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The Coalition’s foreign policy: a return to  realism?

Valérie Auda-André
p. 245-254


Foreign policy has been identified as the one area of government where unity between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats has been almost flawless. This paper looks at the reasons for, circumstances and bases of the (temporary) convergence between the party elites in the refashioning of British foreign policy around the idea of Britain as a great global ’influence’.

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  • 1  We are concerned here with the United Kingdom’s foreign policy as devised by state actors exclusiv (...)

1Since the formation of a coalition government on 11 May 2010, foreign policy1 has been identified as the one area of government where unity between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats has been almost flawless and it can safely be argued that the unity/distinctiveness dilemma which lies at the core of coalition politics has so far been resolved in favour of unity.

2There are a number of reasons which can account for the Liberal Democrats’ apparent acquiescence and willingness to think of foreign policy as part of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary’s reserved powers. First and foremost, it must be pointed out that there was initially only limited political benefit to be derived from opposition since foreign policy issues have carried little electoral weight at least since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis and don’t feature prominently in the British public’s list of priorities. Even the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been forced to come to terms with the fact that Europe is a low-salience issue and is accordingly trying to broaden and diversify its political appeal. Since May 2010 the Coalition has presented a united front even on issues which could have been expected to drive a wedge between the two sides of government, notably on Europe and the commitment to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the Union.

3Arguably, the Liberal democrats’ strategy may evolve in the run-up to the 2015 General Election as the Libdems in the Coalition might eventually decide to heed grassroot opinion and take stock of the dissatisfaction with the leadership’s performance on foreign policy which has been recorded in a succession of surveys and opinion polls. In 2012, former leader Paddy Ashdown pointed out that the Libdems had « forgotten about foreign policy » and seemed to suggest that a return to the fundamentals of Liberal democrat in the run up to the 2015 General Election when the parties will be pitching for distinctiveness should entail a parting of the ways with the Conservatives on foreign policy.

4Another interpretation might point in the direction of ideological convergence between the leadership of the two parties and therefore suggest that the coalition rests on a sound ideological basis; unity could therefore be seen as the reflection or the logical outcome of the realignment in British politics which followed the modernisation of Conservatism and Liberalism by the new party leaders.

Redefining the terms of Britain’s engagement on the world stage: changed circumstances, changed partners

5The Conservative-Liberal Coalition came to office in May 2010 in a changed international environment. With President Obama in the White House, the United States have been described as changed partners. The reorientations of American foreign policy have affected the special relationship, the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy for the past 60 years, which came to dominate British strategic thinking in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. On both sides of the Atlantic, the need was felt to downplay as well as to redefine bilateral relations, some would say to downgrade the special relationship as a foreign policy instrument. New governments first in Washington and then in London felt that they had to distance themselves from the discredited principles and assumptions of foreign policy under Blair and Bush. As the special relationship increasingly came to be identified as a convenient alibi for a failed policy of American unilateralism and neoconservatism, so it came to be discredited, at least publicly.

6Among the new administration’s policy reorientations which most impacted Anglo-American relations, Washington’s commitment to multilateralism to quote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words at her confirmation hearing in 2009, as well as the commitment to respecting the rules and procedures of multilateral institutions, predominantly NATO and the United Nations Organization.

7Much as they can be seen to proceed from the determination to turn away from the neoconservative agenda of his predecessors, with the Iraq war casting a long shadow over the redefinition of Washington and London’s foreign policies, the new strategies also result from the need to adapt to the constraints of the Global Financial Crisis. In 2011 the Obama administration committed itself to cutting $ 500bn from the United States defence budget over the next decade as well as to rebalancing its military investment towards a focus on future capabilities. The Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath therefore serve as powerful backdrops to the search for new ways of projecting power and of engaging with the world ; in an age of austerity Washington has placed great emphasis on smart power and on devising a new style of leadership : the United States has been seen to adopt a lower-profile, referred to as « leading from behind », which fuelled much talk and discussion of America’s relative decline, but foreign policy was also invested with new responsibilities in terms of inventing solutions to GFC.

