The death of foreign policy

What will foreign policy be like under Gordon Brown, or David Cameron? Similar to what it was like under Blair: a desperate search for purpose overseas.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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There is a lot of debate about the future of UK foreign policy after Tony Blair steps down as prime minister on 27 June (1). As professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas argues: ‘Foreign policy has been a defining feature of the Labour government under Tony Blair.’ (2) The same point has been made by Blair himself, everywhere from the pages of the liberal Guardian to the US establishment journal Foreign Affairs (3). In fact, the centrality of foreign policy to UK government policymaking highlights a major shift over the last decade in the thinking about international issues. As Timothy Garton Ash notes in a recent interview with Blair: ‘Perhaps the biggest change in his 10 years at No 10 is the way the global has overtaken the local. “Foreign policy is no longer foreign policy.”’ (4)

This essay seeks to rethink what foreign policy means today, and suggests that the new centrality of foreign policy to government concerns is not based on the dynamism of threats and of new thinking and new organisational practices in this area. Though it may seem like there has been a rise in foreign policy, there has, in fact, been a decline in instrumental, strategically-engaged foreign policy making. To all intents and purposes it appears that the UK no longer has a foreign policy; the attraction of the international sphere lies precisely in the fact that policymaking in this area is free from the traditional constraints of strategic planning, accountability and policy responsibility.


Foreign policy certainly is not what it used to be, but neither is domestic policy. Global issues have taken centre stage in the domestic policy agenda during the Blair years. Leading policy advisers have argued that this new centrality is due to an opening up of foreign policy to popular concerns. For former Blair adviser Robert Cooper, foreign policy making is no longer about elite concerns with narrow state interests but, instead, it is a mark of our ‘postmodern’ condition, in which popular concerns are ethical and likely to concern global issues of the environment, poverty, terrorism or human rights. This inverses the traditional understanding of foreign policy as a narrowly instrumental sphere of conflict and state interest; seeing foreign policy as ‘the continuation of domestic concerns beyond national boundaries and not vice versa’ (5).

While all commentators and policymakers agree on the centrality of foreign policy to government today, there is much less clarity on what the content of it is or should be. As the Institute for Public Policy Research notes, perhaps surprisingly, ‘despite strategic reviews in the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in No 10, the UK government has not yet developed a comprehensive national security strategy’ (6).

The most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) white paper lists nine strategic priorities, from making the world safe from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, tackling international crime and preventing and resolving conflict around the world to supporting sustainable development and poverty reduction, promoting human rights and democracy and protecting the environment (7). On the FCO website, another priority has been added: ‘Achieving climate security by promoting a faster transition to a sustainable, low-carbon global economy.’ (8)

It seems that while it is easy to draw up an international wish list, of every issue from climate change to conflict resolution, this is not the same as having strategic priorities. In fact, it could be argued that the more priorities there are, the less easy it is strategically to plan foreign policy making.

The more debate there is about strategic priorities, the more strategic reviews are launched and the more commissions that are set up to develop a comprehensive foreign security policy, the less clear it is that the UK has anything that could reasonably be called a foreign policy at all. In fact, it seems that rather than foreign policy becoming central to a new, more dynamic, democratic, people-powered and postmodern government agenda, foreign policy is being used as a stand-in for the lack of a domestic government agenda.

Regardless of the number of strategic priorities the UK has, there are three key aspects to foreign policy making under Blair, and these aspects will also be crucial under the future governments of Gordon Brown or David Cameron. These three aspects have been regularly stressed by Blair in his often repeated assertions that ‘the UK must adopt a “values driven, activist and multilateralist” foreign policy’ (9). It is worth thinking through the implications of the desire to shape policymaking and the UK’s strategic priorities around a foreign policy agenda which takes on these three characteristics.


Why does foreign policy need to be driven by values rather than interests? On one level, it is obvious that there can be no clear distinction between the two; the possession of either collective values or national interests are predicated on similar processes of self-understanding and the articulation of common purposes. It is inconceivable that one could hold a set of values that would be contrary to one’s interests, or that one could have an interest in a goal which could not be accounted for within one’s moral compass of values. Values and interests seem to be merely two different ways of expressing or constructing very similar ends. In fact, many commentators have argued that the agenda of international relations has changed because societies’ values and interests have been constructed differently; values in this sense are not posed counter to interests but represent a different understanding of what those interests are (10).

