UK Politics

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.

Foreign Policy: The View from Oxford University Conservative Association

Jan Nedvidek, writing from OUCA

Britain faces three main foreign policy challenges: rebalancing our relationship with Europe, the refugee crisis and our armed forces. 

It is remarkable how easily the debate about the European Union disposes of rationality and ventures into the dangerous fields of emotion and feeling. On the one hand, we have virulent anti-Europeans for whom Brussels is the personification of evil, the very opposite of Heavenly Jerusalem. On the other hand, there are people who accuse you of xenophobia, narrow-mindedness and bigotry the moment you say something slightly critical of the EU, and for whom the answer to every problem in the world is more Europe. I have little time for both of those groups. 

The issue of our relationship with the EU is an extremely complicated one. There are credible and convincing arguments on both sides — if that wasn’t the case, the debate would have died off decades ago. Given the great political, constitutional and economic gravity of this decision, it is only right that the electorate as a whole is asked what they think, and so I believe the Conservatives were absolutely right to make the referendum one of our flagship policies in run up to the General Election.

sooner or later, Europe will become a federal state, and I think the UK will be able to breathe more freely outside of such a structure.”

I am personally still torn, but I am inclined to believe that the UK would be better off out. Our current position prevents us from negotiating free trade agreements with emerging economies such as Brazil or India. Instead, we are tied to the world’s only trading block with a shrinking economy. It has become clear that the trajectory of the EU is towards 'ever closer union', and that the current economic union will eventually turn into a political one — something I don't think the UK should be part of. The fact that the Council of the EU recently, and for the first time, used qualified majority voting in a key policy area proves my point. There is every reason to believe that sooner or later, Europe will become a federal state, and I think the UK will be able to breathe more freely outside of such a structure.

Arguably, the single most important foreign policy challenge facing Britain is the mass migration of people from the Middle East to Europe. I spent a lot of my time this summer in Central Europe, and saw with my own eyes the utter chaos there. The huge human tragedy compels us all to feel and show sympathy with those fleeing their countries to save their lives. I am very proud that the Government has committed to increasing the amount of money we as a country will spend on helping to secure good living conditions in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where the bulk of refugees currently are. However, let us not forget that this is remedying the effects and not the cause. A lasting solution can only be achieved by economic and political progress in the countries from which refugees are fleeing, and I think we should all be very proud of the fact that David Cameron has stuck to his promise to ring fence the overseas aid budget. 

But let us be honest — much of the chaos has been caused by European governments themselves. I was most perplexed to hear Mrs Merkel say that Germany would not cap the number of Syrian refugees one day — thus encouraging tens of thousands of refugees currently in Turkey to undergo the hugely dangerous journey to Europe — only for Germany to close her borders the following day. 

A lasting solution can only be achieved by economic and political progress in the countries from which refugees are fleeing”

Europe can and must help a large number of people whose lives are in danger, but in order to do that, proper rules and procedures must be followed. The complete and utter inaction of EU countries is, I believe, unprecedented. Whilst it is popular to criticise Hungary, it is the only country that has actually been following legislation and treatises the EU as a whole has agreed to, most importantly the Dublin Regulation about protecting the external border of the Schengen Area. The Council of the European Union failed to offer any solution, wasting its time on forcing through quotas that will solve nothing, instead of trying to implement genuine, practical measures.

Whilst it is extraordinary that some of the UK’s most senior politicians befriend terrorists, believe that the IRA should be honoured and that argue that we don’t really need an army, I’m not too worried: I’m convinced that the consensus in the country is that the UK must be able to defend herself against external threats, and must be resolute in doing so. It is for this reason that our independent nuclear deterrent, Trident, must be retained. It is clear that there are evolving threats around nuclear proliferation across the globe. Only last week, North Korea’s ambassador to the UK said that his country would not hesitate to use its nuclear missiles against the West in case of war. Now, please tell me that Trident is a waste of money. 

The arguments of those opposed to Trident have not changed much since the days of Yes, Prime Minister. It is saddening that so many prominent members of the SNP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party want to make such a reckless gamble with our national security only to score political points. 

It is popular to say that Britain’s influence in the world is diminishing, but I’m having none of that. The Economist made it clear that we are the number one superpower when it comes to soft power. The long lasting positive effect of Britain’s overseas aid budget, protected against cuts, is benefiting not only those countries in which it is being spent, but is also improving our national security. It is clear that the 21st century has been and will be a century of great uncertainty on the global stage. To face those challenges, we need a Britain working with her friends in Europe and the Commonwealth and cherishing our relationship with the US. We need a Britain with strong and proud armed forces, and we need a Britain with the last resort defence system, Trident. Given the views of the current leadership of the Labour Party, I believe it is the Conservatives who can best deliver such a Britain. 

Foreign Policy: the View from Oxford Student Green Party

Matthew Hull, writing from the Oxford Student Green Party

Strategy in international relations, though informed by our ideological tendencies, has the considerable ability to divide otherwise tight political movements. The Green Party values pluralism in democracy: and a poor pluralist I should make if I claim to speak on behalf of a whole party. Nor will my piece be all-encompassing; I hope, however, that my musings give pause for thought and room for a somewhat Green approach.

