We have been told that last Thursday’s Commons vote against intervention in Syria represents a fundamental shift in our foreign policy, in our relations with the US and in our role in the world.
The truth is that none of these need change, nor should they. Our security, our foreign policy, and our commitment to furthering the cause of Western values will only be undermined to the degree that we let them be.
I was among those who felt unable to support the Government’s motion – and the very similar Opposition amendment. The elements that made up the majority against military strikes were varied. Much of the Labour Party was reliving its trauma over Iraq. Some of the Conservatives who voted against intervention appeared to take a narrow, almost isolationist, view. But many of us who are natural internationalists were simply not persuaded that the proposed strikes would deliver the humanitarian objective of reducing the suffering of the Syrian people, nor have the intended deterrent effect on the use of chemical weapons, but instead carried the risk of aggravating the civil war.
There will, it is true, be fallout with Washington, not least because we have appeared for the past year or more to have been at the forefront of those urging action. Now, just as the Americans have seemed, for the first time, to be reconciled to the need for intervention, we have been unable to support them. All this makes it essential that we move quickly to restate all the things that have not changed since last Thursday.
First, we need an early restatement of how the UK sees its role and the core principles of our policy. We must restate that the world’s leading democracies should seek to export both their shared values and respect for international law by working closely together, just as they have in a common security interest. For most of the post-war era, the world has been a more stable and safer place when, under US leadership, we have done just this. By contrast, during the period of delusive neo-conservatism of a decade ago, the doctrines of regime change and pre-emptive military action were corrosive of the international order and of those values. It is those misguided doctrines that lay behind first the divisions and then the catastrophe over Iraq. Among many casualties was the perception of Western unity, vital to our security.
Fortunately, there is already a very good statement of the core principles of UK foreign policy, and it came from David Cameron while in opposition. In September 2006, he set out what he described as “a liberal conservative foreign policy”: liberal in its commitment to freedom, democracy and humanitarian intervention; conservative in its recognition of the complexity of international affairs and its scepticism of grand schemes to remake the world. He supported the goal of the expansion of democracy, but made it clear that the military route was the last option: “bombs and missiles are bad ambassadors”.
This is an outward-looking philosophy, one that seeks the expansion of liberal values while also respecting traditional security doctrines that enable states with different political systems to coexist. A clear re-statement by the Prime Minister, seven years on, of liberal conservative foreign policy, and rejection of both isolationism and neo-conservatism, is now essential – we should not be immobilised by the isolationist legacy of neo-con mistakes. Nor should our policy be influenced by those who have yet to shed those misguided doctrines.
Second, we need to make it clear that we are not embarking on a comprehensive rejection of military action. If anything, Mr Cameron’s remarks overdid it on that score – they are certainly being interpreted in that way. Military action may be ruled out under current circumstances, and rightly so; but the region is in the midst of a complex upheaval, and those circumstances may change dramatically in the months or years ahead.
More widely, where our interests are involved or under threat, or where a broad international response to humanitarian concerns can be mobilised with a reasonable prospect of a durable improvement, military action may be appropriate. We should continue to act in defence of national interest, international order and humanitarian concerns.
Third, Parliament is now centre stage in issues of war and peace, and it needs to shoulder the responsibility that goes with that. Democracy can be strengthened and made more robust when Parliament assesses and, where appropriate, legitimises military action. However, if its role is seen as a purely blocking one, it will undermine this country’s perceived capacity to act effectively and make us more vulnerable in the eyes of our adversaries and those who do not share our values, and less reliable in the eyes of our allies.
It is to David Cameron’s great credit that he has, both in opposition and in government, advocated a decisive role for Parliament in what remain formally matters of the Royal Prerogative. It is now for Parliament to articulate the approach that can justify those interventions it is prepared to endorse; the outlines of it are already evident in many contributions from MPs and peers. A prime minister has empowered Parliament; Parliamentarians must now empower their Prime Minister.
Andrew Tyrie is Conservative MP for Chichester.