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Developing domestic foundations for a values-based UK foreign policy

Article by Dr Jonathan Gilmore

September 8, 2020

Developing domestic foundations for a values-based UK foreign policy

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, provides a welcome opportunity for a comprehensive review of the UK’s positioning in world politics. It comes at a pivotal time, for the UK’s foreign policy direction after Brexit and in a period where the liberal international order is fragmenting.


This essay emphasises the importance of a continued focus in UK foreign policy on the promotion of values and ethical responsibilities beyond its borders. Climate change, human rights abuse, pandemic disease, refugee flows and global poverty, create important moral imperatives for the UK to act towards a world common good. The international landscape continues to be one of shared problems that require a collective response.


The essay argues firstly that the Integrated Review provides an important moment of reflection to consider the precise relationship between values and the narrower national interests. Values and interests are not always harmonious or mutually reinforcing, and clearer mapping of the relationship is important in establishing the credibility of these commitments. Care must be taken that the language of ‘enlightened national interest’ is not used to disguise the pursuit of narrower priorities.


Secondly, the Integrated Review also takes place in a domestic political context of significant societal division on the UK’s positioning towards the outside world and its responsibilities to those beyond its borders. Rifts that became pronounced over Britain’s EU membership continue to limit the likelihood of reliable domestic consensus on foreign policy priorities, whether it is the interests to be pursued, the values to be promoted or the acceptable extent of responsibilities to non-citizens.


Without a reliable domestic foreign policy consensus, governments will find it difficult to marry the ends sought in foreign policy with means that are politically acceptable to diverse opinion groups within the UK.  Whilst the Integrated Review will understandably focus on capabilities for hard and soft power projection internationally, the UK’s internal dynamics will be a key factor in enabling or constraining these capabilities.


The Role of Values in UK Foreign Policy

 The idea of a ‘foreign policy with an ethical dimension’ was prominently associated with foreign secretary Robin Cook and the initial foreign policy of the Labour party, following their 1997 election victory. The foundation of DFID, the production of annual human rights reports, limitation of UK arms sales to authoritarian states, and support for humanitarian intervention were key features of this agenda.[1]


The key precepts of Labour’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy have survived successive changes of government and were embraced as the ‘values’ agenda within Conservative foreign policy, including maintaining the UK’s commitment to international development spending and expanded commitments to civilian protection and the Responsibility to Protect.[2]


For both parties, foreign policy narratives have been shaped around the promotion of liberal values – support for a ‘rule-governed’ international order, the expansion of democracy, the protection of human rights and the promotion of human well-being through international development. Foreign policy informed by these values requires the UK to think beyond its own immediate national interests, to consider ethical responsibilities to people and communities beyond its borders. This has fed through into the current Global Britain agenda, with continued emphasis on the promotion of values, the defence of the rules-based system and acting as a ‘moral compass to champion causes that know no borders’.  Human rights, development and the promotion of democracy remain ostensibly central to this agenda.[3]


The Integrated Review marks an important hinge point for UK foreign policy and an opportunity to better define the role of values in UK foreign policy and their relationship to the national interest. A foreign policy informed by values will be fundamentally important in enhancing its position as a responsible state contributing towards a world common good.


Global problems of climate change, population displacement, large-scale human rights abuse and pandemic disease can neither be contained within state borders, nor solved by individual states alone. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and the re-assertion of its sovereignty, do not change the realities of the contemporary global problems it faces. Developing an effective response to these problems will continue to require collective action, informed by a worldly moral compass.


What is an ‘enlightened national interest’?

There has been a marked tendency by successive governments to suggest the UK pursues an ‘enlightened’ national interest, where the political and economic interests can be reconciled in a mutually reinforcing relationship with global ethical responsibilities.[4] The UK is not alone in this ambition, with a range of other states having similarly reconstructed their national interest to align with global ethical responsibilities.[5]


There is no intrinsic tension between national interest, the promotion of values and global ethical commitments, whether related to human rights, international development or environmental protection. However, there has been little clarity in recent UK foreign policy on the precise relationship between national interests and global ethical commitments, or how they may support one another. This lack of clarity has been carried forward in the ‘Global Britain’ agenda, which unproblematically marries a ‘buccaneering’ approach to free trade, with continued support for human rights, democratisation and development.


Assuming an automatically mutually reinforcing relationship between national interest and global ethical responsibilities, obscures the common tensions that often emerge between them. Inconsistencies between Britain’s professed support for human rights and its pursuit of narrower national commercial interests have been consistently evident in its sales of weapons to regimes with exceptionally poor human rights records.[6]


Similar tensions have been evident in British advocacy of humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. In both Libya and Syria, concerns for national interest and about the risk of ground-level entanglements have heavily tempered the approach of the UK to violence against civilians. Modes of intervention, to protect civilians or address other security concerns, have been limited primarily to the use of airpower, with questionable overall effect in creating a longer term secure and protective environment.


