British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Chapter 24 notes - Britain and the World: Making Foreign Policy

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  • Although foreign policy is often perceived as a relatively specialist and elitist field, it can have massive consequences for the wider public, with considerable potential implications for British politics.
  • British Prime Ministers have often appeared more important in shaping foreign policy than their Foreign Secretaries. Under Blair in particular the influence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer has also been significant. This is even more likely with coalition foreign and defence policy in the light of spending cuts.
  • There is persistent tension in foreign policy between the pursuit of national interests and the acceptance of international obligations and international law. This reflects the continuing disagreement between realist and liberal (or idealist) theories of international relations.
  • Increasingly, international institutions, multi-national corporations and non-governmental organizations have become influential players alongside state governments in global politics.
  • In the period of the Cold War between the two superpowers of the USA and USSR, British foreign policy was shaped by NATO and the special relationship with the United States. The European Community was perceived as complementary with (rather than competing against) the American alliance.
  • The end of the Cold War posed new and different threats, with implications for the role of an enlarged NATO and European Union, with some potential tensions between the two, and for British foreign policy, caught ‘between Europe and America’.
  • International terrorism, particularly after 9/11, strengthened the Atlanticist tendencies in the Labour government’s foreign policy, as America’s closest ally in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with potentially far-reaching consequences for British politics and British society.
  • The continuing divisions over Iraq (and to a lesser extent Afghanistan), coupled with the impact of the recession and public spending cuts, make it unlikely that British governments of any party will lightly contemplate armed intervention for the foreseeable future.
  • In this and other respects the replacement of the Labour government by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition has not involved a sharp change of direction for Britain’s foreign, defence and international development policies.