If you want to understand UK foreign policy in the Cameron era, the government’s reaction to events in Gaza is enlightening. Following William Hague’s statement to Parliament on Tuesday, there can be no doubt about the UK government’s position as to where the blame lies for the fresh outbreak of violence. The Foreign Secretary’s words have been unequivocal since the conflict began: Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks.
He has been equally clear in pressing for a “de-escalation” of the conflict and, in particular, urging Israel not to launch a ground invasion.
The rhetoric is all very well. But it merely draws attention to the extent that the UK has disengaged from conventional diplomacy in the Middle East.
Ed Miliband was right to ask the Prime Minister what his government was doing beyond the rhetoric. Is it any surprise that we have no influence when David Cameron has shown such little interest? He has not visited Israel since becoming Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary has visited just once. His answers to Ed Miliband showed a basic grasp of the geo-politics and he defended his decision not to back a unilateral Palestinian UN bid for statehood. But there were no new ideas and no sign of genuine curiosity about the region.
The arrival of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo for talks on Wednesday only drew attention to the fact that we are simply irrelevant to this process.
How has this happened? Has the UK government simply drifted into becoming mere bystanders in the Middle East? Or was this disengagement a conscious decision to break with the doctrine of humanitarian intervention from the Blair era?
Clues can be found in David Cameron’s Guildhall speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet earlier this month. Traditionally, this annual event is used to outline Britain’s foreign policy priorities. But Mr Cameron has always been uncomfortable talking about foreign affairs. He is a domestic politician to his very core, schooled in the Westminster village and steeped in the parochial, Little Englander instincts of his party. This is why he turned his Guildhall address into a defence of the British banking industry
But it was more than that. It was the first tentative attempt to outline a “Cameron Doctrine”. He told the gathering that he wanted to make “a different kind of speech”, because he had done something different with foreign policy.
“I have given it a new commercial focus,” he continued. “When I became prime minister, I said to our diplomats in the Foreign Office: ‘I don’t just want you to be political ambassadors for Britain, I want you to be economic ambassadors, too.’”
At the heart of the Cameron Doctrine is this simple message: “Now, I know there are some people who say that’s not real foreign policy or worse still, it’s just globe-trotting. But I say there is a global race out there to win jobs for Britain and I believe in leading from the front.”
Those wondering why the British government is not more actively engaged with events in Israel and Gaza need look no further than the Cameron Doctrine: not an ethical foreign policy, not humanitarian intervention, more the commercial imperative.