Foreign policy is rarely a key issue in British elections. There are notable exceptions – the “Falklands effect” in the 1983 election or the debate over the Iraq war in 2005 – but these are rare. Few people, when asked, identify foreign policy as being a key issue for them when they put their crosses in the box on Election Day.
But with Ed Miliband’s attack on the Cameron government’s record since the 2011 military action in Libya, foreign policy has been thrust to the forefront of the 2015 campaign.
It’s tricky ground for Miliband, especially given that the Labour Party and Miliband himself supported the UN-sanctioned NATO action in Libya. But a wider issue is being raised here, which is the competence of the coalition government in foreign policy and their actions since 2010. While the government is a coalition government, it is very clear that foreign policy has been largely driven by the Conservative party.
That means the government’s successes and failures fall on Cameron’s shoulders. But there’s clearly serious disagreement over whether he’s a good international leader, or simply out of his depth.
The first major challenge of the 2010s was the Arab Spring, which confronted the whole of the West with a serious strategic dilemma. While assorted Western countries have made a great noise about spreading democracy, even using it as justification for war in Afghanistan and Iraq, in practice, many Western nations – the UK very much among them – had spent the last several decades openly supporting various undemocratic Middle Eastern regimes in the name of stability.
The Arab Spring threatened to put an end to that order. Unsurprisingly, the Middle East and North Africa’s “big men” were unwilling to go quietly, and the West’s bigger powers were called to decide what they actually stood for.
Decisions had to be made, in Britain and elsewhere, as to which groups could be supported and which governments needed backing against opportunistic rebels.
Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi had been brought back into the international fold by Blair, but he was still considered a rogue element in 2011, and his bombardment of the rebels in Benghazi sealed his fate. UN resolution 1973 sanctioned action to end crimes against humanity in Libya, and led to the creation of a NATO-backed force meant to protect Libyan civilians and remove Gaddafi from power.
Led by the French, British and Americans, the action ended when Gaddafi was killed, and Libya was left to reconstitute its own state and build its own future, free from heavy handed interference from the West. At least, that was the aim.
Removing a dictatorship and then sailing away is a recipe for civil collapse, and that is exactly what’s happened in Libya. But it’s by no means clear that a period of “reconstruction” managed by the West would have been any better. As the whole sorry saga of post-2003 Iraq shows, the international community still struggles to deal with collapsed states.
So Miliband’s accusation that Cameron’s government had failed to find a suitable solution for post-war Libya is technically accurate – but really only part of the story.
Best case scenario
In wider foreign policy terms, the coalition government has been very cognisant of the lessons of Iraq the toxic fallout from the Blair-Bush years. Yes, the government lost the 2013 Commons vote on military action in Syria, largely because it was mishandled – but having lost that vote, Cameron had no choice but to rule out military action, and his decision not to take it was a reassuring signal that the era of hard-charging militaristic unilateralism was over.
In any case, France and the US also failed to take action in Syria, so the UK was hardly the only country worried that military action without a UN mandate might do more harm than good.
The Russian action in Ukraine, meanwhile, led Cameron to condemn the actions of the Putin government, with no action outside of diplomacy and sanctions. But this is exactly what has happened in the other NATO countries, as they struggle to respond to Vladimir Putin’s behaviour without inflaming the situation.
Overall, despite the huge upheaval roiling some of the world’s most sensitive regions, Cameron and his government have avoided any great foreign policy disaster. There has been no Iraq to stain the last five years – and although there is no huge success to point to either, that may well be the best that Britain can hope for in the 21st century.
Some might say that in its desperation to avoid disaster, Britain inevitably ends up avoiding success, but success now seems to be gauged in purely military terms, since social and political impact are so much harder to measure and require more time, money and willpower. Cameron seems to understand that we are a middle-sized power, increasingly working in concert with other powerful nations. We are no longer the policeman of the world, and nor should we be.
Cameron and his government have performed as well as could be expected in foreign policy terms given the chaotic state of the world order. Even taking today’s Libya into account, the last five years may have been the best that could have been be hoped for from any British prime minister.
Now, for an opposing view, read this.
Victoria Honeyman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Authors: The Conversation