Moving Beyond National Security: Key Questions for a Future Government

We’re over a week into the general election campaign and when it comes to foreign policy, campaign agendas have yet to really go beyond debates about national security, with both the major parties focusing on flexing their muscles on defence and illegal migration. This isn’t hugely surprising. As I touched on in my last piece, defence and migration are two areas of foreign policy where public opinion is particularly strongly held, and media coverage is particularly explosive, making them ripe for attention during the election campaign. But as soon as the next government takes office, whoever that may be, they will quickly be confronted by deep and complex foreign policy challenges on issues much less close to the limelight. So, what will some of the immediate policy questions be?

1. How can the UK engage with Europe?

Straight out of the starting gate, a new government will be pushed to the forefront of European politics, with the UK set to host the European Political Community on the 18th July, just two weeks after the election. This provides an early opportunity for the next government to make clear their approach to Europe. For Sunak that would mean being able to push for European cooperation on tackling illegal migration and strengthening support for Ukraine, although it is clear the focus on illegal migration will ruffle some feathers in Europe. 

For Starmer, hosting the EPC would provide an opportunity to quickly cement Labour’s pro-European credentials, and win early friends and allies across Europe. But it may also come too soon – two weeks is hardly enough time for a new government to have a fully fleshed out strategy on how to approach one of its most important and complex relationships. And crucially, the agenda for the EPC has already been set by Sunak. The Summit’s focus on illegal migration could prove particularly challenging, not least as Starmer plans to rip up the Conservatives’ Rwanda policy. While the Summit therefore provides an opportunity to quickly signpost the trajectory of the UK’s relationship with Europe, Labour will also need to think strategically about how to maximise an opportunity that would come hurtling at them if they come into office.

Beyond the immediacy of the EPC, developing a clear set of priorities for engagement with Europe will be crucial for both parties in defining the UK’s role in the world against the backdrop of war in Ukraine and an increasingly isolationist United States. Much has been said about the parties’ respective plans for UK-EU relations but little attention has been paid to how receptive European partners may be to different forms of engagement. Indeed, from my own conversations with European counterparts it’s clear that while individual nations may be eager to engage bilaterally with the UK, the EU itself remains bruised by Brexit and reluctant to strike major deals with the UK. Both political parties would therefore do well to thoughtfully consider Europe’s perspective on the relationship, particularly within the context of next week’s European parliamentary elections which are expected to see a rise in the populist right, in order to assess the feasibility of their plans for the relationship.

2. How ‘special’ should the special relationship be?

While the general election may bring some certainty to the UK policy sphere, a new government will face a large amount of uncertainty about the future of its relationship with the United States. It’s too early to tell who will win the White House, and, particularly in the case of Trump, to predict what their precise approach to foreign policy or to the UK specifically might be. However, regardless of who wins in the United States, the UK and Europe will undoubtedly face growing pressure to increase investment in European defence and security, as the United States increasingly focuses inwards and on China. For both parties it is therefore crucial that they consider how much they can reasonably rely on the United States and what partnerships and alliances to focus on in order to mitigate some of the potential impacts. 

Labour, though, has a particularly big stake in the outcome of the US election. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy’s friendship with Obama and Labour’s growing ties with the Democrats place them on a strong footing to make the most of the special relationship if Biden wins another term. And while Labour has said it will look to find a ‘common cause’ with Trump, and key Republicans have been vocal in their preference for David Lammy over David Cameron, there is no denying that the relationship between Starmer and Trump would be particularly difficult. Not only do Trump’s ambitions on the world stage vary substantively from both parties’ (not least on Ukraine), but they will also face difficult questions about how closely to align with a newly convicted felon. 

Of course, the US-UK relationship has endured many difficult relationships in the past, and no doubt whatever combination of individuals end up in No.10 and the White House, the special relationship will largely endure. But both Conservatives and Labour will need to think carefully about how to navigate an increasingly complicated relationship and how to prepare for some potentially uncomfortable conversations with one of its biggest partners.

3. How much of a risk is China? 

The two main parties’ approaches to China are broadly aligned. The Conservatives’ approach is to – ‘protect’ the UK’s national interests, ‘align’ with allies on the UK’s approach to China and ‘engage’ with China bilaterally and on major global issues. Meanwhile, Labour define their approach as the ‘3 C’s’ – compete, challenge and cooperate. The language is different but its clear the broad premise is the same – engagement and collaboration with China where it makes sense to do so, while also shoring up national resilience to protect the UK against any potential threats China may pose. And the rationale for this is clear – China is a major global power on whom the UK relies but also, and as recent revelations not least about Chinese hacking and spying have made clear, a growing risk to UK security. 

However, it is a bit like having your cake and eating it – picking and choosing when to engage with China, with no particularly coherent strategy. A clear example of this is in regards to Tiktok, an app banned from government electronic devices because of the potential security risks it poses. Yet both major parties have been using the app extensively in their election campaigning, as a way to drive up engagement with younger voters. But whether Tiktok (and by extension to some extent China) are a security risk or not, the risk levels haven’t changed in the last week, and our assessment can’t just be driven by what is politically expedient in that moment.

