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The World Tonight on foreign policy

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Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:39 UK time, Thursday, 20 May 2010

How should the new government cut its cloth in regard to Britain's role in the world?

GlobeThe coalition has started work on identifying where to reduce public spending to get the rising deficit under control, and it's clear the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence will have to shoulder their share of cuts.

On Wednesday, The World Tonight held a special debate at the leading foreign policy think tank, Chatham House, to debate the foreign policy options a straitened Britain faces.

Why do this now? Well, the new coalition has just taken office and needs to define its foreign policy. Chatham House is in the middle of a project looking at the UK's choices and ambitions in the world. And we thought it was an appropriate way to mark The World Tonight's 40th anniversary.

We brought together an international panel with experts from the US, Germany and India, together with the director of Chatham House and former British Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd - the man who coined the phrase "punching above our weight" to describe the British approach to the world.

The main conclusions from the debate were:

• Budget cuts and the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan will make it much less likely the British military will be involved in intervention overseas in the future
• Britain should play a more central role in Europe to ensure the EU has a stronger voice on the world stage
• Lord Hurd said the "special relationship" with the US works only when London can be useful to Washington, and the panel seemed to agree that anyway President Obama is more focussed on China than on Europe
• The key foreign policy issue at the moment is the emergence of a multi-polar world where the new powers - first and foremost China, but also India and Brazil - have a different approach to international relations to the traditional Western powers and, for obvious reasons, prioritise relations with Washington over relations with London

The other question debated was whether the Tory-Lib Dem coalition could remain united on foreign policy when their basic instincts differ, especially over an EU which, faced with the euro crisis, could end up deciding on closer integration in order to save the common currency.

During the election campaign, foreign policy was little discussed and there is a large degree of consensus across the parties on many issues, so it will be interesting to see whether the new government does make any big changes to Britain's role in the world.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight.


  • Comment number 1.

    With all due respect to your panel of luminaries - they are 'the good and the great' that got us into this parlous state.

    They seem to be the particularly innumerate British establishment that swaggers a lot, but can't afford proper boots for its troops.

    Your 'conclusions' suggest the same attitudes still prevail. What ever we do we have to do things that we can afford to do properly - this seems still to be beyond the understanding of the establishment.

    They may or may not be talented linguists but they can't do sums. We have to treat foreign policy and its expression in other means as a business. We understood this when organisations such as the East India Company was set up, but we have forgotten.

    Today's Guardian featured a story about saving £11bn by keeping the Trident submarines in port. Why do we have more admirals than ships in the Navy? The budget and the opportunity cost is crucial - everything else is a flight of fancy! This goes for the Foreign Office too. We need to live within our means and punch our weight (and not above it). We need to do things with our friends for our mutual benefit (and that does not exclusively include the Americans!)

  • Comment number 2.

    Britain should play a more central role in Europe to ensure the EU has a stronger voice on the world stage.

    On the contrary, Britain should be doing everything it can to free itself from the paralysing grip of those distant, corrupt and unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels.

    When they can not only tell the British people how they should handle their refuse removal but actually fine them huge sums if they don't follow the directives to the letter then we've come to a situation that would make Orwell and Huxley gasp in amazement at the sheer scope of bureaucratic reach and control.

    Small government is always better. It's unsurprising to me that the BBC regards large government, as represented by the EU, with total deference.

  • Comment number 3.

    Brazil is building another port to manage extraction and export of base products and derived finished products (iron ore, steel, aluminium, etc) IN CONJUNCTION WITH YET ANOTHER FOREIGN STATE (China, Norway, India, Pakistan, etc). Surely the UK Foreign Office is getting a string of messages from our Ambassador in Brazil, identifying BIG trade opportunities for the UK. Brazil needs more than just UK/international oil company links, and can offer the UK much more. France is re-equipping the whole Brazilian Armed Forces. Brazil´s nuclear power stations can´t be upgraded by the UK as we have no longer got the expertise. But there are many things we can transfer.
    These will not be the one-sided opportunities of the Imperium, but necessitate bi-lateral agreements designed to offset the import `barriers´ established by BOTH countries.
    I know foreign policy is much more than trade contracts but lets start somewhere:
    Brazil is a country with a crying need for hydroelectric engineering partnerships (200 massive dam/reservoir schemes in the planning pipeline), basic tranport infrastructure (both road and rail), road-building to match that that the Romans reached 2000 years ago - to handle 44 tonne axle-weight juggernauts, public health engineering standards & build for water supply, domestic water removal, flood alleviation schemes, `gripping´ of friable hill-slopes, telecommunications, electricity grid integration, port facilities and management, city planning and mass social housing to handle mass internal migrations etc, etc.
    There are many exported Brazilian products that the UK needs; unfortunately most seem to be being ring-fenced through trade arrangements with other developing and First World nations.
    For God´s sake Britain - GET IN THE GAME.

