Foreign Policy: The View from Oxford University Liberal Democrats

Guy Butler and Matt Sumption, Writing for OULD

It is vitally important for the Liberal Democrats to develop a coherent and trust-worthy foreign policy, as this will be one of the primary topics of debate over the next parliament. 

The Liberal Democrats have long been in favour of greater cooperation with our European counterparts. This is often characterised as an unqualified pro-EU stance, but as with all characterisations, it misses the nuance of the stance. It is true that the Lib Dems will campaign for the UK to remain in the EU, principally on the basis of the economic security that the common market affords us, the added security to deal with threats such as cross border crime, and the necessity of a supra-national body to coordinate responses to problems that cross national borders. Europe cannot deal with problems like climate change and mass migration on an ad-hoc basis. But that does not mean that the EU is perfect. Lib Dem MEPs have been shown to be the most hardworking members of the European Parliament through their work to reform Europe, to push environmental protection, to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and to move towards a common market in services. Given the huge storms that are brewing on the horizon, we should not be retreating inwards, but instead be looking outwards to take a leading role in setting the European agenda. 

Given the huge storms that are brewing on the horizon, we should not be retreating inwards”

There are many Liberal Democrats who feel strongly that our nuclear deterrent should be scrapped unilaterally, given its destructive potential, cost and the fact that it is very likely that it will ever be used. However, now is not the time for us to advocate dumping our nuclear deterrent. With Iran having finally buckled in negotiations after intense haggling with nuclear-armed powers such as ourselves, there is a good case for maintaining our nuclear deterrent for the leverage that it affords to Britain’s negotiating position. Renewed Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and now Syria means that we must think about the kind of message we would send to others if we engaged in unilateral disarmament. It is one thing to lead by example, but quite another to ignore our allies in Europe and NATO at the very time when their security is being called into question. If we want to be taken seriously in vital negotiations on subjects such as the refugee crises, we need to build up a reputation for fostering consensus and goodwill. 

At conference, a motion proposing the scrapping of Trident was amended, delaying our party’s final decision on the matter for at least 18 months. This is sensible, given the shifting nature of geopolitics at the moment.  We are the only prominent national party that looks likely to clearly oppose the like-for-like replacement of Trident.  While it appears to be a ‘fudge’, the public will respond better to a measured stance on security than an ideological abject opposition to the renewal of any part of our nuclear stock. 

If less money is to be spent on Trident, we must consider what kind of nature alternative defence spending would take. We have brand-new aircraft carriers but we lack suitable aircraft for them, a crucial deficiency. However, if the Liberal Democrats are serious about establishing legal channels for refugees to come to Europe, we need to set aside an appropriate sum from the defence budget in order to make sure that these are secured, and that the horror of Mediterranean people-smuggling is properly tackled. 

A lot has been made about the moral cause for military intervention abroad, particularly since the disasters of Iraq and Libya. Liberals have always had strong differences over foreign policy, and Liberalism as an ideology has been used to support Imperialism and non-intervention alike over the past century and a half. A consistent, moral foreign policy is always difficult to pursue, but the Liberal Democrats should make clear that this is what we would offer. 

Liberal countries should not stand idly by as despots massacre thousands of their own people”

We must follow Kennedy’s example by only championing humanitarian intervention abroad when it is undertaken legally and in concert with the right allies. We should remember the example of Bosnia, where we were one of the first parties to advocate intervention. But we struggle to justify any intervention abroad, even when it is clearly undertaken with humanitarian interest, when we simultaneously sell weapons to countries with poor human rights records such as Saudi Arabia and subsequently promote those countries to the head of UN human-rights councils. Liberal countries should not stand idly by as despots massacre thousands of their own people, but any intervention we do take, be it by establishing no-fly zones, providing aid or deploying troops, must be done within the context of a broader foreign policy that consistently upholds liberal, ethical values. 

A foreign policy that is founded on a desire to work with our partners to seek common solutions, that has sought to uphold universal human rights, and that is not afraid to champion the voices of the vulnerable, wherever they are, is a liberal one, and one that is in the best interests of the UK.