8Washington’s new style of leadership combined with a major geostrategic rethink which was officialised by Hilary Clinton in November 2011. The United States was then seen to be pivoting eastwards, rebalancing towards Asia and the Pacific. As President Obama declared in 2012 that his administration aimed at « strenghtening our presence in the Asia Pacific », the new focus on Asia was justified as an attempt to organise the containment of China through integration into US-dominated multilateral networks. The USA entered negotiations for membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2008, and President Obama is hoping to fast-track the ratification of a treaty which would bring together in a free-trade organisation 11 Asian and Latin American countries in 2014. The refocus on Asia is accompanied by partial withdrawal from Europe and the MENA region, leaving a power-vacuum to be filled by America’s Nato allies, and implies a new emphasis on the need to organise burden-sharing in the rest of the world.

A foreign policy fit for the 21st century - reconceptualising Britain’s foreign policy in an Age of austerity

  • 2  The tendency to oversimplify and misrepresent the Blair years was recently noted by Oliver Daddow (...)

9In redefining the terms of Britain’s engagement on the world stage, the government have not only looked at new ways and means of projecting power but have also been engaged in a reassessment of foreign policy goals. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, announced major reorientations to the United Kingdom’s foreign policy within days of winning the General Election. In a well-publicised speech in July 2010 he declared that the governement’s ambition was to devise a foreign policy fit for the 21st century, and announced a fresh start as well as a rethink of the United Kingdom’s major foreign policy drivers. The government’s goal was assuredly to put clear blue waters between the Coalition’s foreign policy and what came to be seen as Tony Blair’s interpretation of liberal interventionism.2

10In William Hague’s presentation of his government’s agenda the emphasis was placed on the need to reinvent the United Kingdom’s foreign policy along a set of key principles. In a clear rejection of Blair’s hubris and delusions of grandeur, the Foreign Secretary described the United Kingdom as a middle-sized, middle-ranking power, apparently taking a more humble and more objective view of Britain’s standing in the world, taking stock of the United Kingdom’s limited power projection capacities and stressing the need to limit London’s international responsibilities in terms of defense and security. This necessitated a redefinition of the special relationship as « solid, not slavish » but also, and perhaps more interestingly, as William Hague’s declarations stressed the asymmetrical nature of the special relationship in no ambiguous terms, clearly identifying Britain as the junior partner and implying that her interests and obligations were not identical with the United States’. The Conservative foreign secretary was claiming a mastery of the art of the special relationship, with Britain as junior partner enjoying more options and possibilities to work the special relationship than New Labour ever allowed for or even understood.  

11The coalition government accordingly announced a downsizing of Britain’s defence and security capacities : in October 2010 the Strategic Defense and Security Review announced a number of austerity measures, involving an 8 % cut in the nation’s defence and security budget ; in 2012, the defence secretary’s modernisation policy involved a reduction of 20,000 troops which experts described as being based on savings rather than strategy. Philip Hammond’s policy of reduction of Britain’s defence spending involved a greater reliance on private security companies and defence contractors and informed the debate over Britain’s nuclear arsenal and Trident.

Limiting the UK’s international commitments and participation in multilateral organisations

12As a member of NATO the United Kingdom must abide by the rules set by the United States. Robert Gates recently accused the Europeans of free-riding on America’s defense spending, and reminded his European partners of their responsibilities in 2011 just before retiring when he stressed the need to meet the 2 % of GDP target. The British government’s response has been to seek the pooling of limited resources ; a new focus has been placed squarely on the need to foster bilateral relations with France as partner in military operations in Europe‘s « near » abroad. With bilateral relations with France as an alternative and defence and security cooperation secured through the ratification of the Lancaster House Treaties in November 2010, British commitment to European defence was kept to a minimum. The refusal to contribute to the emergence of a European defence industry was exemplified by the failed deal in 2012 between BAE Systems and EADS. In the wake of the Lisbon Treaty of November 2009, the United Kingdom’s mood of scepticism towards the European Union’s capacity to develop a distinctive foreign and security policy was confirmed on a number of occasions. The British government has been steadfast in its refusal to take the lead and provide the vision for a European foreign policy which it deems overdetermined by national interest, technocratic, as well as lacking in vision and substance.

  • 3 The Rt Hon William Hague MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and CommonwealthAffairs of the United K (...)
  • 4  British exports to the BRICS countries have grown by 53% since 2007.
  • 5  The mutualisation of British diplomatic resources with those of Commonwealth partners must be seen (...)

