Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Wednesday, 12 May 2010 15:46 UK

Liberals will constrain Tories in British coalition

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

William Hague, 12 May
Foreign Secretary William Hague wants to put Britain first

The new British foreign secretary William Hague lost no time in declaring that he would run a "distinctively British foreign policy".

However, this overtly nationalist approach is likely to be constrained by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, who are far more European and internationally-minded.

In one key area, the Liberal Democrats' influence might be felt, not in what does happen, but in what does not. It is very hard to see them agreeing to some new international military operation (not that the Conservatives will necessarily press for one).

Mr Hague's words, on the steps of the Foreign Office on his first morning there, echoed what he said during the election campaign - that he had not waited in opposition for so long in order "to oversee the management of Britain's decline".

He faces a big task in fulfilling this ambition. By his own admission, Britain will probably drop out of the top 10 world economies by 2015. His answer is for Britain to use its assets "to uphold our enlightened national interest".

National Security Council

One immediate reform is the establishment of a National Security Council to bring together the main figures in the foreign policy, defence and security fields, rather like the American one, which met for the first time on Wednesday evening .

The British system until now has been far more informal. The Foreign Office has secured the role of National Security Adviser for one of its senior officials, Sir Peter Ricketts.

A strategic defence review will be held and in the meantime defence spending will remain as it is.

But one decision from the previous government stands, one the Liberal Democrats opposed at the time - the upgrade of the Trident sea-based nuclear weapons system.

These are some foreign policy areas to watch:

Europe

The Eurosceptic Tories and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats seem to have arranged a truce. Their agreement says that Britain will be a "positive participant" in the EU.

Neither will support joining the euro or the transfer of further powers (this is not such a big deal because after the Lisbon treaty no new proposals are likely for a long time). They have also agreed that if there is such a transfer, a British referendum will have to be held.

Mr Hague promises to be "active and activist" in the EU external relations field. This is not hard for him because in foreign affairs, the EU acts very much as a collection of nation states.

He (and the equally Eurosceptic new Defence Secretary Liam Fox) are not inclined to join in EU-wide undertakings, and are more open to bilateral ones, with France as the most likely partner. However, Mr Hague has also said that international efforts in Bosnia, where the EU is active, must be stepped up.

As part of the EU truce, the Conservatives will drop their plan to seek an opt-out from some social legislation, especially the working time directive, but will seek to "limit (its) application".

Relations with the US

Both President Obama and Mr Hague have used the phrase "special relationship", but for how much longer? As long as Britain is fighting alongside the US in Afghanistan, neither side can afford to be dismissive but Mr Hague also says that the UK will be "solid but not slavish".

Afghanistan

The British role in the war will continue, though both parties in the coalition hope that conditions will allow for the start of a British withdrawal in the not-too-distant future. If they do not, there could be tensions.

Iran

Mr Hague will be plunged immediately into the process of trying to get the UN Security Council to agree new sanctions. Britain will support this.

The big potential question is what attitude the British government would adopt if the US and/or Israel attacked Iran's nuclear plants.

Middle East

The government will support a two-state solution and will call on Israel to freeze settlements and on Palestinians to end violence. Israel will watch Nick Clegg closely because he has been critical of Israel's actions in Gaza.

The wider world

Mr Hague seems determined to develop closer ties with China, India, Brazil and others "where the economic action is", as he puts it. Whether these counties reciprocate beyond warm words remains to be seen. He is keen on the Commonwealth. He also says that "the door will be open to Russia".

Foreign aid

Both parties support the target of giving 0.7% of national income in aid. So no change there.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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