Compromises between national interests and global ethical responsibilities may be necessary in some cases.  However, continuing to suggest a near symbiotic relationship between Britain’s interests and the values it promotes in its foreign policy, risks strategic incoherence as resources and political will fail to match the ends sought. Acting at odds with the values and global ethical commitments the UKs professes to support, creates an obvious image of inconsistency with the likely consequence of reducing its soft power and ability to promote international norms of conduct.


It is vitally important that the Integrated Review considers how different areas of foreign policy responsibility relate to one another – where national interest and values-based commitments complement one another, and where they may conflict. This would acknowledge more honestly, rather than seek to obscure, the tensions between different priorities in UK foreign policy. Doing so would establish a clearer link between the ends sought and the resources necessary, and create a path towards more consistent and effective foreign policy practices.


Values-based Foreign Policy for a Disunited Kingdom?

Less commonly explored in discussions about future UK foreign policy, is its relationship with shared societal values and the domestic political context within Britain. The tension between national interest and the global ethical responsibilities, sits alongside entrenched internal divisions about Britain’s role in the world. Evidence from before and after the 2016 referendum, reveals significant divides in public opinion on foreign policy priorities, between approaches confined to the pursuit of narrow economic interest and those informed by values-based commitments. Socio-economic class, age and regional location indicate divergent priorities amongst key demographics.[7]


The 2016 referendum itself was an important driver for the emergence of distinctive identity communities within the UK, reflected in polarised attitudes towards global governance, immigration and the appropriate positioning of Britain in world politics. Far from resolving this polarisation, the outcome of the referendum and the protracted withdrawal negotiations have further cemented these identities.


It is impossible to wholly disengage a post-Brexit strategy for UK foreign policy from some of the populist nationalist rhetoric that surrounded of the EU referendum campaign. Hostility to global governance, immigration and rules constraining British sovereignty that characterised strands of the pro-leave campaigns, reflect some commonalities with what has been identified in recent research as a broader global trend in ‘reactionary internationalism’.[8] Reactionary internationalism emphasises the need to unshackle the state from the constraints of the liberal international order. Frequent allusions to Britain’s imperial heritage and metaphors of the UK “re-emerging after decades of hibernation” and “leaving its chrysalis”, in speeches promoting the Global Britain agenda, promote the idea of a state breaking free from external constraints on its sovereignty.[9]  An unresolved tension has emerged, between strands of thinking that emphasise national sovereignty and freedom of action, and other strands which see the appropriate place of the UK at the centre of a rules-based international order that by nature constrains foreign policy and emphasises global ethical responsibilities.


Domestic polarisation and fragile internal consensus on global ethical commitments has particular implications for foreign policy activities that have a large potential financial cost, commitment burden and/or require consistent public support over time. Public spending on international development is a key area of contestation between segments of the public that see development as an important global ethical priority for the UK, and those who feel the money would be better spent on British citizens.


Weak domestic consensus on foreign policy priorities has similar implications for intervention and the use of force in UK foreign policy. Recent research and investigations by the Defence Committee have highlighted the challenges in developing reliable public support for armed humanitarian interventions.[10]


The Integrated Review must clearly consider international conditions and UK capabilities that stand to affect foreign policy. However, it must also appreciate the problem of a divided domestic landscape and consider how a more stable domestic consensus could be developed on foreign policy priorities, practices and Britain’s position in world politics.


The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to do little to develop a more stable domestic consensus. It has the potential to further enlarge the divide between sections of the public who see the need for expanded global connection to respond and recover from the crisis, and those who see it as cause for a strong refocussing on narrower national interests.


Previous investigations by Parliamentary committees have tentatively started to address the way in which the public engages with foreign policy and the importance of a clear narrative about the UK’s foreign policy objectives.[11] The Global Britain agenda appears to be an attempt to provide a unifying narrative, directed at a polarised internal audience, to reconcile conflicting preferences about Britain’s international positioning. However, a narrative generated by foreign policy elites, is unlikely by itself to resolve tensions between divergent and entrenched views about the UK’s national priorities amongst the public. Concerningly, when responding to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s 2018 report on Global Britain, the government neglected to answer the direct question of “what does Global Britain mean to the people of the UK”?[12]


Developing a more stable domestic consensus for future UK foreign policy strategy requires a large-scale programme of public diplomacy, but one directed at the British, rather than overseas publics. The objective of such an exercise would be to better understand the way in which national interest, values and overseas ethical commitments are understood and prioritised by the public. In keeping with the emergence of ‘dialogue-based public diplomacy’, such an exercise must be a process of listening as well as persuasion.[13]


The desired outcome of such a process would be a values-based foreign policy, underpinned by stronger domestic legitimacy and a clearer sense, amongst both the public and policymakers, of how the UK’s foreign policy priorities relate to one another.


