hazards for foreign and security policy. The government has to include the cost of disinvestment in any decision to challenge the other state about its behaviour. Thus, when the justice minister Michael Gove made the unusual decision to cancel a contract with the Saudi prison service, the issue of arms sales was raised and the Prime Minister had to intervene personally to restore friendly relations. More seriously, the Blair government cancelled a Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribery connected with the Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia when arms sales, as well as intelligence links, were threatened.
Whilst the desire to promote economic growth is laudable, there is more to security, and foreign policy, than prosperity. The most basic function of the state is to preserve the physical security of its citizens – even if doing so has negative economic effects in the short term. A Treasury-led foreign and security policy is likely to lose sight of that truism. Vital skills of diplomacy and political knowledge will be sidelined in favour of salesmanship and managerialism, as many former diplomats have attested.
Moreover, trade and investment are a two way street that can have unintended bad results further down the line. Authoritarian regimes may survive longer than they otherwise would if they can rely on foreign trade and investment. The UK can become seen as complicit in repression and alienated from opposition groups who may be more attuned to liberal values than their oppressors. Authoritarian governments can also be a cause of insecurity in their own right by distracting domestic opposition with national or religious calls to arms.
For some time, senior UK foreign and defence policymakers have bemoaned a lack of central political direction, sometimes called ‘grand strategy’ in their undertakings. In reality, these fields have been dominated by a singular narrative of deficit reduction. Important questions about Britain’s future role in the world, how it should respond to Asian security competition, the Arab uprisings, the US pivot to Asia and crises in the European Union are either ignored or viewed through the narrow lens of economic self-interest.
Although the UK is currently announcing its new security strategy and defence review, it is striking how little policy discussion has been undertaken to inform these documents. There is no overarching national vision or narrative beyond the declared intention to eliminate the deficit. That is no way to devise a security strategy – which must be based on a more holistic understanding of what keeps British citizens secure. The reality is Britain remains one of the richest countries in the world with global interests and a stake in the future of its regional and international security. It requires a long term view of its international relationships and their political costs and benefits, rather than a short term focus on deficit margins or (possibly illusory) trade deals.
Jamie Gaskarth is an Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) in International Relations at Plymouth University. This articles forms part of the Center for Conflict, Security and Terrorism (CST) coverage of the 2015 Security and Defence Review. Image credit: CC by Day Donaldson/Flickr.