  • Comment number 4.

    Regardless of the type of government we have(one party dominant or coalition) the underlying fact is that safeguarding British interest must be the core of their policy.

  • Comment number 5.

    New media is presenting us with a new type of democracy- a true democracy- where the public choose that which they wish to market. For example, HandinHand2020 (see their introductory video here: have a general cause marketing scheme where their brand markets itself. The public choose to give brand equity to their company or not. It is widely agreed that online video advertising will soon surpass old media as the major market influence. By also providing a platform for public interaction, this approach allows for endless positive feedback and thus, growth.

  • Comment number 6.

    Foreign Policy has become an essential part of a Prime Minister's CV if he is to make it in the 'after life.'

    Leaping about the world stage promoting one's self in times of crisis is all grist to the actor's mill in demonstrating one's ability to take on any leading role in the offing.

    Imv, there needs to be a reworking of the script bringing Britain's participation on the world stage in accordance with the interests of a bankrupt nation seeking to stay afloat on its own island before wandering abroad to save the world.

    Strange as it may seem, other nations will seek us out should they need us. Dynamic duo please note before dipping your respective toes in the pond. Mr Blair has cornered the market and we are still picking up the bill.

  • Comment number 7.

    The United Kingdom should work with other European Union countries rather then distancing itself from them! It is imperative that Nick Clegg emphasises the importance of this to David Cameron. Foreign Policy has to be handled intelligently and the earlier the coalition realises this the better it would be for the country. Keeping one foot in the European Union and feeling free to place the other foot on unsteady ground is the recipe for disaster. Practically on every European issue the United Kingdom wants to have the final say. It is only by working together that the Union can grow from strength to strength.

  • Comment number 8.

    The most sensible cut of all would be to stop paying for the sickness called the"EU".

  • Comment number 9.

    "EUprisoner209456731" needs to understand that the UK IS part of Europe.

    I seem to remember that it happened in 1970 - I know because I watched Ted Heath sign us up. We are only separated from "mainland Europe" by a tunnel, not even by the Channel any more, and so not by fog in the channel.

    Granted there may be a problem with the Euro currency zone especially in Greece but on the whole we in the UK are better "IN" than "OUT".

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    Why, in all the discussions about the UK relationship with Iran, is the focus only on their possession, or otherwise, of nuclear materials? The BBC, and other news outlets, seem silent on Iran's execution of trades union activists.
    Farzad Kamangar, a teacher trade unionist in Iran, was executed on Sunday 9 May for the crime of ‘enmity against god’ – in practice, for disagreeing with the thugs who run Iran, and for being active. Farzad was a political activist, a teacher and a trade unionist, and he paid for that with his life. He was also a 35-year old husband – whose wife and mother weren’t even told he was about to die so that they could say goodbye. Farzad is just one in a long line of trade union activists who have been killed by this brutal regime.
    When is the BBC going to break cover, recognise that the presence of a free, independent trade union movement is the corner-stone of a democratic society and give prominence in its reports to the work of trade unions in Iran and around the world and the price they pay for being trade union activists.Those wanting more information about Iranian trade unions and activists can go to the Justice for Iranian Workers web page, or to find out what trade unions are doing around the world go to There's an inspiring story out there, about time the BBC covered it.

  • Comment number 12.

    " Budget cuts and the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan will make it much less likely the British military will be involved in intervention overseas in the future"

    Is really sad. The problem with Iraq and Afghanistan wasn't the initial 'intervention' but the 'getting bogged down in insurgency for years afterwards'. The British intervention in Sierra Leone in contrast ended a brutal civil war that had blighted the country for years with minimal cost & the loss of only 1 SAS man. If we refuse to repeat Sierra Leone style missions because of fears over Iraq it will be a tragedy. Its also worrying for small nations like Belize bullied by much bigger nations who depend on Britain for defence support

  • Comment number 13.

