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Foreign Policy Garvan Walshe

Garvan Walshe: Beware a pragmatic foreign policy

Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and is managing partner at The Research Department, a consultancy.

He will be editing this new column focusing on foreign policy every Tuesday.

Russian foreign policy has returned to its Tsarist norm. The Kremlin once counselled a simple rule: when a region is convulsed by revolution, offer all support to the beleaguered tyrannies. Maybe, like in the People's Spring of 1848, they'll manage to hold out.

Now it's hardly astonishing that Putin has stuck by Assad. More surprising to us should be that elsewhere in the Middle East, Britain had been planning to do just the same.

Somewhere in Whitehall the finishing touches were being put to the Prime Minister's visit to the region. Tunisia's last dictator Ben Ali had fled into exile. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded into Cairo's Tahrir square to demand that Hosni Mubarak join him. Hints of revolt could be discerned in Syria, Morocco and even Libya. The theme of the visit was to be the promotion of British exports, the exports in question were chiefly to be weapons, the weapons not just tanks and planes but the kind of "security equipment" Britain had recently supplied Gaddafi.

At the very last minute, David Cameron's political instincts kicked in. With Mubarak gone, a walkabout through Tahrir Square appeared (sans arms-dealers) in the PMs itinerary. His speech in Kuwait was hastily rewritten. Now it focused on the importance of promoting democracy and lavished praise on the region's only liberalising monarchy. The media gods must have been on his side that day, for they ignored nearby Bahrain where internal security personnel, bolstered by crack Saudi troops, busied themselves rounding up doctors found treating the protesters injured by the regime's forces.

About Egypt, and later in Libya, the government eventually did the right thing. In Bahrain it is still, as Churchill said of the Americans, trying everything else.

This has roots in reaction to Tony Blair, to whom it has become fashionable to attribute a level of hubris in international affairs as great as that deserved by Gordon Brown in economics. A return to pragmatism, guided by the national interest, appears eminently reasonable, but it's worth asking whose idea of the national interest it serves.

Perhaps it is the diplomats' whose job it is carry the policy out. Yet again and again, revolutionary upheavals have caught them, whose work involves fostering relationships with a country's elite, out. Notable exceptions aside, they fail to see that elite's world crumbling.

Perhaps it is their political masters. They ask of the Foreign Office: how can foreign policy help get us out of the recession? It may no longer be the done thing to send ships to seize foreign ports and their trade, but what if instead of sending gunboats, we were to sell them?

Perhaps that might explain the defence executives sharing Mr Cameron's plane. It would certainly assist the defence industry and the thousands of people whose jobs depend on it. Foreign affairs can seem remote from most voters' lives, a preoccupation of the broadsheet-reading classes. In this way it can prove its relevance.

And perhaps we should remember that diplomacy often brings with it dirty work. That the most needed allies can often be the least acceptable; that sometimes, as when Gaddafi dismantled his nuclear programme, quite a high moral price may be justified, and that the officials who secured his agreement served their country with honour.


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