Over the next Parliament, we will face threats and challenges considerable in number and variety.

Integral to our response remains our membership of the European Union. As threats become more and more acute, action must be international in scope. Climate change, refugee crises, protection of civil liberties, and of territorial integrity: some of the biggest demographic challenges to come must be faced by Europe as a whole, not by individual nations seeking individual objectives. Only with committed political union will common objectives be met with the requisite political will; Britain should be proud to fight this fight.

The EU is distant, technocratic, and startlingly undemocratic”

The nature of the Union, however, is an imperfect one. The EU is distant, technocratic, and startlingly undemocratic. Brussels' lobbying industry is huge and oversight is poor; MEPs are unable to table legislation individually, only as part of committees populated by civil servants and business representatives. MEPs themselves are elected in poorly attended midterm elections which serve more as an indication of dissatisfaction with Westminster than of engagement with Brussels. European legislation undergoes little to no scrutiny by domestic press or people. For example, TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, threatens to sail through as though it were a mere footnote, rather than a huge blow to the balance of transatlantic investor-state relations.

The EU must be smaller in apparatus and must more directly involve our elected central government, while maintaining breadth of scope to tackle social problems. I find myself stuck between a Eurosceptic bloc which threatens more harm than good, and a Europhile bloc timidly afraid of criticising the system as we have it. Thankfully there is hope that, with the rise of reformist parties around Europe, we can deliver the Europe I want. I support an EU referendum so that we can remain on the right terms.

The most recent and obvious test of European political will is the current refugee crisis. Our government's eventual response was straightforwardly predictable and disappointing. To accept refugees from and deliver aid to camps close to Syria is no bad thing; to argue that it should be done to the exclusion of those who have travelled to Europe in the absence of any such offer is to misdirect attention. Such a response might have been proportionate in months and years past. The fact remains, however, that traffickers have profited from the International Community's inaction, and to shed responsibility for what has been allowed to spill over into Europe is inexcusable. Nor indeed is it right to abandon Hungary, Croatia and other European allies less equipped to deal with the crisis to a fate no more of their doing than of ours. 

Syria itself is an important litmus test for the future of Western direction in Middle Eastern politics. It is important that our moves represent the lessons learnt from past involvement; crucial, however, that our response is formulated for the world as it is, and that our efficacy now is not confounded by outside geopolitical motives.

I am saddened, therefore, that the 70th UN Summit has been used as a platform from which for various leaders to grandstand and appear immovable. It is sad, but true, that we are unlikely to be able to remove Bashar Al-Assad. It is equally true that if support of Assad is unqualified and exclusive of, or harmful to, other groups then we risk galvanising Islamist feeling and IS support. Britain and the US must, I believe, appeal to the common threat of violent Islamic fundamentalism in order to get Russia's ear; then we must seriously attempt to have American- and Russian-supported groups suspend their disagreements and cooperate. Only then have we the best chance of threatening IS territory; however it remains to be seen how or whether any of this can be delivered.

Clearly, no strategy is going to be perfect: the state of the Middle East today is a direct result of our tacit support for sectarian governments like Assad's, and we clearly cannot escape this position with one easy step. Whatever ensues, we must ensure that it is the UN is at the centre of forward planning not individual states manoeuvring for domestic political gain. Coherent international strategy requires cooperative work.

our continued membership of NATO is valuable to Britain and indeed to the world”

The shifting state of play in Syria and across the world obviously lends defence an increased importance. In my opinion, defence spending is an important fiscal multiplier and used properly can revolutionise our ability to deter and where necessary fight conflict. For this reason, I believe that our continued membership of NATO is valuable to Britain and indeed to the world. It sees that the United States and others listen to Britain as a second opinion and a test of American Foreign Policy in Western Europe; it magnifies the importance of our experience and expertise in theatres of conflict. Likewise democratic NATO members must be confident of our support: the 2% spending target is a big factor in demonstrating this.

But in maintaining that commitment we must use it properly: to direct and advise our allies; to recognise Britain's position in the world as it is. I believe it is time to recognise that Trident is strategically and politically useless, and prohibitively costly. Its independence is illusory, since we require American-built and leased Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles as a warhead delivery system. We maintain Trident at the generosity of the United States, without whose support such weapons could not be applied. It limits more pertinent means of defence: ensuring that we have a Blue-Water Navy with sufficient Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft to provide air support; improving cyber-defences; fully equipping Typhoon jets as strike aircraft. In these ways, we might ably assist our allies without insisting on a thermonuclear status-symbol which is, realistically speaking, an extension of US military power. Most importantly, by redoubling support for military cooperation but stepping back from a weapon which doesn't befit us, we are in better stead to argue against nuclear proliferation worldwide and banish WMDs completely.