    I have absolutely no idea what this blog is about and really I couldn't care less, but can someone please tell me why the moderators never explain precisely why they remove postings (vague references to breaking some rule or other, usually not qualified) and then fail to respond when you e-mail a reply asking them to do so.

    Is there somewhere I can log into to complain about their methods and their lack of good manners?

  • Comment number 14.

    I think if we British are to have an impact and influence on Europe we should stay and play a more central role in Brussels. Thus we can represent the interest of our greatest ally(america) and our own interest. Through our involvement we have managed to expand Europe, brought democracy to Eastern Europe. It was through our presence in Eu that we opted out numerous treaties that we felt unacceptable. In other words, we can change Europe by being a member of Europe but not outside Europe.

  • Comment number 15.

    The British foreign policy needs to be "an intelligent pursuit of national intersts ". In the present day United Kingdom, economic diplomacy should be the life-blood of its foreign policy. It should be real hard tack of business.
    Of late in foreign and military policies,Britain has been toeing line with the United States. When George Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Tony Blair could not be far behind.How could the United States influence the United Kingdom to be its partner in the unjust and unnecessary wars on Afghnistan and Iraq when the latter's economic growth was just modest and its economic management left much to be desired? Britain should note that the Unied States has a very wide resource base and it can afford the luxury of wasting its resources in wars. On the other hand,the United Kingdom has limited resources which it should expend for livelihood and economic development. Wasting its resources in wars would be suicidal.
    Britain has many presing problems. One such problem is immigration.After the installation of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition government in the U.K., immigrants are rather ill at ease. They think that Labour is pro-immigrants and the Conservative are anti-immigrants. The new government should take steps to allay such fears fromthe minds of the immigrants.The government is well aware of the commendable contributions of the immigrants to the building of the modern and prosperous country that the United Kingdom is to-day.
    The United Kingdom is rather indifferent to international relations these days. It should have played a more active role in the European Union. I would be happy to see the United Kingdom as the leader in the European Union.

    British foreign policy needs revamping. It seems to have forgotten the Commonwealth. It should look forward to the Commonwealth countries and diversify its economic,plitical and commercial reltions with them for mutual benefits.

  • Comment number 16.

    We are becoming far too involved in the private business of other Countries - and it's costing us a fortune and making us enemies.

    We should stop trying to force 'PC' on other Countries. Who is to say that 'PC' is right with regard to the death penalty, Human-Rights Act, Homosexuals etc? Just because some in the UK government, minority-interest groups and our Public Media continually 'push' such 'PC' views - does not mean they are right and have a majority consensus. If they are so sure, why don't they hold referendums or polls - and ask the people of this Country what THEY think of these issues?

    We're still waiting...

  • Comment number 17.

    The UK has a strong vested interest in a stable Europe.

    The UK should have membership of a united European entity (of sorts).

    The UK should have no interest in shoring up a European house of cards.

    The dream of a single entity based notion of European statehood, the desire of some politically motivated liberal left architects, has been built on a purely aspirational ideal with distinctive shoddy foundations.

    Politically, expansion and more members has unleashed some rather challenging views and attitudes to the so called progressive ‘liberal’ consensus of Euroland.

    Economically, four major realities exist. Firstly, the EU has never been able to sign off its own accounts (those who have challenged this have been dismissed); Secondly, fiscally weak and downright corrupt new members are shored up by the majority – but are we seeing any real fundemental changes in these ‘second class’ members; Thirdly, the supposed free movement of labour, is hardly that, all we have seemingly done is legitimate state sanctioned ‘gang master’ type migration of a nomadic unskilled labour force. 'Second class' members are more than happy to be released of such people, who wander first world EU nations, looking for a new home and access to favourable services/benefits, whilst suppressing the indigenous nations own lower/working classes. Fourthly, though long suspected, the fudged economics of the Euro (membership for some countries was less than desirable i.e. flawed economies were conveniently reinterpreted) is in real clear and present danger of brining the entire house down.

    Verdict - political fusion in disarray and economic parity unachievable.

    The Conservatives are right to seek a new deal and constrain the EU ideal, to a manageable and workable entity, especially in light of the new political realities and economic developments.

