The assertion of Parliamentary authority has rewritten UK foreign policy towards Syria and the wider Middle East. It provides a welcome opportunity to question whether we need a more general review and change. Over the next few days I will look at the options and problems. My general view is that we should have a more muscular and independent policy within the EU, and be more discerning about which UN and US led ventures we join. We should put UK national interests and the interests of our related territories and countries and the Commonwealth in more central positions.
Let us begin with our relationship with the USA. Some are complaining that Parliament’s opposition to military intervention in Syria means the UK is no longer an important world power, sitting at the top table with the USA. They assert we will no longer be party to the best secrets of the world’s policeman. The advocates of the “special relationship” with the USA are worrying that the relationship has been badly damaged, as the UK has “to sit out” the Syrian action.
Much of this is based on a UK misconception. The special relationship was not very special when we needed it most. The USA did not join the war in 1939 and gave us precious little help during the darkest days of the early war. The USA stopped the pursuit of our policy towards Egypt and the Suez Canal in 1956. The USA was far from helpful as we set about the task of recapturing the Falklands Islands. Successive Presidents have often wanted to pushed the UK more into the EU than is good for us or than we desire. In return we did not commit forces to the USA’s ill judged Viet Nam war. Thanks mainly to the EU we do not have a free trade agreement with the USA.
The truth is whatever the aims and views of successive Presidents and Prime Minsters, there will always be very strong links across the Atlantic. The shared language and literature, the large mutual investments in each other’s industry and commerce, the bonds of kinship provide a stable base for other networks. When a President and PM like each other and have a similar political outlook, there can be very close working across the Atlantic on policy and government matters. There will always be many Americans who see the UK as the cradle and partial architect of their democracy, just as many of us will continue to admire greatly the work and words of the Founding fathers, the achievements of a great society in the pursuit of liberty and happiness.
The UK needs to understand that there will be times when we disagree or are not useful to the USA. We have to accept that France, for example, may wish to be close to the US over Syrian intervention when we do not. We should not be frightened of telling the USA that we do not agree or wish to sit out a particular intervention or policy, just as they do if we have a need or an idea they do not like. We should press on with a free trade agreement with the USA and explain to the USA why the UK does intend to have a new and looser relationship with the rest of the EU. We are not in the EU to be the voice that tries to moderate EU policies in the US interest.
To some of us Mr Obama has been a disappointment. He promised to close Guantanamo, but has not done so. He promised to trust diplomacy more and war less in the Middle East, but ended up increasing the military commitment to Afghanistan. We need to be thinking of who might take over from him, and have our new foreign policy ready to woo and wow them. It has to be a policy more suited to our needs, and less desperate about preserving the outward show of a “special relationship”.