Will Philip Hammond steer a less interventionist Britain?

The new British foreign minister may have just left the post of defense minister, but observers say he is not as inclined toward military adventurism as William Hague, his predecessor.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Newly appointed British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond arrives at 10 Downing Street in London today. Mr. Hammond replaces William Hague as part of British Prime Minister David Cameron's biggest reshuffle of top government jobs, ahead of next year's general election.

In probably the last government switch around before next year’s general election, Prime Minister David Cameron has caught the country by surprise with a raft of appointments, demotions, and retirements.

But perhaps the most surprising announcement in the cabinet reshuffle – and certainly the most likely to be noticed abroad – was the resignation of Foreign Secretary William Hague, to be replaced by the former defense secretary, Philip Hammond.

Though an avowed skeptic of the European Union, Mr. Hammond's stewardship of British foreign policy looks unlikely to deviate from the course already charted by Mr. Hague, commentators say. And, they add, he may prove less interventionist than his predecessor.

A soft-spoken and unassuming man, state-educated Mr. Hammond could find himself dragged into a more prominent government role if the Tories win the 2015 election outright, ahead of a promised in/out referendum on EU membership in the next parliament. He has publicly called for reform of European institutions, garnering support among Tory backbenchers, many of whom are against further integration.

“If the choice is between a European Union written exactly as it is today and not being a part of that, then I have to say that I’m on the side of the argument that [fellow Conservative] Michael Gove has put forward," Hammond said, referring to former Education Secretary Gove's statement that he would vote to leave the EU.

“I believe that we have to negotiate a better solution that works better for Britain if we are going to stay in,” Hammond said.

But some commentators say he is not rabidly anti-EU, and will negotiate diligently but firmly. Paul Cornish, a professor of strategic studies at Exeter University who has met Hammond several times, said his first move would be to ensure the Foreign Office was well run.

“He will go in there and ‘do a number’ on it, making sure it is fit for purpose and trying to increase its budget if he thinks it needs it," Professor Cornish says. “He is already on record saying he wants EU reform, but he will conduct negotiations politely and constructively.”

Married with three children, Hammond studied politics, philosophy and economics at University College, Oxford, before working in the private sector. He was elected to Parliament in 1997 and appointed secretary of state for transport in May 2010. He was made defense secretary in 2011, where he was credited with reorganizing budgets and overseeing the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Michael Clarke, director general of the Royal United Services Institute, says Hammond brought a "frugal, accountancy" approach to the Ministry of Defence, which was needed after ongoing budget problems. Professor Clarke says Hammond did not "inspire" senior staff among the military and was seen more as a "bureaucrat."

Cornish said the biggest difference between Mr. Hague and Hammond would be on military intervention – something that dominated his time at the defense ministry with Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

“He’s cautious and calm. William Hague was very much in favor of attacking Syria and [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad], but Hammond would be different," Cornish says. He notes that Hammond told a House of Commons committee last October that "I would not expect – except in the most extreme circumstances – to see a manifestation of great appetite for plunging into another prolonged period of expeditionary engagement any time soon."

“As a result," Cornish says, "I don’t think we’ll be intervening in foreign conflicts in the near future.”

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