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A review of the Fabian One Nation in the World Paper

10 February 2014

Last week the Fabian Society launched an excellent pamphlet exploring the values and strategy that could constitute Labour’s foreign policy.  It is also good food for thought for the development community. Development and foreign policies will of course be made in the same context and informed by the same values. But this pamphlet demonstrates how much scope there is for shared strategy and messaging too.

While the UK context for development policy isn’t yet one of austerity, as it is now for defence and arguably foreign policy, it is certainly one in which decisions about spending have to be better justified than ever to struggling taxpayers. The increasingly tense relationship with Europe does damage to diplomacy but also detaches the UK from the world’s biggest development superpower. Broader shifts in global power towards the east are not only recasting diplomatic relationships but challenging conventional western models of development, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

It’s not just this context but the values that guide our response that are the same. When Malcolm Chalmers, who contributed to the pamphlet, writes about a rule-based international order, strengthened international institutions that promote social justice, the advancement of human rights and more equal growth, he is talking about values to guide global development as much as foreign policy.

The shared context and values are perhaps unsurprising. But when looking at strategy and policy, and how this is communicated, there is real scope for shared thinking too.

Take for example the renewed approach to multilateral institutions that Rachel Briggs calls for – investing more in multilateral alliances that do work, such as the Contact Group on Piracy, and investing more in local and regional bodies too. What does this mean for Labour’s development policy? Should the UK go it alone on an issue like tax and transparency where international consensus is tricky? Can we be more creative finding new international coalitions for development? Where does the Multilateral Aid Review leave us vis-à-vis our commitment to the UN and established multilateral development institutions?

Or Europe, can Labour really make the case for development without reference to the institution through which a significant proportion of our aid budget is channelled? If Labour puts Europe back at the centre of foreign policy, can we help win that argument in part through Europe’s track record on development?

If Labour looks towards a foreign policy with new partners, including the private sector, what can Labour learn from the shift that has taken place in DFID in recent years towards private sector partnerships? For Labour development policy, how do we strike the right balance between holding the private sector accountable on an issue like tax dodging, while working with the private sector on their inevitable and potentially transformative role in development?

The future of intervention is perhaps the trickiest question for Labour foreign policy. Mark Leonard thinks this won’t be a significant feature of our foreign affairs again for some time to come. But even if full-scale military interventions feel unlikely, we are every day making choices about how far to go in the affairs of other countries. What are our options in Syria if we don’t intervene? How far can we push democracy and human rights elsewhere in the Middle East, as established elites return or hold on to power? If we are serious about promoting social justice overseas, we will struggle to avoid intervention altogether. But does a softer, development-led approach make intervention easier to swallow?

Last but not least – indeed perhaps most importantly of all – there’s the question of how these strategic choices are communicated. Foreign and development policy is never going to be a vote winner; development policy arguably the opposite. But several contributors point to the lack of trust between the electorate and government on foreign policy and development, the reluctance of the public to look globally when there are problems at home, the distrust of the EU and the frustration with immigration.

It’s going to be difficult enough to persuade people that domestic issues and international issues cannot be separated, that the former cannot be solved without the right approach to the latter, and that the right approach should be a bold, values-driven internationalism. It’s going to be doubly difficult if we don’t tell a coherent story across diplomacy, defence and development.

Ultimately decisions about development policy should and will continue to be taken independently of decisions about foreign and defence policy. Poverty reduction should and will remain the first consideration – even if we also acknowledge the rewards that we reap in terms of reputation and leverage.

But as Labour works up its international strategy, and starts telling a story about the UK’s role in the world, acknowledging the synergies across diplomacy, defence and development will be crucial.

by Laura Kyrke-Smith, LCID CLP & PPC Outreach Officer

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