Until very recently – in the UK, it was until 1997, when the incoming Labour government introduced ‘an ethical dimension’ into foreign policy making – foreign policy was implicitly understood to be both ethical and interest-based. It was seen as ethical to pursue the national interest, however this might be understood, and the pursuit of a collective, national, public interest meant that foreign policy – and war and intervention – was seen as an ethical, value-based, sphere of activity.

The introduction of ‘an ethical dimension’ into foreign policy in the 1990s created a division between ethical and non-ethical policymaking and established the idea of a divide between values-based and interests-based policymaking. With the end of the geopolitical division of the Cold War it was less clear how foreign policy could be articulated on the basis of traditional national interests, and the idea of value-based policymaking began to make headway.

Yet there is one difference between values and interests. One can hold values without engaging in foreign policy making; values do not depend on engagement with the outside world, and success or failure in any engagement will not necessarily impact on one’s values. Interests, on the other hand, suggest the need for a strategic engagement with the world of international affairs in order to safeguard or further those interests. Values can never be put at stake by the actions of others; they may offend our values, but these cannot be threatened in the same way that our interests can be. Interests are dynamic, vulnerable and subject to change, in ways which values are not.

What, then, are the consequences of understanding foreign policy as ‘values-based’ rather than ‘interest-based’? The articulation of interests necessitates an engagement in politics – in the socio-political world around us – as interests are strategic and pragmatic and clarify necessary policy choices and the trade-offs involved. ‘Values-based policymaking’ is, in fact, a contradiction in terms. While values can inform our understanding of our interests, policy cannot be based on values themselves. Values-based policymaking does not necessitate instrumental political engagement and involves no similar process of strategic choice making. Whereas interests involve conscious political engagement, values lend themselves not to engagement but to the more passive act of their expression. The UK can express its values in concerns over conflict, poverty, climate change, crime and terrorism but there is no need to choose which issues are more important or to think strategically if policy is values-based.

The shift from interest-based to value-based foreign policy would indicate that foreign policy is no longer strategic and is less based on engagement in the international sphere. It is therefore of little surprise that the shift in foreign policy making over the last 10 years has gone along with the reduction in the influence and staffing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the concentration and personalisation of foreign policy making. The shift to values both reflects and reproduces the difficulty of deciding what the UK’s strategic priorities are in the international arena.


What is an activist foreign policy? Why should foreign policy necessarily be activist? Without discussing the content of foreign policy, it is, at first glance, difficult to understand why activism in this area is so central to the British government and its policy advisers. Along with the call for activism, there is often a high level of sensitivity to the threats and dangers facing us if we are not active enough.

Lord Paddy Ashdown, for example, heading up the Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, argues that we are living in a ‘uniquely turbulent, unstable world’, where the wars in the Balkans and Africa which have excited so much international attention are merely ‘little wars’, ‘pre-shocks to major shifts which herald much wider conflict’ (11). A recent government policy review paper, Britain in the World, suggests that Ashdown is right to sound the alarm as the challenges we face, from terrorism to climate change, are inter-related and require an integrated military, diplomatic and development response (12).

This bleak and disturbing vision of the world is necessary, according to Downing Street, to demonstrate that ‘in a complex and potentially dangerous world, we need to remain committed to an active, values-based foreign policy’ (13).

However, we seem to be at risk from so many threats – from crime, poverty, disease and climate change to failed states and international terrorism – that it is surely difficult to know where to begin when it comes to ‘integrating a response’. There is also a sense of desperation in the hyping-up of doom-and-gloom scenarios as if a coherent approach to foreign policy making could be willed merely by the mention of an ever-growing list of threats. The fact that all the threats are ‘interrelated’ is of less help than it might appear, as this makes it more difficult to isolate particular problems or particular strategies of threat reduction. If everything is interrelated and inter-dependent, then policymakers have little way of prioritising threats or of judging the impact of their policy interventions.

Blair’s call for an ‘activist’ foreign policy is more meaningful when considered in the context of a ‘values-based’ approach. While both aspects provide little guide to strategic policymaking they both appeal to the more passive and less engaged, less strategic, desire to express concern about issues rather than instrumentally address them. In many respects, Labour’s activist foreign policy is, literally, the policy approach of an activist.

