Britain's new government, led by David Cameron, is radically overhauling its foreign policy. In short, it has gone back to traditional British Foreign (and Colonial) Office first principles, focusing on developing relations which promise to build and enhance trade, rather than relying on old alliances or relations which are largely militarily-driven. Thus, Cameron has put together a high-profile team of high-ranking politicians and leading members of the business community as he sets about a whirlwind global tour aimed at making overtures to governments of emerging economies, rather than putting all his eggs in the EU and US baskets. For the Coalition Government, then, building strong trade relations with the likes of India, Turkey, Brazil and other emerging markets is the order of the day. It's a smart move. Look at the portfolio of most emerging market funds - which have largely outperformed funds specialising in typical Western blue chip stock - and you'll see these countries and others (notably China) are the ones to be doing business with these days.
Thus, David Cameron seems to be going back to the glory days of empire (minus the empire bit), focusing on developing a foreign policy which enhances global trade, together with all the benefits that promises, such as global influence, greater tax revenues back home and trickle-down wealth to keep the masses happy (the latter arguably a key reason why Britain did not witness revolution in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, directly contradicting Marx's view that as the world's most advanced economy Britain's proletariat would be the first to revolt). For Britain, empire (both formal and informal) was driven by trade and wealth creation, unlike some other countries' imperial designs fuelled by, for example, raw nationalism. Hence, this week the British PM issued veiled criticisms of France and Germany for stalling Turkish entry into the EU. For Britain Turkish entry not only widens the EU, directly challenging Old Europe's attempt to deepen it (a position which Britain is ideologically opposed to), but Turkey also offers a gateway to a whole new region to the east which is ripe for trade exploitation. Ditto Cameron's efforts in India yesterday, and no doubt Brazil and other emerging economies will soon be paid a visit from the British delegation. And it all seems to be working. Cameron's insistance that Turkey should be allowed to join the EU was music to the Turkish government's ears, which later claimed the visit heralded a new golden era in Anglo-Turkish relations. But none of this should surprise us. Britain has a long history (minus hiccups, for example during the last Labour government's military-driven relationship with the exterior) of such foreign policy success aimed at building trade. It is, after all, what Britain does best.
Unfortunately, it is also what Britain does worse, and Cameron has fallen headlong into the trap of pragmatism over idealism for the sake of furthering trade. I'm referring, of course, to his strong denunciation in unequivocal language of Israel concerning the Gaza situation (which he described as a prison) during his visit to Turkey. True, insisting Turkey must be allowed into the EU, together with denouncing Israel over the botched flotilla raid and criticism over Gaza (the current Turkish government's pet issue right now) was a Cameron masterstroke which will surely help open up Turkey and beyond to British business. But it comes at a cost, namely, deep suspicion within Israel concerning Cameron's public stance and motives. Let's be absolutely clear here: Hamas imprisons its own people (for example, ask the many Gazans hassled for wearing the wrong clothing on the beach or beaten for dancing with people of the opposite sex at weddings, not to say firing rockets at Israel which merely serves to attract the ire of the IDF).
Now for those who have no time for Israel, Cameron's undiplomatic language this week may not much matter. But the likelihood is that one day Cameron will have to visit Israel, one of the purposes of which will be to bolster trade links with the Jewish state. Israeli high-tech business, together with a string of innovative products and inventive entrepeneurialism, is forcing many countries, some not particularly friendly towards Israel, to trade with the country anyway. More important, however, is Western reliance upon Israeli intelligence concerning Middle East terrorism. This is the joke, really, public Western criticism of Israel while, behind the scenes, strong intelligence links and cooperation. Arguably, it is somewhat hypocritical.
So Cameron will one day visit Israel and make overtures. In other words, pragmatism will lead him to make a statement which makes his hosts feel good about themselves. Inevitably, though, it will anger those who were very happy when he said something quite different (for example, in Turkey). All in the name of pragmatic necessity, whether trade or intelligence cooperation. The problem is, Britain has a track record of playing both sides for its own purposes. Indeed, some of the current Arab-Israeli conflict can be laid at the feet of a Britain which, for its own purposes and interests, promised both Jews and Arabs a state of their own, knowing full well it was impossible to deliver both.
A pragmatic, trade-driven, playing-both-sides and thus occasionally-deceptive British foreign policy. It's what Britain does best... and worse.