  • Comment number 18.

    i like kobe

  • Comment number 19.

    IF we pulled out of Afghanistan and Iraq we could wipe out half the defecit overnight, considering the mess we are in why is nobody suggesting this?

  • Comment number 20.

    I would love if we STOP and THINK who the state of Israel came about... then think why should it have the RIGHT to lord over the Palestinians? Ms.
    Thomas is right to voice her opions; she has been voicing others for years

  • Comment number 21.

    The BBC ALWAYS writes or talk about the Jewish state as if IT alone has the Right... Just re-listen the question that are asked of them about anything that they do wrong,(like killing the people on the boat its as if the BBC is very sorry to ask the question and also that they don't ask question like THAT of Ms. Helen Thomas.

    Is it because the BBC country is one of the INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY (USA & UK) that gave them the land of the Palestine??? You know that most of the times they ask question as if they (the BBC reporter), are sorry to ask, but have to ask. If you understand what I mean. We Must stop the Israeli from beaning the way. And you know that where there is peace there is NO News, so make news by not helping the cause for peace...!! Over to You... Thanks Errol Hamilton

  • Comment number 22.


    (I don't really care if this is posted by the moderator... in fact, I'm addressing this post to the Moderators themselves)

    Hey guys, assuming you care about the UK's global image, including but not limited to the US, then I'd seriously and strongly urge you to take this message to someone with a connection to the palace so that they can STOP Prince Harry from making a terrible public relations mistake tomorrow, one which will be at least as bad if not worse than the BP CEO's fancy boat race.

    You see, two storm fronts that could easily turn into the first NAMED hurricane of the season, are about to hit the Gulf of Mexico. You can imagine the nightmare this will be for the BP cleanup efforts (in fact, they need a five day window to save the clean up assets from a big storm), not to mention the damage that the storm itself will cause, the waters of the Gulf are very very full of currently submerged gigantic globs of oil from the disaster, and a hurricane will cause a lot of this oil to spread over all the protective barriers in place and onto the shore... in particular down the Florida coastal beaches.

    So this said, Sunday (Sabbath in the deeply religious American and Mexican Gulf regions, if not in NYC) is NOT a good time for the Prince to be seen galloping and playing with polo pony's and Argentine Stud models up on Governors Island. Rather, it will infuriate a large chunk of the American public already irrational with grief and despair over the scale of the ecological and economic disaster that's ruined most of their lives, and rather than reserving their (maybe justified) fury for a callow princeling, they'll undoubtedly extend that resentment to all of the UK and all things British.

    Thus I'm writing you, in good faith, to try and stop the nice but obviously dim kid (Harry) from humiliating himself and his Country by disrespecting the sabbath, being seen as making light of the tragedy his Countries Oil Giant happened to cause (it probably could have been any big oil company in the Gulf, but it was BP, sorry), and cynically justifying a romp around on ponies and male models by evoking a charity in AFRICA rather than donating the proceeds to the tens of thousands of Americans who'll soon find themselves equally destitute due to these disasters.

    Look. I know you BBC editors like to make fun of the Palace, and the Establishment in general, and that you probably are inclined to sit back and watch the Prince Harry PR blitz turn into a train wreck over the next couple of days. I know some of you stand to make a TON of money as every newspaper in the U.S. splashes tabloid pictures of Prince Harry wearing the Nazi armband across the front pages. Heck, I've been tempted to watch this tragic-comedy unfold myself, as I couldn't personally conceive of a fictional satire that'd be more astonishingly gormless if I tried.

    But let's have some pity for the Prince and Palace instead. I know MI6 couldn't have advised such a dumb stunt, (they're too annoyingly clever to cook up this awful an IO), but the MoD.... maybe. Anyway, please call the appropriate authority's over on your side of the pond and squash Sunday's planned PR stunt in NYC with Prince Harry... have him go to church instead, and be the one who personally calls off the planned polo match out of respect for Americans down South around the Gulf who're losing everything they have.


    A. Scott Crawford.

  • Comment number 23.

    Blair to receive US peace medal.

    Until you all understand this issue all of the above is irrelevant.

    Blair (the Poodle) and Dubbya (Cheney's puppet) and the entire gang are all mass-murderers, war criminals and genocidal maniacs.

    They hung President Saddam Husein recently.

    Now it is their turn to hang!


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