13However, the British government’s downsizing policies do not indicate that there is a new willingness to accept that the United Kingdom has become a regional power. Britain’s global ambitions were reiterated on many occasions in 2010 and 2011 as William Hague, expressed his continued opposition to the idea of strategic shrinkage through the trope of the networked world.3 The geopolitical imaginings which underpin British foreign policy point to the government’s attempts at reworking the traditional belief in the United Kingdom’s exceptionalism and traditional foreign policy principles in the specific circumstances of the Global Financial Crisis. The reconceptualisation of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy has led to the identification of the advancement of Britain’s economic interests through the notion of commercial foreign policy as its new priority. The UK government has targeted areas of economic expansion in Latin America, India and Asia and concentrated on the development of bilateral relations with the fastest growing global markets or emerging economies, also known as BRICS,4 while relying on historic ties with former white Commonwealth countries, the « other Britains »,5 to contribute to the deployment of diplomatic activity. Canada and Australia have been targeted as major partners in the establishment of new diplomatic missions in Latin America and in Asia.

14Whether this is a more « realistic » foreign policy is a moot point; some would argue that Britain’s foreign policy goals under Cameron are as delusional as they were under New Labour. Most specifically the suggestion that Britain might disengage from Europe and no longer comply with the need to act as a transatlantic bridge in a repeat of the neither-in-nor-out policies of the immediate post-WWII period has raised concerns among Britain’s allies. Insofar as the government’s determined promotion of the national interest, together with the new limits placed on the United Kingdom’s responsibilities in terms of contribution to international stability and prosperity, not to mention the provision of global leadership, hinge upon her allies’ willingness to tolerate the « one-sidedness » of its foreign policy.

15Yet although the Coalition’s foreign policy might appear overdetermined by the defence and promotion of the United Kingdom’s national interest and security, an option which enjoyed the support of 47 % of the public in 2011 YouGov Survey for Chatham House, the government has repeatedly pointed out that it was committed to the pursuit of an « enlightened » national interest.

A delicate balancing act - idealism tempered by realism

  • 6  Oliver Daddow, « Interpreting Liberal Conservative Foreign Policy », BISA Conference.
  • 7  Matt Beech, British Conservatism and Foreign Policy: traditions and ideas shaping Cameron’s global (...)

16In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, both the Conservative Leader and the Shadow Foreign Secretary made a number of declarations concerning the nature and priorities of a future Conservative governement’s foreign policy which have been interpreted as clear indications that Cameron’s new brand of modernised Conservatism not only applied to domestic policies but to also foreign affairs, or to quote Oliver Daddow that it had the potential to collapse « the ‘inside/outside’ distinction in the study of international relations ».6 In a recent article, Matt Beech has defended the view that Cameron’s new brand of Liberal Conservatism incorporated elements of the liberal interventionism associated with New Labour’s foreign policy and steered Conservatism towards the uncharted waters of continued commitment to transformative foreign policies, although with different, more subtle instruments and without extending full support to the neoconservative agenda of régime change for instance.7 This seemed to announce or even constitute a break with orthodox conservative pluralism, the traditional promotion of national interest and protection of national sovereignty, which had become incompatible with the so-called R2P (« responsability to protect ») principle, officialised by the United Nations in 2005 and which had become associated with New Labour.  

17Wiliam Hague has on a number of occasions referred to his government’s foreign policy objectives as including the pursuit of « enlightened » national interest, acknowledged the responsibility to cooperate with multilateral organisations and described the United Kindom’s foreign policy as « values based » as opposed to interests based, thereby indicating a commitment to the promotion and defence of « values » and norms. This might translate into a propensity to intervene for humanitarian reasons, to support resistance to tyranny or dictatorship, to encourage and finance development programmes through the Department for International Development. Liberal conservatism would therefore be a major explanatory factor for the Liberal democrats acquiescence, as it promoted a foreign policy which the Liberal Democrats could abet and justify.

