Forget reputations. Britain's new coalition government of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will temper its foreign policy approach with a healthy dose of pragmatism.
A new British government has finally now been formed after days of cross-party wrangling and William Hague has been appointed Foreign Secretary. But what will the government's foreign policy be like and how will it handle relations with Europe? Will it lead to the kind of rupture normally only promised by French presidents, or will they adopt a middle-of-the-road position? Until David Cameron and Nick Clegg shook hands on the first coalition government in 70-odd years, there were many who thought that their differences would be too great to bridge. On Europe, the parties are miles apart: Nick Clegg used to work for the European Commission and was an MEP, while the Tory party is arguably more eurosceptic now than it has ever been.
Internationally, too, there are differences in policy and tone. Like all large British parties, the Lib Dems and the Tories cover a range of diplomatic viewpoints. Inside the Conservative Party there are pro-Israel and pro-Arab MPs. Inside the Lib Dems there are activists who favour NATO and those who emphasise the EU. There are those who want to disarm unilaterally and those who think such a policy would be madness. But on the on the whole, the Lib Dems are more multi-lateralists whereas the Tories are more mini-lateralist. Ask a Conservative MP what the greatest international threat is, and he or she is likely to put Iran's nuclear programme near or at the top of any list. Liberal Democrats are more likely to say the United States - or even mutter darkly about the military-industrial complex.
But despite differences between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, their two leaders are intent on emphasising common rather than contested ground. Where they can, they have sought to agree. There is for example a great deal of agreement between the two parties on international aid. Both parties are committed to reaching the target of spending 0.7 percent of GDP on overseas aid and keeping DFID as a separate ministry. They disagree on details, such as how much ODA money can be spent by other departments, but these are details that can be worked out.
Where the two parties do not share views, they have either traded one policy for another, or agreed to give their MPs a free vote when legislation is involved. This has for example meant that the Tory policy on inheritance tax has been taken off the table alongside the Lib Dem position on a ‘mansion' tax. On Europe, the cross-party agreement seems to be to freeze-frame the issue entirely; the Lib Dems will not push Britain towards Europe and the Tories will refrain from pulling the country away from the EU. Details will then have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis.
It is of course not insignificant that the government's key international positions - that of Foreign Secretary and that of Defence Secretary - have gone to William Hague and Liam Fox. From this, it could be assumed that the Tories, rather than the Lib Dems, will set the tone for Britain's foreign policy. Yet counting ministers may be the wrong way to understand the future workings of the Cameron-Clegg government; for if the talk of a new kind of partnership politics is to be believed - and the bonhomie of their first joint press conference suggests it should be - decisions will be taken as collegially as possible. Significant foreign policy overtures will presumably have to be cleared by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, sitting around the table in the new National Security Council. To help them along, Prime Minster Cameron has appointed the Foreign Office's senior official, Sir Peter Ricketts, who is well-respected by leaders in both governing parties.
In the end, the glue that will keep David Cameron and Nick Clegg together is the task of addressing Britain's economic situation, their No 1 priority. The same adhesive will ensure that domestic, rather than foreign issues take precedence. And it will ensure that the British government avoids provoking an international dust-up. Nobody wants a fight either with Europe or Russia. After an extraordinary election and a ground-breaking coalition, it seems that British foreign policy will still be based on what it has for a long time been based on: pragmatism.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.