Cookies on oxfam

We use cookies to ensure that you have the best experience on our website. If you continue browsing, we’ll assume that you are happy to receive all our cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Accept

British foreign policy: where's the vision for 2015?

Posted by Ed Cairns Senior Policy Adviser, Research

21st Mar 2014

In Mafraq City in Northern Jordan children light candles to show their solidarity with the people of Syria. Credit: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

As Oxfam releases our new paper: British Foreign Policy in an Unequal World, and with humanitarian and diplomatic crises in east Ukraine, Syria and the Central African Republic, our senior policy adviser Ed Cairns challenges the political classes to set their vision for the UK's role in the world post-2015.


It's been a grim week in international affairs. Syria's war moved into its fourth year. The crisis in Ukraine revived talk of 'cold war'. And in the Central African Republic, the UN condemned the kind of 'hate propaganda' that preceded Rwanda's genocide twenty years ago. (Get ready to mark that dark anniversary on 6 April.)

Who on earth, you might ask, would want to be Britain's Foreign Secretary in such circumstances? Facing crisis after crisis - and in a UK where many people feel unconfident about its role in the world.

A lack of confidence that even extends to the Prime Minister who seems clear that foreign policy should be increasingly focused on Britain's 'trade and prosperity' - a modest goal for a UN Security Council permanent member but also a goal that is unlikely to be successful without a safe and secure world to trade and prosper with.  And one of Labour's foreign policy thinkers, Mark Leonard, regrets how debates on the left are still dominated by 'arguments about the past rather than visions of the future.'

As the parties gear up for next year's general election, where's the vision for the UK's role in the world?  Or even some new ideas about what it should do? And do NGOs like Oxfam have any of the answers at all?

Well, we are certainly not foreign policy experts, but we work every day in countries where we see the painful consequences of foreign policy disasters (and let's put Rwanda and Bosnia as well as Iraq on that list). And we also applaud successes like the Arms Trade Treaty, and how William Hague has gone out of his way to highlight the scourge of sexual violence in conflict.

But, today, we're standing back for a moment to look at the bigger picture, and put down some foreign policy ideas of our own in our paper British Foreign Policy in an Unequal World.

There's a clue in the title. We don't try to cover every issue. If you're looking for what to do in eastern Ukraine, you'll be disappointed. We focus instead on a few challenges that, from Oxfam's experience, seem crucial. To name but three, they are:

  • how the UK could deliver on its values - like human rights - all of the time, not just some or even most;
  • how it could multiply the impact of its generous aid  through more diplomatic action in some of the world's most demanding crises; and
  • how it could do more to tackle things like climate change and inequality which are dangerous as well as impoverishing.

On the first issue, Kate Allen, the head of Amnesty International UK, made a good point last week. 'One of the challenges we face', she said, 'is ensuring that the UK government is consistently raising human rights with its international counterparts. In these challenging economic times they must not be tempted to avoid these difficult conversations in the pursuit of commercial and 'strategic' relationships.'

Arms exports have always been a test of that potential tension between commerce and rights. At the end of last year, the Conservative chair of the Commons' committees on arms exports, Sir John Stanley, observed the Government's 'extraordinary' decision in 2012 to approve sending machine guns to Bahrain - along with arms to 31 other countries where human rights raise concerns. The point is not that the UK doesn't stand up for human rights in many places. It does vigorously. The point is that the struggle to do that consistently is not over - and that the UK's credibility as well as influence-for-good depends on it.

Many NGOs fear the 'comprehensive approach' to foreign policy which unites diplomatic, development and defence initiatives in the same direction. If that fear is driven by a desire to protect the independence of humanitarian aid, they're not wrong. But there's a 'right kind of comprehensive approach' that is sorely missing. 

DFID spends millions - quite rightly - in humanitarian crises where the UK's Foreign Office is absent, as in the Central African Republic, or pretty thin on the ground. CAR may be an extreme case - in more ways than one. But does it make sense for the UK to take decisions in the UN Security Council, potentially affecting the lives or deaths of thousands, without a little more diplomatic engagement and 'footprint' in that crisis? 

What does this do for the UK's credibility?

The UK is 47th in the league table of contributors (of troops and police) to UN peacekeeping, despite having the 4th biggest defence budget in the world.

You could ask that same question about the UK being 47th in the league table of contributors (of troops and police) to UN peacekeeping, despite having the 4th biggest defence budget in the world. For years, the answer to that challenge has been 'Afghanistan'. For the next government, it will no longer be so.

Whoever runs UK foreign policy after 2015 will face countless crises and difficult choices. Some as a result of climate change, for as Nick Stern wrote recently, 'if we don't cut emissions, we face conflict and war, not peace and prosperity.' 

But climate change isn't the only global trend that adds to the risks of violence and conflict; rising inequality is also playing a role. Syria's conflict erupted in its fourth successive year of severe drought - and after years of increasing inequality that affected some groups more than others. 

Did lots of other factors drive Syria to war? Yes. Does more climate change or inequality mean more conflict? Well, not as simply as that, or in isolation from many other factors. But they're timely reminders that the next government will not only face a dizzying number of challenges. 

It will also have the chance to tackle some of the long-term drivers of conflict - for instance at the world's next big Climate Change Conference in December 2015. When the parties set out their foreign policy stalls ahead of next year's election, we look forward to them taking all those challenges into account.

Read more

More of our blogs on climate change and inequality

Read our humanitarian policy notes 

Blog post written by Ed Cairns

Senior Policy Adviser, Research

More by Ed Cairns

Ed Cairns