The death of a conservative approach to foreign policy

The current policies of Canada, the UK and Australia lack substance, and are having detrimental impacts on the world stage

In an increasingly complex international environment, there is a distinct need for effective and pragmatic foreign policy. But as recent events in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine all serve to demonstrate, there is currently a dearth in foreign policy leadership and creativity, and there are no signs of improvement on the horizon.

Foreign policy narratives tend to spend plenty of time indicting the Obama Administration for its dithering, and rightfully so. Yet there is another trend that has emerged in recent years that is worthy of further examination.

On the spectrum of foreign policy ideas, liberal foreign policies are normally those associated with international organizations, human rights, interventionism and a primary focus on domestic affairs. At the other end of the spectrum are conservative foreign policies, or realist policies, that prefer a more self-interested, independent and minimalist approach to world affairs.

At a time when three important western states, Australia, Canada and the UK, are governed by conservative governments, what has become evident is that none of these states is employing a conservative approach to foreign policy.

It is important to note that the ideology of a domestic political party does not always lead to the same ideals on the international stage. For instance, the foreign policy of the Clinton Administration was, in many ways, very realist, as evidenced by its reluctance to engage in intervention missions abroad.

However, in the cases of Australia, Canada and the UK, the current policy orientation of each government is not unclear due to ideology but rather to the lack of vision or substance, which in all three cases is having detrimental impacts on the world stage.

It would seem that the one common trait guiding current conservative foreign policies in western states is the idea of withdrawal from global engagement. For the UK, the effort has been to remove itself from the European community and to focus more on itself; for Australia, the focus has been to downplay Asian engagements and focus on bilateral relations with China while reducing Australia’s international footprint; and for Canada, foreign policy has become more about principled rhetoric than sincere involvement in institutions or alliances that were traditionally Canada’s foreign relations focus.

From a theoretical standpoint, the foreign policies, or mostly lack thereof, are not conservative or realist at all. Realist foreign policy strategies are predicated on establishing the most effective grand strategy for a state that takes into account its capabilities and seeks to maximize its place in the international system. This can be done independently in some cases, but for the most part it is a careful set of calculations that involve multilateral arrangements, alliances and trade. Further, in determining the ideal course for a realist foreign policy, one must take into account the number of great powers dominating the international system at a given time, as that has a significant impact on assessments about how to balance the interests and power of perceived opponents and who to align with to maximize interests.

The policies of the UK, Australia and Canada are likely best described as irrational restraint – withdrawing from institutions and agreements at their own peril with no tangible benefit. If the primary motivation of a state in international affairs is to maximize its security and relative power position, why would Canada and Australia willingly chose to minimize their involvement in institutions that help protect them? Why would the UK withdraw from Europe and risk the further destabilization of the continent?

Some of the confusion surrounding conservative foreign policies can be attributed to the neoconservative influence in the U.S. and the legacy of the Bush Administration, but blaming Bush is far too simple an out for these governments.

It is one thing to review a state’s foreign policy goals and show restraint, but it is very much another to simply withdraw from international affairs at a time when the western world is most in need of leadership and diplomacy. Conservatism does not equate to isolationism, nor should it. As the UK, Australia and Canada sit on the sidelines, the world continues to unfold and will not simply ignore states because they do not want to be involved.

The real question becomes – will they be ready when the world comes to them?

Robert Murray is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta, a Senior Fellow of Security and Defence Policy at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Vice-President, Research at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.


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