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    Rethinking foreign policy

    By news editor, on 30 November 2011

    Global politics is taking place in an increasingly “two-pace world”, where formal inter-state negotiations are supplanted and enhanced by networks of cross-national activists, business and other NGOs. In such circumstances, the UK will continue to have an impact only if it rediscovers its “spirit of innovation”, and reaffirms its commitment to freedom and the rule of law.

    This was the message Ben Davies heard when he went to see Lord Mark Malloch-Brown give the 17th annual Mishcon Lecture on the subject of ‘British Foreign Policy in a Changing World’.

    Lord Malloch-Brown knows his way around the world. He has worked at senior levels for the UN, the World Bank and the British government. So it was no surprise that when he came to give a talk on the future of Britain’s foreign policy, plenty of people came to listen.

    In tempestuous times, his speech felt like something of a rallying cry. He found plenty to criticise about British foreign policy past and present – current restrictions on student immigration are a “tragedy”, and the failure of Britain to take the lead on the Israel-Palestine conflict shows a “slavish respect”. But such points were always quickly followed by forthright explanations of how we could do better.

    This was the antidote to what he described as the “fatalist” version of the future. Lord Malloch-Brown reminded us that the UK is still the world’s sixth largest economy, and that many today are “a little too quick to write the obituaries on our political and economic futures”.

    Still, he warned against moving too far the other way into “fantasist” territory, where the country remains the “shaggy lion of Empire”. Such an attitude, he argued, permeates certain aspects of the media and of the political landscape; for every crisis, no matter where in the world, there is the expectation “that Britain is going to condemn and that that condemnation is going to matter”.

    It was refreshing to hear a discussion of foreign policy that advocated scaling back military spending. Lord Malloch-Brown insisted that the UK’s aspirations far outstrip its spending capabilities.

    He advocated two broad changes, both involving a recognition of the increasing multilateralism visible in international relations. On military strategy, he advised a pooling of resources – and costs – via international bodies such as the UN and NATO.

    More than that, though, he recommended that the UK become more engaged with both emerging powers such as China and Brazil, and with the non-state actors who are increasingly influential. We are seeing “the old concept of state actors working with state actors and closing out the non-state actors being replaced by a much more dynamic internationalism”.

    So, if states are on the decline, where does that leave the UK? Lord Malloch-Brown claimed that the country must, and can, differentiate itself by embracing rather than fighting multilateralism, which he admitted would be no easy task; there is a tendency to see all non-state power as a dangerous erosion of sovereignty, without recognising that “some problems are too big to tackle alone, and too big to ignore”.

    Indeed, he was far from advocating that we give ourselves up to a single world government. The other strand of a healthy foreign policy, he argued, should be to recommit to the values that have always attracted others to this country. The UK has made itself a reputation as a country that is fair, free and respectful of the law. Lord Malloch-Brown warned against letting those commitments waver, either here or in interaction with foreign powers.

    It was a broad sketch of the way forward, and perhaps predictably many of the questions from the audience fell on more concrete matters, ranging from the conflict between military cuts and the lobbying power of the defence industry to the relationship between Britain and the European Union.

    Lord Malloch-Brown struck a resolutely hopeful tone throughout, but warned that success is not a foregone conclusion. We first have to accept that success in the future may look very different from success in the past.

    Ben Davies is an intern in UCL Communications & Marketing.