Syria’s population — at the heart of so many proxy battles for influence — last night found itself drawn into a different kind of conflict — this time over the future of British politics. After the British Parliament’s vote against action in Syria, the former Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Ashdown, tweeted that Britain is a “hugely diminished country” this morning: “In 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed.” But is he right to see this vote as a retreat into isolationism? I think it is rather a step into a more modern diplomacy, one where politics do not end at the water’s edge.
Once the dust settled on the vote, David Cameron’s closest ally, Chancellor George Osborne, said there will be a lot of “soul-searching” about Britain’s role in the world. There is talk about the shadow of Iraq, pacifism and anti-Americanism as a result of an unholy alliance between conservative little-Englanders and pacifists of the left. But though these tendencies were both represented in the lobbies of the House of Commons, they still represent a minority of the political spectrum. It is worth remembering that the Labour leader Ed Miliband did not argue against military action in principle, and even made a point of saying he could support intervention without a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The main reason that the Syrian campaign was voted down yesterday is not that Britain wants to retreat from the world — but that the case David Cameron put forward was incoherent, and the political management of the government was faulty. As my colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations Anthony Dworkin, Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey argued in a thoughtful paper last night, the rush to intervene punitively leaves many unanswered questions about the purpose and consequences of military action. In making the case for British action, Cameron tried to separate the case of chemical weapons from the wider situation: “this is not even about the Syria conflict” he said, “it’s about the use of chemical weapons.”
But the action he was proposing was explicitly not about securing and controlling the chemical weapons (an operation that would require no-fly zones, missile strikes and thousands of special operations forces) and the strikes were being planned before the evidence from the United Nations inspectors was even presented. If Britain and the U.S. were serious about moving towards a political solution on Syria, rather than pushing for precipitate military strikes, they would be working to expand the mandate of the U.N. inspectors to promote options for chemical-weapon oversight in Syria as well as the broader diplomatic effort. Given the positions that Russia, China and Iran have taken against chemical weapons they would find it much harder to oppose such measures.
With the unprecedented parliamentary rejection of a major foreign policy initiative, Britain has indeed crossed a watershed in foreign policy making, but the question is not about whether the UK engages with the world. It is about how its foreign policy is made. The former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, shocked the world when he declaimed to Rumsfeld in 2003: “”My generation learned you must make a case, and excuse me, I am not convinced….That is my problem, I cannot go to the public and say, ‘these are the reasons’, because I don’t believe in them.” But his political rather than diplomatic style which was so surprising in 2003 is on the way to becoming the new normal in 2013, as last night’s debate shows.
The speeches on the green benches were mature, thoughtful and evidence of a serious country that does not lurch unthinkingly into war. But they were also nakedly political rather than driven by statements of “raison d’etat” or bipartisan consensus. Like all modern democracies London is moving from a situation where foreign policy is outside the realm of party competition and contracted to diplomats to one where it is at the heart of modern politics. As global markets and austerity take more and more economic decisions out of the hand of politicians, foreign policy will naturally fill the space — and that is not a bad thing. But it does mean that foreign policy will have to be done differently — with cases being made more politically rather than relying on deference and unthinking Atlanticism.
David Cameron needs to work out if we wants to be heir to Tony Blair or heir to John Major in foreign policy. In recent months, we have seen that he has adopted some of the worst elements of both leaders — lurching into poorly conceived interventions and running from his own party on Europe. Until he seems to believe in something enough to challenge his own party, he is likely to be a prisoner of the Tory Party’s isolationist “Tea Party” tendency.
Ed Miliband, on the other hand, needs to show that his actions form part of a coherent world view — rather than simply being an opportunity to take Cameron down a peg or two. He needs to show that his goal was not pacifism or isolationism but rather a different way of doing foreign policy. In doing this he could do well to reach out to skeptics in the United States who have been calling for the administration to wait for the inspectors’ reports.
The vote against participation in military action against Syria is unprecedented in Parliamentary terms and is being compared to the humiliation of Suez. But the truth is that by avoiding an ill-judged intervention it could be the exact opposite of Suez, allowing Britain to play a constructive role in the Middle East and enhance its voice as a sovereign player. The fact that Britain cannot be taken for granted should increase its leverage over partners on future occasions. The vote will raise the bar for military action, but whether it amplifies or mutes Britain’s voice in the world will depend on political leadership.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.