Ed Miliband’s foray into the topic last Friday in a speech at Chatham House was lost amid an acrimonious dispute over who should bear responsibility for the rising death toll of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
In fact, the next British government will face one of the most challenging periods in British foreign policy since the aftermath of 9/11 and will have constrained resources with which to do so. British politicians will need to take time from their daunting economic dossier to address five critical external challenges to British prosperity and security.
The Middle East
First is how to stem the chaos from the multiple interconnected challenges across the Middle East. The next UK government will be one of the parties negotiating the final terms of a potential nuclear deal with Iran, which, if agreed, could serve as a prelude to broader negotiations on regional security.
But an agreement could also lead to an intensification of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies, on the one hand, and Iran and its allies in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, on the other, with Iraq caught somewhere in the middle. The UK, along with other permanent members of the UN Security Council, could find itself serving as one of the guarantors of the security of the Gulf states. Any UK government is also likely to maintain its role conducting air strikes as part of the international coalition against IS.
Should the regional situation deteriorate further, the UK could be pushed into increasing the numbers of migrants that it accepts on to its shores from the region (currently in the hundreds, swelling potentially to the tens of thousands). It will also be a key contributor to the maritime operations seeking to stem the flood of refugees across the Mediterranean.
The UK will also hope that the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories does not deteriorate following Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory in March. The possibility of Palestinians abandoning the idea of a two-state solution could embroil the UK, along with its EU counterparts, into a highly charged diplomatic negotiation.
Second, should economic sanctions, imposed on Russia after its actions in Ukraine, be renewed? If the ceasefire holds in eastern Ukraine, then pressure will build for the EU to lift these sanctions, even if the Minsk agreement is not fully implemented and the Ukrainian government is unable to re-establish control of its border with Russia. There are divergent views across the EU over the value and efficacy of sanctions. Angela Merkel has taken the lead in building a fragile consensus that has held up to now. But she will need British support if she is to maintain a tough EU line on President Putin.
Alongside these two major security considerations lie a number of other important international challenges. Third on the list is the climate summit in Paris in December. The UK has long been a leader in tackling climate change, and its ideas on how to prevent the growth in global use of coal will be especially important in Paris. A deal is crucial to have the best chance of keeping global temperature rises to within two degrees by the end of the century.
The fourth priority will be the completion of the negotiations to create aTransatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) by early 2016, before the US presidential elections enter their decisive phase. The coalition government has been one of the main champions of TTIP, seeing it as a debt-free economic stimulus to the UK and Europe, as well as a geopolitical counterweight to China’s growing international economic power. But the agreement faces fierce popular opposition across the EU including in the UK, where a majority of voters suspects that US companies will use it to undermine European social and environmental standards.
In contrast, British and European voters appear indifferent to the fifth major challenge: the growing influence of China. The UK government has welcomed Chinese investment into EU markets – in 2014 the UK took $5.1bn (£3.3bn) out of a total of $18bn (£11.7bn), the highest in the EU. But China’s growing importance as a source of investment coincides with an increasingly assertive Chinese approach towards its claims of sovereignty over several small islands in the South China Sea.
While the UK would prefer to focus on China’s economic potential, Japan is seeking greater engagement from the UK as a security partner in the region. And with the United States serving as the main guarantor of regional security, the next UK government could be forced to take some difficult decisions on whether to risk economic opportunity on the altar of alliance solidarity.
As important as they are, these five issues will pale into insignificance if the Conservative Party is able to form a government after the election and sets the clock running on an in-out referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU in 2017. In this case, British ministers will have little time to dedicate to this pressing dossier of international challenges and will need to focus all of their efforts instead on securing the best possible deal from their EU counterparts in order to be able to campaign to remain in the EU. If such a deal can be secured, then they will face a no less daunting task of convincing an often eurosceptic British public of the merits of staying in.