I was struck, while listening to Hilary Benn, UK secretary of state for international development, launching the Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, by how personal and emotive foreign policy making has become. Like Blair, Benn was making the point that he was personally angry about poverty in Africa and other ills in the world, which he was campaigning to address (14). Activist foreign policy enables government ministers, like Benn and Blair, to present themselves as if they are individual activists and campaigners – in the mould of Sir Bob Geldof or U2’s Bono – rather than political representatives, responsible and accountable for strategic policymaking.

An activist foreign policy is clearly one which is less content-based and has very loose moorings in long-term strategic policymaking. In fact, the logic of activist policy is that of campaigning and lobbying for good causes rather than taking responsibility for policymaking. This role of campaigning rather than policymaking seems to have been enhanced by the UK government’s focus on issues such as climate change and poverty reduction in Africa, where UK presidencies of the G8 or chairing of the UN Security Council have been used to push these institutions to take on stronger roles in this area.


A multilateral foreign policy agenda is necessarily closed to strategic planning. For plans to be more than empty wishlists, planners need to be in control of the inputs and resources and to be able to take responsibility for the development and implementation of a plan. Without the facility of control, planning becomes idealised, with little need for hard policy choices and trade-offs. To put multilateralism as a starting principle, rather than first deciding on policy priorities and then thinking of which tactical alliances might be necessary, is indicative of the desire to pass responsibility for hard choices on to others and the rejection of accountability when it comes to questions of planning, control, and taking policy responsibility.

The emphasis on multilateralism has facilitated a shift in foreign policy discussions form substantive policy frameworks to a focus on ‘co-ordination’, ‘coherence’, ‘comprehensiveness’ and ‘joined-up policymaking’. The problems of foreign policy making and implementation are then understood to be technical or organisational questions rather than ones of strategic and political purpose.

In this respect, the call for ‘policy coherence’, central to the demand for multilateralism, is a bureaucratic substitute for politically coherent policymaking, where the clarity of goals enables instrumental policy approaches. Rather than justifying a policy in terms of policy goals, the desire for a multilateral approach reflects the lack of desire on the part of government to defend strategic choices on the basis of policy content or outcomes. It would appear that the particular project or issue focus is less important than the symbolic show of taking international problems seriously by turning them into ‘international concerns’.

The demand for multilateralism feeds into the two aspects highlighted above; values and activism. Making foreign policy making a question of multilateralism similarly enables government representatives to express their concerns about issues without taking responsibility for policy decisions or for mobilising the necessary resources to address an issue.

With little connection between policy rhetoric and political commitment or accountability for policy outcomes, policymaking and judgements of foreign policy success have been highly self-referential. This desire to prioritise rhetoric over policy responsibility is also reflected in the shift away from the focus on particular policy issues to broader and more declaratory projects, such as ‘saving Africa’, ‘preventing state failure’, not just ending conflicts but ‘resolving the causes of conflicts’, or ‘eradicating poverty’. The UK government is by no means exceptional in its desire to pass the policy-buck to international institutions and its desire to minimise the importance of strategic thinking while taking onboard the single-issue campaigning that was previously the preserve of non-governmental organisations.


Counter-intuitively perhaps, the UK’s foreign policy is, in fact, far from values-based, activist, or multilateralist. Firstly, it would be wrong to understand values as playing the same role as interests were perceived to do in policymaking in the past. The exaggerated rhetoric of global threats is based on neither a clear view of UK values nor a clear view of strategic interests, making the arguments that we have either a moral duty or a security interest in a much more activist and interventionist policy approach – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere – sound increasingly desperate. For this reason, arguments based on ethics tend to bring in security interests for support and those based on security concerns tend to reinforce their case with appeals to ethical arguments.

It is the lack of a positive political goal or purpose that makes ‘values-based’ foreign policy increasingly difficult to act upon. Without a cause, a sense of purpose or political meaning it is difficult to engage in the making of policy. Policy cannot be formulated without a future-orientated vision of society, to which the government is committed. As the academic Paul Williams argues: ‘In short, policy puts an emphasis on discerning what a desirable world would look like and how it may be brought about through conscious action.’ (15)

This is because policymaking entails taking responsibility for making choices dependent upon having a conviction in a political goal. It is only a strong conviction in the political ends of a policy that enables governments and societies to justify and legitimise the inevitable costs (whether in terms of money, soldiers/civilian lives, or other resources) of achieving these policy ends.

