Recent events have sparked much debate about what the UK ‘s role in foreign affairs should be. Brexit has led to a division about how the UK should associate with its European neighbours and the wider world. Russian incursions in eastern Europe, Syria and alleged tampering in foreign elections have restarted a debate to how much Russia should be considered an enemy. Even the UK’s alliances have been hotly debated- as many (mostly on the left) have denounced the UK’s cozy relationship with the likes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States led by Donald Trump. These debates are undeniably important but often miss a criterion- the method by which a debate is judged.
Most people who argue for a foreign policy position (often quite passionately) have a strong value they are proposing. Some may value human rights, others may value economic growth, others may value peace above all, while others value national strength. All are worthy goals. However, very often those arguing for their favourite value fail to explain why their value is the best for the nation.
Though many on the left may not like it, a nation’s first interest is ultimately itself and thus by definition the criterion of judging how a nation conducts a foreign policy is how it affects the position of the home nation. Though in theory (a theory I do not subscribe to) it may be better if say the UK or the US did not exist, the UK and US governments have a responsibility to advance what they perceive as the interests of the UK and US and preserve their respective countries.
With that being said, in the modern world (and I am not convinced it was ever truly possible to be secluded, even “isolationist” early USA fought the Barbary pirates, conquered vast swathes of territory from Mexico, and declared the Monroe Doctrine) a nation cannot be isolationist. Even the most isolationist country in the world, North Korea, has to trade with and depend on China for its survival. The idea of a BNP manifesto of withdrawing from NATO, banning immigrants, and manufacturing everything at home is ludicrous because of how intertwined the world economy is now. Global interaction is the way of life, which includes benefits such as rapidly falling poverty and cheaper and more numerous consumer options, and the downsides of global competition and global security threats. Therefore, the questions of forming a foreign policy ultimately come down how to get the most of the best parts of globalisation while decreasing the worst parts.
In my opinion, there are largely three main methods of conducting foreign policy. The first is nationalistic, the second is imperialistic, and the third is co-operative. Of course, there are also a lot of shades between each one.
Nationalist Foreign Policy
A Nationalist foreign policy is by definition an overtly nationalistic foreign policy. The idea behind this foreign policy is that a nation must act in what it regards as their interests but should not spend a lot of time and resources dealing with other countries. China has a mostly Nationalist foreign policy in that it doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to build alliances. Rather, China relies mostly on not having alliances but making deals that benefits them on a case by case basis. The US in the 19th century was mostly Nationalist in that it too sought power and co-operated little with anyone. This is a luxury very few countries can afford- both China and the 19th Century US had large and relatively isolated populations and lots of natural resources. Donald Trump’s “America First” aspiration appears to yearn for the old 19th century American foreign policy position.
Nationalist nations further have little time for outright imperialism. They often see conquering and occupying far off (though not regional) areas as a waste of their time and resources. Why not get what they want through trade or coercion? With that being said, nationalist nations will not hesitate to destroy their enemies. Modern “neo-con” philosophy of toppling dictators they see as threats and leaving said nation to build their own “democracy” is inherently a Nationalist action- though one dressed up in less nationalistic language.
Nationalist philosophy is praised by its proponents for being true to the nation-state of its people. It is criticized by opponents as immoral and as being particularly harmful in wars. Opponents will point to the near anarchy left in the wake of Qaddafi government in Libya and the unstable position of Iraq after Saddam Hussein as examples of the failures of Nationalist foreign policy.
Imperialist Foreign Policy
Imperial foreign policy can often have many nationalistic elements but is always global in outlook. Imperial foreign policy is different than nationalist foreign policy in that while it very often is done for the benefit of a nation state, the nation state’s more base instincts of monetary gain are not always most important- if they are that important at all. Especially in the modern era (but not limited to it) imperial ambitions are values that have prevalence in the conquering nation state- but are values the nation thinks will benefit the world.
Sometime these imperial values are noble in intention. Examples of noble imperial ambition include the idea of spreading western civilisation and liberal values and abolishing slavery that the Victorian to 20th century British empire supported or the American idea of defeating communism in the late 20th century. Sometimes these values are gray in intention such as Napoleon’s goal to bring the Enlightenment order to Europe with him as ruler and sometimes they are perverse in intention such as Communism’s goal of creating equality through rivers of blood. Sometimes imperial values are religious in nature, such as the spreading of Islam under the Arabs of the early Middle Ages or Christianity under the Spanish in the new world. And yes, sometimes the values of the imperial aggressor might be naked exploitation and profit such as the Belgian Congo under King Leopold II or the Mongol Empire.
