Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Progressive Foreign Policy. Edited by David Held and David Mepham. [Book Review for International Affairs 2008]
Polity, London, 2007. 258pp. Index. £16.99 ISBN: 9780745641167

Concern about the ethics of British foreign policy long pre-dates the arrival of New Labour in 1997; human rights, for example, were a recurring issue in relations with the USSR. But this is not to deny that events and debates since 1997 have meant that today it would be difficult to reflect on New Labour’s and Tony Blair’s time in power without giving serious thought to the role ethical concerns have played – or not played – in the UK’s relations with the rest of the world. For David Held and David Mepham, the ideas set out back in 1997 and heard throughout the following decade have been an attempt to articulate a ‘progressive foreign policy’ which they define as a commitment to human rights, social justice, sustainability, democracy, the international rule of law and multiculturalism. Their book of edited chapters attempts not only to hold New Labour’s record to account by setting them against these ideals, but also to show how conceptions of foreign policy are changing such that a progressive foreign policy is the only viable option if Britain is to face the emerging challenges in international relations. As such the book is a valuable addition to the debate about the future of UK foreign policy.

The book contains twelve chapters from a range of distinguished authors. The first section covers broad themes such as how the UK needs to adapt to the changing nature of security through to how sustainability needs to play a more central role in foreign policy thinking. Michael Clarke offers a salutary analysis of how traditional concepts of security need to be broadened to cover issues as varied as energy insecurity, terrorism, food supply or global warming. Meanwhile Mary Kaldor offers a reminder that the spread of democracy is not just brought about via top-down mechanisms but from the bottom-up. The next set of chapters cover relations with the USA, Europe, the Middle East and China. Given that debates about UK foreign policy too often revolve around the transatlantic relationship the addition of the latter two help demonstrate that UK foreign policy is being shaped not just by decisions in Washington or Brussels but by the rise of new powers and old problems that date back to the empire. The final chapters cover the issues of the global institutions that Britain needs to push forward in reforming global governance. But reform is also needed at home as shown in the chapter by Leni Wild and Paul Williams who cover UK policy making.

The book succeeds in offering an evaluation of New Labour’s record, showing that while there have been mistakes over Iraq or missed opportunities in Europe progress has been made across a variety of areas such as in aid and development. The book is therefore broad in its coverage and while evaluating New Labour’s past record the book does not dwell on the past and looks as much to the future. But several criticisms over omissions can be made. Cursory mention is given to India, Russia or areas such as South America. The policy making angle is covered well by Wild and Williams; but less attention is given elsewhere in the book to how the wider British state at home may have to change to reflect these new challenges. There is a tendency to write more about global civil society or human rights than about civil society or civil liberties in Britain and how they will cope with the challenges to British foreign policy. The book also at times lacks historical depth. Finally a concluding chapter would have been welcome, especially one that opened the book up to an audience beyond the UK as the topics touched on have relevance to every country in the world.

One domestic dimension that is given a good hearing is the need for Britain’s relations with the outside world to be viewed as a concern across government and not just as the realm of traditional foreign policy actors such as the FCO or the MoD. As Andrew Gamble and Ian Kearns note, there is a need for a national security strategy (p126), something that the British government finally published in March 2008. The strategy is both an attempt by Gordon Brown to distance himself from the personalised foreign policy of the Blair era and the product of a longer term trend within government to view the external and internal dimensions of security and foreign policy as closely interrelated. As both the strategy and this book show, responding to the security challenges posed by global terrorism or climate change – while keeping an eye on the possible re-emergence of a traditional direct military threat – requires an increased level of cooperation across all levels of governance in the UK. Criticisms of the strategy when it appeared, after months of drafting and redrafting across Whitehall, might also be levelled against this book: that delivering the objectives set out – and there are many, perhaps too many – will be exceptionally difficult, will require a new level of public understanding which government may find difficult to generate, and will demand very hard choices that Britain may be unwilling to make in terms of spending, internal reform and external cooperation.

Tim L. Oliver
London School of Economics and Political Science