Labour will no doubt hope their proposed China audit will provide some of the answers – creating clarity on the current state of Chinese involvement across critical UK sectors. But the tough questions will still follow about what the concrete actions and plan that stem from it should be. To be a success, this will require whoever wins the election to move beyond the vague and towards instead defining a very clear set of priorities and principles for the UK-China relationship, and making clear how they will be applied in practice.

4. Should the FCDO remain merged?

Even among its strongest proponents, the FCDO merger is understood to have been far from smooth. Ostensibly driven by a desire to ensure the UK’s foreign and development policy are coherent and aligned, the FCDO merger has been a long and difficult process. Indeed, a recent National Audit Office investigation found that the merger had been costly and lacked clear direction.

This has generated renewed calls, led particularly by the development sector, for development to be separated out from the foreign office once more – a move it hopes would strengthen UK leadership in development. There are clear pros and cons to both joint or separate departments, which, in its crudest terms, boil down to the benefits of joined-up thinking versus ensuring international development gets due attention. But also crucially important is the impact undoing the merger, or not, would have on the FCDO internally, particularly on staff morale, which has taken a significant hit during the merger process. However, many FCDO staff would also baulk at the idea of having to go through yet another restructure.

Labour have been very vocal in their critique of the merger, but still need to iron out whether or not that means they should actually undo it. And if not, Labour faces the same question as the Conservatives (who show no sign of wishing to restructure the organisation again) of how to imbue the FCDO with a clear sense of purpose and boost morale after a very challenging few years for the department. That will be no mean feat.

5. Where can the UK authentically lead?

One of the biggest issues with UK foreign policy in recent years has been its desire to be everything to everyone, all at once. The Integrated Review and (to a lesser extent) its subsequent Refresh advocate for the UK to achieve ‘superpower’ status across a vast array of policy areas. But in an increasingly competitive and fast changing world, there are limits to the opportunities for the UK to lead. It will be critically important then for any future government to reflect inwards on what its strengths are and where they lie – from education to law to sport – and to place these front and centre of its international offer. Not only will this help drive clearer trade and investment opportunities, it will also enable the UK to enhance its international development offer, strengthen its contribution to multilateral institutions and better utilise its soft power. 

Focusing on strengths might sound simple, but especially for a new government facing influencing efforts from every angle, it can be difficult to cut through the noise. Leading with our strengths will require trade-offs. It will require frank and honest conversations about where the UK’s USPs lie and a willingness to prioritise (and deprioritise) areas of UK foreign policy. Something the UK has been notoriously bad at doing.

6. How do we pay for it all?

Speaking of trade-offs, a future government will need to answer difficult questions about resourcing for its international activities. Both parties are now committed to increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP, a commitment that is widely understood to be essential to meeting the severe resourcing gaps currently facing the military, and to meeting pressures from the US for Europe to take on a bigger role in its own security. And now the conversation has already quickly turned to whether the UK should be further increasing defence spending, up to 3% of GDP. Both Labour and Conservatives are also committed to returning to spending 0.7% GNI on international aid and development at some stage, although the vagueness of timelines on this makes it impossible to know when (if ever) either party may do it.

Regardless, it’s clear that the foreign policy resource requests are racking up, at a time where government departments across the board are also feeling the squeeze. And while it’s all well and good to talk in the abstract about the need to increase foreign policy spending, the reality is that the money has to come from somewhere. It is therefore critically important that a prospective government asks itself some difficult questions about where its priorities lie – whether cutting NHS waiting times is more important than providing more financial aid to Ukraine, whether increasing investment in primary education in the UK is more important than increasing access to water in developing nations. These are not always easy or comfortable to answer. And they become even more difficult when you have to prioritise between different areas of foreign policy too. While defence will no doubt always take a large proportion of the budget, not least because it’s a very expensive endeavour, there are opportunity costs, not least in long-term resilience building, in prioritising defence over, for example, development or diplomacy. 

Of course this is a rather crude illustration of the point – in reality foreign and domestic policy (and spending) are deeply intertwined. Investments in international climate action can help increase the production of clean energy and help reduce energy bills in the UK. Global cooperation on infectious diseases can help reduce the impact of a potential pandemic on the NHS, and so on. But it would be wrong to deny that, as with any form of government spending, foreign policy spending presents some degree of opportunity cost. An incoming government will therefore be confronted with some difficult choices about what, both domestically and internationally, it can afford to prioritise and what the costs and trade-offs of that might be.

A Difficult Set of of Questions

This list isn’t exhaustive. There will also be questions around climate, economic security, trade, diplomacy, and much more besides. There will also be big questions to answer on the topics that have received significant coverage so far including both defence and migration. It is clear then that, even where the debate so far has focused rather narrowly on national security and while there is a rather large degree of consensus between the two parties on foreign policy, there are lots of big questions and few easy answers. The world around us is changing. Fast. And the UK has yet to work out precisely what its role in that world should be. Maybe it will never really know. But a future government will have the difficult mission of trying to work that out. It will be no easy task.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group