27 January 2017

Britain cannot retreat into splendid isolation


As the world becomes a more challenging and uncertain place, it is often said that “realpolitik” has made a comeback in international affairs. The “end of history” turned out to be nothing of the sort.

In truth, a dose of realism is something that British foreign policy has needed for a while; and by being the first leader to visit the new American president, Theresa May has delivered a bucket full to her counterparts in European capitals who stalled before picking up the phone.

The “art of the deal” is something we will have to familiarise ourselves with again, giving our foreign policy an almost nineteenth-century feel to it. We should, however, resist the temptation to push this logic too far. Our values and our ideals should not be abandoned the moment we leave our own shores.

History tells us that it is possible to overdose on realpolitik, with detrimental effects on ourselves as well as others. In the 1930s, it was the advocates of appeasement who boasted of their “realpolitik”. In truth, it is a word with which the British have never been comfortable. While we have often been guilty of hypocrisy, the UK has acted in certain ways for the last two hundred years that it cannot, and should not, abandon overnight. There is much that is controversial about the history of British foreign policy and the legacy of imperialism continues to be hotly debated. And yet the story is not all bad.

There has always been a humanitarian strain to the way that Britain behaves overseas, which stretches back to our interventions to save lives in faraway lands, from the Greek War of Independence to the campaign to abolish the slave trade. There are modern examples too, such as the British-led intervention in Sierra Leone in the early 2000s, which saved thousands of lives but about which we hear little today.

The Prime Minister’s invocation of the need to tackle modern slavery – in the foreign policy as well as domestic political domain – shows an awareness of precisely those traditions. It is an area on which we are likely to hear more.

In the spring of last year, the thinktank Policy Exchange launched a commission designed to look into Britain’s place in a changing world. The idea behind the project was to re-inject some vigour in the British foreign policy debate and to ask some pressing questions about what constituted the “national interest”. In part, those of us involved shared a concern about the standard of the parliamentary debates that had taken place over the British response to the war in Syria. As the conflict got progressively worse after 2011, the quality of the discussion did not improve.

In September 2015, before the Policy Exchange project was launched, I was contacted by a new Labour MP, Jo Cox, who had arrived in parliament in May, having won the seat of Batley and Spen at the general election. Jo had read an article I had written in the New Statesman about the failures of Western foreign policy over Syria. She was passionate about doing more to help civilians in Syria and wanted to hear some new ideas about what might be done. She had strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But she was worried that the legacy of Iraq was poisoning the debate about British action overseas – leading to a knee-jerk anti-interventionism which held that Britain could do little to help in places like Syria.

Jo’s views on foreign policy did not follow a script laid down along party lines, although she was staunchly loyal to Labour. Of the new intake of MPs in 2015, she stood out as someone with both professional experience (as a former aid worker and humanitarian campaigner) and a serious and sophisticated attitude to international affairs.

There were others in that new cohort who were similarly distinguished and were improving the quality of the parliamentary debate. Jo was already familiar with the work of Tom Tugendhat, a former army officer who sat on the Conservative benches. While their opinions diverged on many issues – foreign and domestic – they began to work together on a report on the whole vexed question of British intervention in the past, present and future.

The report was due to be released to coincide with the Chilcot Report into the war in Iraq. The idea behind this was so to make sure that the political pendulum did not swing even further towards introspection and retreat from complicated foreign policy problems. Tragically, Jo was murdered as she was still working on the report.

Everyone involved, including friends and family, believed that the work should be continued. Jo’s fellow Labour MP and colleague, Alison McGovern, agreed to join Tom as a co-author. The report was published last week by Policy Exchange, as The Cost of Doing Nothing: The price of inaction in the face of mass atrocities, with supporting comments from Gordon Brown and Lord Hague and an endorsement from the Prime Minister.

In her speech in Philadelphia, the Prime Minister announced the end of an era in which the West intervened in sovereign countries to remake them in the same image. This has been widely interpreted as a break from the liberal interventionism of the 1990s or early 2000s, and an idea which ran from the premierships of Tony Blair and David Cameron.

In one sense, there is some truth to this. On the other hand, a closer look at the Prime Minister’s remarks demonstrates that she understands the danger of retreat and inaction in cases such as the Syrian war, “because when others step up as we step back, it is bad for America, for Britain and the world”.

No foreign policy issue in Britain has caused more controversy and division than that surrounding intervention in the internal affairs of other states. Yet, as the Prime Minister’s remarks convey, we cannot wish these debates away. Much as we hoped that these were things of the past, large-scale humanitarian crises, the maiming and murder of civilian populations on an industrial scale, ethnic cleansing and other war crimes are likely to confront us again in the future.

The UK need not be, and should not seek to be, a global police officer. It must be humbler and more prudent than it has been in the past. But the “responsibility to protect” is an honourable principle and one that also serves our long-term security. We should think long and hard before abandoning our role in burden-sharing with our allies, and in protecting the norms we have helped to establish and which have saved many thousands of lives in the past.

Professor John Bew, King’s College London is Head of Policy Exchange’s 'Britain in the World' project