Since world war two, changes of government in Britain have not led to significant shifts in foreign policy. Both the largest parties have invariably shared the same aims and illusions. In opposition, parties have been roiled by disagreements over external affairs and defence, for example over our approach to the European Union and the possession of nuclear weapons. In government, the same parties have found a workable way forward and I doubt whether the situation will be much different after May 6.
Today, the Labour and Conservative parties both want to retain a credible deterrent; all who are concerned about national security will hope that this is not a question that ever needs to be resolved in the often zany atmosphere of a Liberal Democrat party conference. The same could be said of the role of Britain’s forces in Afghanistan and the future of Nato.
As for Europe, day by day the EU looks less like the community that has unsettled so many British voters. With Germany having decided to behave like Britain or France – putting its own perceived national interest ahead of European ambitions – any remaining drive for further integration has largely run out of gas. The inherent flaws in the eurozone also apply a brake to European development. Attention is likely to focus on the competitiveness gap between Germany and southern European countries, particularly Spain. The challenge is to hang on to the hugely beneficial single market yet resist interventions from Brussels that undermine domestic regulation.
In fact, our national interest is in some areas to press for greater European co-operation, over energy for example, in the teeth of opposition from Italy and Germany. Without that, Europe will lack an adequate policy on Russia. Moreover, we should look for ways of working politically with France and Germany, not least where Europe should be playing a bigger role in international security.
What will most affect our foreign policy is the state of the economy. That is an old lesson most forcefully spelt out by Ernest Bevin, a former Labour foreign secretary. The recovery under prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe, chancellor of the exchequer, in the 1980s was accompanied by greater international prestige and influence. Economic growth in the 2000s had a similar impact. The Iraq war and our economic woes have badly damaged our global reputation. I do not believe Britain faces systemic decline. But many will argue the contrary until we climb out of the hole into which unwise policies have so precipitately tipped us.
More practically, the economy will determine policy in several key areas. First, the main parties agree that we should safeguard spending on development aid. This may prove unpopular when other domestic programmes are being cut. However, it will retain our leading position in the debate on global inequity. I hope this does not overlook our interest in good governance and open markets.
Second, the defence review will be constrained by the need to cut spending. It will have to take account of the needs of our armed forces in combating terrorism. Labour and Conservatives are committed to staying in Afghanistan, presumably as long as our US partners are there.
Our ability to sustain a diplomatic network will also be affected by cuts. In economic crises, the Foreign Office and the British Council are invariably required to make more than their fair share of cuts despite relatively small budgets. That should not happen again. It makes no sense to protect aid spending in Africa but cut diplomatic posts and British Council work there.
What should be the main role of our foreign policy? Most problems we face require global co-operation, from the drug trade (that threatens to wreck Mexico) to terrorism (incubated in the world’s failed states). This sort of co-operation is usually called multi-lateralism and is institutionalised through the UN and its associated bodies.
Without resiling from the job of trying to reform the UN, it is not unfair to note that it is better at normative diplomacy than at launching action on the ground. It overwhelmingly endorsed the principle of Responsibility to Protect (to prevent atrocities) in 2005 but has been paralysed when political and diplomatic intervention has been required, for example to protect Tamil civilians in the Sri Lankan government campaign to wipe out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Moises Naim, Foreign Policy editor-in-chief, has argued that most problems today require mini-lateralist not multi-lateralist solutions; smaller groups of countries come together to solve them rather than trying to mobilise all 192 UN members. This is true of the Group of 20 leading nations (which we should aim to link institutionally with the Bretton Woods institutions). It is likely to be true of nuclear proliferation and Iran. It is also true of terrorism and the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mini-lateralism will be required in Sudan, Congo and elsewhere. The aim of our foreign policy should be to place ourselves near the heart of this mini-lateralist process, invariably with like-minded European partners. Whether we can do that will depend heavily on the success of our economic policy.
Lord Patten is chancellor of Oxford university. His latest book is What Next? Surviving the 21st Century
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published