Supporters of Imperial (even though few call it “imperial” today) foreign policy will point to the many successes of the spread of positive values that would not have existed had it not been for imperialism. Supporters of British imperialism can point to the spread of parliamentary democracy, free trade, capitalism, law, abolition of the slave trade, and nations such as the Canada, Singapore, the US, India, Australia and Hong Kong as proof of their successes. Supporters of the US’s less overt version of imperialism in the late 20th century (occupying nations with troops even to this day) will point to the success of South Korea, Japan, and Germany as proof of its effectiveness. People will also point to western civilisation as being ultimately the positive lasting legacy of the Roman empire. Many devout Catholics will surely thank the Spanish for saving souls in Latin America and many Muslims will likewise praise the imperial conquests of Islamic armies for bringing people to the Islamic faith.
With the above being mentioned however, few people and nations today openly espouse an imperial foreign policy. Ever since the Treaty of Versailles, self-determination has been one of the few agreed upon international dogmas. Furthermore, for every imperial success, there are probably just as many failures. Empires have a tendency to oppress those they conquer and very often fail to live up to their lofty ideals even if they have them. Even in an empire that was mostly good- the British Empire- Britain treated Ireland for most of their rule there (at least until the repeal of the Corn Laws) poorly, allowed the East India Company to run rampant in India leading to the Indian Mutiny, and did not begin to embrace the principle of self-determination until fully removed from the American colonies by their inhabitants. Empires too are costly (the British Empire actually lost money in Africa) and a good way to make yourself enemies. The only truly imperialist “state” in the world at the moment is the EU- and they struggle with how to enforce their dreams of a united Europe-though there task might become easier now that the fiercely independent British will be leaving the bloc.
Co-Operative Foreign Policy
Co-operative foreign policy is based on the idea of independent nations making agreements with each other. Generally co-operative foreign policy is based around building “consensus” with other nations and avoids belligerency and focusing on national self-interest.
For the most extreme example of national co-operative foreign policy one should look to those who believe that any global military action should be done in the United Nations. Most co-operatives believe that the United Nations should assume greater authority to tackle global challenges: co-operatives have especially taken an interest in working for international agreements on environmental issues. However, most co-operativists are not necessarily full-blown globalists. Many believe in regional co-operation. Most British supporters of the EU, for instance, are not wild-eyed euro-federalists but rather see the EU as a co-operative vehicle for upholding the values they believe in while curtailing the views of British voters- people co-operatives distrust due to their volatility in views and often independent values.
Supporters of co-operative foreign policy believe that there system is the most modern and advanced because it is based on consensus between nations and the promoting of values. Their thinking is that co-operative foreign policy strives for the better angels of imperialistic thought but avoids the often dark means of traditionally creating an empire.
Critics of co-operative foreign policy will generally criticize it for being bullying and ineffective against real threats. Famously, the League of Nations did nothing to prevent the spread of Nazism and the Second World War. Today the UN continues to be unable to prevent atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide and the current state of places like Syria. Furthermore, where moral “consensus” is achieved it is often ineffectual and a joke. The UN Human Rights Council for instance, has condemned Israel more than any other nation, but without going to the merits of their individual condemnations of Israel, almost never condemns truly evil and oppressive nations like North Korea.
The Foreign Policy Path for Britain
Britain has a unique role to play in the world today. It is one of the world’s greatest economic, military, and soft power. With that being said, it can no longer be an imperial power. For its sometimes faults, the empire had a hugely positive affect on the world- especially in spreading freedom, prosperity and defeating far more sinister imperial powers ranging from Philip II to Hitler. However today, in an era of national self-determination and having just experienced an attempt by a foreign entity to rule the UK in the EU, it would be ineffectual and hypocritical to try to gobble up proxy states or bind weaker nations with treaties to do your bidding. Therefore, the way forward lay with taking the best parts of nationalist and co-operative foreign policy.
Britain should adopt the best parts of nationalist foreign policy by working to making its people as prosperous as possible- which means limiting immigration unless in the national interest (such as priotorising English speaking high skilled immigrants over low skilled European immigrants) and trading with countries that are often unsavoury- such as Saudi Arabia.
British foreign policy should also strongly work for co-operative foreign policy. The UK should continue to work through military co-operative roles through NATO, which often includes humanitarian missions to fight evil. However, leaving the rules of the EU of acting under the authority bloc also frees the UK to continue to foster relations with its Commonwealth allies. Last time on this site, I wrote of the opportunity to restore the vision of Churchill’s third “majestic circle” of the Commonwealth- and its ability to be a counterweight to Europe and the US in the free world. I have also written about the economic benefits that closer Commonwealth ties could bring. However, what the Commonwealth also offers is the opportunity to provide true co-operative foreign policy and push human rights at an international level through the Commonwealth- where there is greater chance of coming to successes and agreement than through the United Nations.
The recent events in Syria and the realities of a changing relationship with the EU will require a lot of tough foreign policy decisions to be made. My hope is that that the British government adopts the principles outlined in this piece. With Theresa May as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary I have every hope they will.