Foreign Policy: The View From Oxford University Labour Club

Alex Chalmers, writing from OULC

The Labour Party’s approach to foreign policy is in a state of flux. After attending Labour Party conference, the myriad of paradoxes is even more apparent. On the one hand, the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared his unwavering opposition to Trident during his keynote address to rapturous applause, whilst the conference unanimously approved the ‘Britain in the World’ policy report that committed Labour to a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, the like of which sounds suspiciously like Trident. The Shadow Cabinet is similarly divided with rumours circulating that Maria Eagle, Hilary Benn, and Andy Burnham (shadow defence secretary, shadow foreign secretary, and shadow home secretary, respectively) would resign if Labour abandoned Trident. 

A similar contradiction is in evidence with regards to Labour’s approach to authoritarian regimes. During the leadership election, our new leader called for the imposition of sanctions on governments with a poor approach to LGBTQ rights. So far, so worthy. His other policy stances, however, muddy the waters. Vladimir Putin of Russia sees no distinction between gay men and paedophiles and has taken the abhorrent step of banning trans people from driving on the grounds that they are mentally unstable, whilst the Iranian regime continues to punish homosexuality with death, and yet Mr Corbyn has called for the relaxation of sanctions on both and expressed active support for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. During his keynote address, Jeremy Corbyn claimed that he had always opposed dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, but his appearances on Russia Today and Iranian state channel Press TV are widely known. His descriptions of Hamas and Hezbollah as his ‘friends’ are not made any more palatable by his supporters’ unconvincing attempts to spin them as engagement in some kind of peace process. 

The third and final core contradiction lies in party policy over Europe. Chuka Umunna resigned from the Shadow Cabinet after failing to obtain any assurances that Labour would campaign for an ‘In’ vote come what may. Hilary Benn then subsequently obtained these reassurances, but again in his main speech, Jeremy Corbyn appeared to row back on this, claiming that Labour would campaign in support of the seemingly nebulous concept of a ‘social Europe’.

opposition to Trident cannot become party policy”

The above is not intended as some kind of character assassination or an attempt to besmirch the new leader’s name, it is simply a reflection of the building existential crisis at the heart of Labour Party’s approach to foreign policy and the lack of joined-up thinking that has unsurprisingly accompanied the cohabitation between a broadly social democratic shadow cabinet and a hard left leader. Each of these contradictions needs to and can be resolved if the Labour Party is to have any hope of achieving a coherent foreign policy. Some of these decisions will be tough for those who joined the Labour Party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but at the same time, it will be more than possible to preserve an important space for the values of peace, human rights, and tolerance that he expressed with such energy in his speech.

Firstly, and perhaps most painfully, opposition to Trident cannot become party policy. Conference has already indirectly consented to its renewal and the government’s majority almost guarantees that renewal will happen. An energetic campaign against this is doomed to failure, will alienate a number of major trade unions whose workers depend on the maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and will allow the right to claim that their dramatic claims with regards to Labour and national security have been vindicated. Nevertheless, it will be impossible to dragoon many life-long committed unilateralists into the ‘No’ lobby, so a free vote seems by far the most logical approach to take.

The second contradiction is much easier to solve. Few beyond a small core of obsessive ‘anti-imperialists’ who will act as cheerleaders for any regime hostile to western liberal democracy feel a shred of sympathy for Russia. In return for Jeremy Corbyn rowing back on his ill-judged words and support for Russia, it would not be unreasonable to ask those those on the right of the party who in the past have avoided condemning the appalling human rights situation in Saudi Arabia due to ongoing military ties to change their attitude, a unifying compromise that also makes the party look credible when it speaks about solidarity and universal human rights.

the Labour Party cannot afford to argue for a policy of complete non-intervention in Syria”

In the same spirit, the party must work to delay the gradual lifting of sanctions contained in the Iran nuclear deal; Labour positioning itself as the party defending universal human rights by delaying the influx of money and weaponry to a country that has shown no sign of softening its authoritarian character is both politically and morally consistent. In the same way, the Labour Party cannot afford to argue for a policy of complete non-intervention in Syria. Intervention can sometimes have undesirable consequences, whether it be in lives lost or an escalation of violence, but from a purely strategic standpoint, it makes little logical sense to strike ISIS in Iraq, but not in Syria. Moreover, with Russia aiding Assad, who himself is tacitly co-operating with ISIS, the west has a moral as well as a strategic obligation to help protect the territory gained by the mainstream, moderate rebels.

To address the final contradiction, the Labour left needs to drop this idea that if David Cameron manages in any renegotiations to secure an opt-out from measures that protect workers and consumers, then it should push for an ‘Out’ vote. Britain’s departure from the EU would not restore such protections, so it makes far more sense to hold on to the variety of benefits EU membership provides, whilst focusing on a general election victory with a manifesto commitment to restore any protections that have been lost. 

This set of compromises goes far beyond a pragmatic attempt to preserve fragile party unity. Such an attempt to find areas of common ground between the leadership and the shadow cabinet, as well as the left and right of the Parliamentary Labour Party, arrives at a vision that manages to merge both a strong support for universal human rights as well as a pragmatic approach to difficult geopolitical questions. Those who joined the party during the leadership election hoping for a revolution will have to accept that the laws of international politics rarely change so suddenly.