After a decade of foreign policy activism, the first task for the incoming Tory government is to design a diplomacy that acknowledges limits. At the same time it must continue to advance British interests. This is a difficult balance to strike and, with falling budgets, one that will require a finely calibrated sense of the difference between interests that are vital and those that are merely peripheral. Our current strategic posture is unsustainable. This much everyone agrees upon. And so the most pressing need is for clear strategic judgements about where to put Britain’s diminished resources to achieve maximum advantage. When formulating these judgements, the trick is to avoid compromising morally by falling back on a cynical realpolitik, while at the same time avoiding the kind of moral absolutes that lead to strategic overstretch - to retain an expansive definition of Britain’s interests while at the same time acknowledging the very real limits and pressure upon future British capabilities.

In a wide-ranging speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) yesterday, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague just about pulled it off. At the centre of the speech was a reaffirmation of the ‘three circles’ concept, the guiding principle that underpins all post-war British thinking on foreign policy; namely that Britain maximises its influence by being at the centre of three great global networks - the European Union, The Commonwealth, and the Anglosphere. And so there was as much continuity as difference in the speech, but this much was to be expected. No British government is going to jettison these core alliances. What difference there was appeared in the underreported section on leadership by example, or soft power, and in the renewed emphasis given to the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, it is in these two respects that the speech left most to be desired. On the Commonwealth, although the speech recognised the strategic dimension of the argument, in the Q&A the Shadow Foreign Secretary was less than convincing.

When pressed by Bronwen Maddox he continued to frame the argument in moral terms, seemed unsure about the real strategic value of our aid and development effort and failed to articulate a convincing national security argument for our engagement there, reciting instead some rather tired CCHQ talking points about our commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goals. Similarly on the idea of leadership by example, or what we now more commonly refer to as ‘soft’ power. After setting up the argument for a fully strategic concept of soft power by emphasising the national security aspects of good governance and conflict resolution initiatives, he rounded off the section with the very same appeals to our "conscience" and "common humanity".

It is this confusion, this failure to fully separate out and develop the national security dimension of the argument, that we are seeing reflected in the rather tentative proposals around institutional reform. This is why I have argued on this blog for a more radical restructuring of the Whitehall machinery. As they stand, the proposals for a new National Security Council do not fully meet the need for an integrated aid, development and security strategy. It is as though the Tories still have not quite grasped the full significance of aid and development for the new diplomacy. Though all the elements are there, and they are making all the right noises, one is left feeling that they have not quite joined up the dots, that their argument is still missing the one element that will transform it into a focused strategic concept.

For me, that element is a clear vision of the structures needed to support the new diplomacy. Of all the threats identified in the speech, in the recent IPPR report and elsewhere, the biggest threat to Britain comes from failed and failing states. On this everyone is agreed. Talk to anyone in the foreign policy community and they will offer you the same broad analysis: our top priority must be to maintain and, where possible, strengthen the integrity of states. Whether it is Africa or the Middle East, the Balkans or the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, aid and development - in particular capacity building, civic infrastructure and good governance programmes - are crucial to this effort and need to be much more fully integrated into our strategic concept. The current bifurcated structure, originally designed to deliver New Labour’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy, with DfID and the FCO operating according to two quite separate and distinct concepts, has proved a singular failure in this regard which is why I will continue to press the argument for a more unified structure with clear lines of accountability. Whether anyone is listening or not, only time will tell.

You can read the full text of the speech here
You can watch the speech here
You can watch the question and answer session here
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