Previously I have held to the view that the Iraq war at the same time as Afghanistan has threatened to wreck the traditional British consensus on liberal intervention. I saw parliamentary control of war as being the best mechanism we have to ensure an active foreign policy in future, it represents the best opportunity we have to keep the public engaged in what Lindley-French describes as our missionary Foreign Policy. From the point of view of an effectively communicated geopolitics I was happy see the PM retain this power, but feared it would only be a faster route to Belgium.
However, Alistair Burt has given me pause to reconsider, and to refine my thoughts on Parliament’s role.
It’s a problem of parliamentary precedent and our missionary foreign policy, and recognising the difference between our national interest and a public good.
Alistair writes as follows:
“What exactly can a British government now do in terms of action abroad without explicit parliamentary approval? Since the build-up to war in Iraq in 2003, parliament and government have worked to a convention that if troops are to be deployed, then the Commons will get a vote. We had a vote on Libya, but not for the support we provided to the French for Mali….
Unwittingly, then, the UK finds itself in quite a mess. If we are now in the position of having to convince half of parliament plus one before difficult foreign policy executive action can be taken, to what can government commit itself in discussions with allies, or prepare in advance for regional strategic defence?…
Provided they are ultimately accountable to the public through election, or that a vote of confidence could do for a government’s existence, I do not believe the democratic balance is unfairly skewed by the executive retaining power to act solely by consultation and not immediate vote.”
He’s right. Our ability to influence geopolitics in our favour is in large part built on trust. Trust that people can come to us with hard decisions and expect that we will not shrug them off as a problem for someone else. Just as is the case with that other 21st century medium power (France), trust that we can and will intervene is what allows us to justify our UNSC seat.
The two problems we are evolving toward are self-reinforcing ills that threaten to paralyze our foreign policy:
1. The public seems not to like war any more, therefore the Gov’t does not have the moral authority to act anymore without first seeking wider consent
2. The Government doesn’t seem to have the moral authority to act anymore, therefore public expectation that this action is sometimes required diminishes
As Julian Lindley-French puts it:
“With the connivance of a risk-averse political leadership much of British society has been lulled into a strange almost child-like state; at one and the same time uncertain and uneasy and yet in many ways disengaged from their own security. In the absence of an elite consensus on strategy there is no honest debate with the people about the aims, costs and responsibilities of security”
However, i’m not entirely with Alistair here when he says:
“If Iran threatens not shipping lanes and UK interests directly, but a smaller Gulf state friendly to the UK that asks for our assistance, do the prime minister and foreign secretary decide and expect support, or do backbenchers decide?”
What are our direct “interests” in the Gulf if not friendly Gulf states?
In short we need to separate Britain’s national interest from our role as an enforcer of an international rules based system where laws and norms are adhered to. Yes, there is no clear distinction between the two for an an international rules based system where laws and norms are adhered to is also clearly in our national interest. However, we have a network of alliances, treaties, and intergovernmental organisations that span the world that could readily be used to delineate a specific interest from a general good.
A COIN weary public want reassurance that another crusading premier won’t lead them into further multi-decadel conflicts that they don’t recognise as being in their interest. So, by all means build public consent into the process of advocating and implementing the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. UN sanctioned action is increasingly going to rely on R2P as the legal foundation justifying military action, and if the UN approve it will likewise lower the bar for consent in the British electorate.
To return to that Gulf state; is it a friendly nation associated with Britain via some cooperative organising framework?
Having defined what is a public good, and what is a national interest we then bump into the problem of parliamentary precedent…
What we need is a war. The right kind of war. A limited conflict, that arises suddenly, and represents a serious threat to a friendly nation. Unambiguous enough that the PM can override the clamour for parliamentary approval, and the public can settle back into the role that Hague terms our enlightened national interest.
Will we be that lucky?