Conclusion and Recommendations 

  • The promotion of values in UK foreign policy will be fundamentally important in helping to define Britain’s place in the world after Brexit, and to enhance its position as a responsible state contributing towards a world common good.
  • UK foreign policy strategy has consistently internalised unresolved tensions between the pursuit of national interests and the global ethical responsibilities created by the promotion of ‘values’. The recurrent suggestion has been that values and interests are mutually reinforcing. However, this assumption obscures the tensions that frequently exist in practice. This risks strategic incoherence as resources and political will fails to match the ends sought.
  • The Integrated Review must examine the specific relationship between its understanding of national interest and the values or global ethical commitments it seeks to pursue. The tensions between different priorities in UK foreign policy must be acknowledged and accounted for more openly.
  • Current UK foreign policy strategy has also paid very little attention to the absence of a stable domestic consensus on Britain’s role in the world and the significant internal divisions that have endured following the 2016 referendum. The absence of a stable domestic consensus on foreign policy has significant implications for costly or complex foreign policy activities, like armed intervention or stabilisation, which require robust public support. Developing a more reliable domestic consensus in support of UK foreign policy, would benefit from a large-scale programme of public diplomacy directed toward British, rather than overseas publics.


Dr Jonathan Gilmore is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester. His expertise centre on British foreign policy, global ethics, humanitarian intervention and comparative defence and security practices. His research has featured in major international academic journals and his book ‘The Cosmopolitan Military’ was published in 2015.


Image by Tasmin News Agency under (CC).


[1] See Robin Cook “British Foreign Policy”, speech given on 12th May, 1997; Tony Blair, “The Doctrine of the International Community”, speech given at the Economic Club, Chicago, 24th April 1999

[2] William Hague, “Britain’s values in a networked world”, speech given at Lincolns Inn, 15th September 2010; Jonathan Gilmore, “Still a ‘Force for Good’? Good International Citizenship in British Foreign and Security Policy”, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 17(1), 2015, pp. 106–129; Matt Beech & Peter Munce, “The place of human rights in the foreign policy of Cameron’s conservatives: Sceptics or enthusiasts?”, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 21(1), 2019, pp. 116–131

[3] Dominic Raab, “Foreign Secretary’s introduction to the Queen’s Speech debate”, 13th January 2020; Jeremy Hunt, “An invisible chain: speech by the foreign secretary”, Policy Exchange, 31st October 2018; HM Government, National Security Capability Review, (London: Cabinet Office, 2018), p. 7

[4] Jonathan Gilmore, “The Uncertain Merger of Values and Interests in UK Foreign Policy”, International Affairs, 90(3), 2014, pp. 541-557

[5] See Alison Brysk, Global Good Samaritans, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

[6] Committees on Arms Export Controls, First Joint Report of the Business, Innovation and Skills, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees of Session 2013-14: Volume I, (London: TSO, 2013), pp. 29-32

[7] Chatham House/YouGov, British Attitudes Towards the UK’s International Priorities: General Public Survey Results, London: Chatham House, 2014; Edward Elliott and Sophia Gaston, Behind Global Britain: Public opinion on the UK’s role in the world, (London: British Foreign Policy Group/BMG Research/Henry Jackson Society, 2019)

[8] Pablo de Orellana and Nicholas Michelsen, “Reactionary Internationalism: the philosophy of the New Right”, Review of International Studies, 45(5), 2019, pp. 748-767

[9] Boris Johnson, “PM speech in Greenwich”, 3rd February 2020

[10] House of Commons Defence Committee, Intervention: Why, When and How?, HC952, (London: TSO, 2014);  Graeme Davies and Robert Johns, “R2P from Below: Does the British public view humanitarian interventions as ethical and effective?”, International Politics, 53(1), 2016, pp.118-137; Jamie Gaskarth, “The fiasco of the 2013 Syria votes: decline and denial in British foreign policy”, Journal of European Public Policy, 23(5), 2016, pp. 718-734

[11] House of Commons Defence Committee, Intervention, p. 20; House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations, UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order, HL250, 2018, p.96

[12] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Britain: Government Response to the Sixth Report of the Committee, HC 1236, p. 5

[13] Shaun Riordan, “Dialogue-based Public Diplomacy: a New Foreign Policy Paradigm?” in Jan Melissen (Ed.) The New Public Diplomacy, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005), pp. 180-195

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