Secondly, it would be wrong to see the ‘activism’ promised by Labour as anything other than a step back from serious engagement with international relations, and a retreat into policymaking as declaration or lobbying others to act. Today, Western political elites lack a strong political vision and therefore have a transformed perception of and relationship to political power. Their lack of vision, or ‘values’, is reflected in their inability to maintain a clear long-term strategic engagement with the world around them. Instrumental strategic policymaking depends on political elites having a clear view of themselves and confidence in their ability to mobilise society around policy needs.

Today, governments and policymakers are much more likely to experience their policy-making power as a ‘risk’ or a cause of potential embarrassment than as an opportunity. They often seek to reject, rather than welcome, the responsibilities of power (16). As with the Labour government, Western political elites are uneasy when claiming the rights of power, and many governments seem happier when they are disclaiming accountability, seeking to devolve policymaking responsibilities to higher bodies such as the European Union or international institutions. This activism is driven by the desire to evade policy accountability, rather than a desire to engage in the world.

Thirdly, this policy approach is the opposite of genuine multilateralism, based on shared goals and interests. In fact, the dynamic is an entirely self-absorbed one. It is the domestic breakdown of connection between government and society that has facilitated the focus on the international sphere. This is not because of the dynamism and centrality of international policymaking but the opposite; it is the desire to avoid taking responsibility for policymaking and for policy outcomes which has engendered a shift of focus to the international sphere where the relationship between policy aims and results is a much more mediated one (17). The shift in focus to the international realm is a product of governmental weakness and disconnection from society, rather than a sign of having a clear sense of a collective or ‘national’ interest or shared ‘values’ to project.

Once we can understand the reasons for the turn to the global or international policymaking sphere as a desire to escape from the burdens of policy responsibility, the transformed nature of foreign policy discussions becomes clearer. What we are witnessing is, in fact, the death of foreign policy. Foreign policy has become a substitute for domestic policymaking, concerned with government’s domestic image and standing rather than instrumental activity in the international sphere.

David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Read his website Previously on spiked

David Chandler described how ‘saving Africa’ has become a key focus of British foreign policy. Philip Cunliffe reviewed David Chandler’s book Empire in Denial, and looked at the atrophy of foreign policy today. Brendan O’Neill asked: Is Bush Blair’s poodle?. Frank Furedi said politics without sovereignty is not politics at all. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.

(1) Most visibly perhaps in the establishment of the ‘Commission on National Security in the 21st Century’, run under the auspices of the Institute for Public Policy Research and co-chaired by Lord George Robertson and Lord Paddy Ashdown. The commission’s website is here.

(2) Blair’s Foreign Policy and its Possible Successor(s), by Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Chatham House Briefing Paper 06/01, December 2006.

(3) For example, Like it or loathe it, after 10 years Blair knows exactly what he stands for, Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian, 26 April 2007; ‘A Battle for Global Values’, by Tony Blair, Foreign Affairs, Vol.86, No.1 (2007): pp.79-90.

(4) Like it or loathe it, after 10 years Blair knows exactly what he stands for, Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian, 26 April 2007

(5) The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century, Robert Cooper, Atlantic Books (London), 2003: p.53.

(6) The Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, IPPR.

(7) Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: The UK’s International Priorities, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 28 March 2006

(8) Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: The UK’s International Priorities, Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.

(9) See, for example, Blair defends interventionist foreign policy,, 17 April 2007.

(10) For the clearest and one of the earliest examples of a constructivist approach to international relations, see Alexander Wendt, ‘Anarchy is What States Make of it’, International Organization, Vol.46, No.2, (1992): pp.394-419

(11) Lord Paddy Ashdown, ‘Swords and Ploughshares: Bringing Peace to the 21st Century’, book launch, London School of Economics, 21 May 2007

(12) Building on Progress: Britain in the World, HM Government Policy Review, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, April 2007: p.13

(13) Britain’s bleak vision of the next decade by Ned Temko, Observer, 4 February 2007

(14) Hilary Benn, address at the launch of the Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, PricewaterhouseCoopers, London, 23 May 2007

(15) Paul Williams, ‘How Can We Improve the Formulation and Implementation of UK Foreign Policy?’, paper for IPPR and LSE event on ‘Progressive Foreign Policy for the UK’, London School of Economics, 15 July 2006

(16) See for example Why we Hate Politics, Colin Hay, Polity (Cambridge), 2007

(17) ‘Rhetoric without Responsibility: The Attraction of “Ethical” Foreign Policy’, David Chandler, British Journal of Politics & International Relations, Vol.5, No.3, (2003), pp.295-316.

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