18Although it would be inaccurate to say that the coalition government has done nothing more than pay lip-service to a « revisited » transformative foreign policy, the fact yet remains that its commitment to liberal interventionism to date can best be described as skin-deep.The balance-sheet of the coalition is at best ambivalent. The Nato-led intervention in Libya in 2011 might seem to provide evidence of a values-based foreign policy, but it could also be interpreted as the British government’s willingness to accept responsibility as defined by the United States to secure the near abroad, or else as part of an energy security policy. The Coalition government’s response to the Arab spring was belated and limited : Britain was jolted into the promotion of liberal values in the MENA region through the BBC world service and the Official Development Assistance of the British Council, yet both were hampered by limited funding. If we add to this continued and intensified cooperation with the Gulf states and arms deals such as contracts for Typhoon fighter jets, the picture looks more ambivalent.

19It could finally be argued that the Coalition’s values-based foreign policy, and new emphases on soft power, are necessary adjuncts to the United Kingdom’s commercial diplomacy. Latin American leaders have on occasion remarked negatively about Britain’s promotion of narrowly defined national interest and warned against an opportunistic foreign policy, without substance and without a vision. We can therefore concur with Oliver Daddow that « the pursuit of values helps the pursuit of the United Kingdom’s economic and security interests » (Daddow, 2013).

20As the recent House of Commons vote on Syria exemplified, the Coalition government have been operating under a number of constraints, both economic and political, and British foreign policy has reflected the need to square the circles of party management and Coalition management. In this difficult balancing act values will be subservient to interests.

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Beech, M. (2011), ‘British Conservatism and Foreign Policy: Traditions and Ideas Shaping Cameron’s Global View’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 13(3).

Bevir, M., Daddow, O., Hall, I. (eds) (2013), Interpreting Global Security, London : Routledge, 2013.

Daddow, O. (2013), « Interpreting Liberal Conservative Foreign Policy », BISA Conference.

Daddow, O & Schnapper, P. (2013), « Liberal intervention in the foreign policy thinking of Tony Blair and David Cameron », Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26(2). Accessed on 10/12/2013.

Dunne,T. and McDonald, M. (2013), « The politics of liberal internationalism », International Politics, 50(1).

Harvey, M. (2011) ‘Perspectives on the UK’s Place in the World’, Chatham House Europe Programme Paper 2011/01 (London : Chatham House), Accessed on 10/12/2013.

Morris, J. (2013), « Libya and Syria :R2P and the spectre of the swinging pendulum », International Affairs, 89 : 5, 2013.

Ralph, J. (2013), « The liberal state in international society. Interpreting recent British foreign Policy », International Relations, London : Sage Publications.

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1  We are concerned here with the United Kingdom’s foreign policy as devised by state actors exclusively. The coalition government’s foreign policy has been dominated by the Conservatives; in keeping with tradition it is part of the reserved powers of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary.  

2  The tendency to oversimplify and misrepresent the Blair years was recently noted by Oliver Daddow in The use of force in British foreign policy : from New Labour to the Coalition (2013, Political Quarterly). Daddow argues that  the Blair government’s foreign policy has traditionally been presented as overdetermined by the responses to 9/11; in similar fashion Gordon Brown’s attempts to steer the United Kingdom’s foreign policy back towards multilateralism (if of a different kind) have been overlooked so as to very conveniently pitch the coalition’s foreign policy against the most objectionable decisions and strategies associated with New Labour.

3 The Rt Hon William Hague MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and CommonwealthAffairs of the United Kingdom, ‘The Commonwealth in a networked world’, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, Australia Wednesday 19th January 2010.

4  British exports to the BRICS countries have grown by 53% since 2007.

5  The mutualisation of British diplomatic resources with those of Commonwealth partners must be seen as an alternative to  the European External Action Service.

6  Oliver Daddow, « Interpreting Liberal Conservative Foreign Policy », BISA Conference.

7  Matt Beech, British Conservatism and Foreign Policy: traditions and ideas shaping Cameron’s global view, 2011, p. 12.

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Référence papier

Valérie Auda-André, « The Coalition’s foreign policy: a return to  realism? », Observatoire de la société britannique, 15 | 2014, 245-254.

Référence électronique

Valérie Auda-André, « The Coalition’s foreign policy: a return to  realism? », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 15 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2014, consulté le 21 avril 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1661

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Valérie Auda-André

Maître de conférences à Aix-Marseille Université

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