Thursday, 27 September 2007

British foreign policy: a tour d'horizon

Every international security pundit would like to summarise the broad sweep of strategic concerns facing the United Kingdom in a single hour. This is just such a lecture.

Sadly (or, for those of you reading it, happily), this is not mine. My comments are limited to parentheses. At least, not originally. Rather, it is a summary of the hour-long inaugural lecture of Professor Michael Clarke, the new director of the Royal United Services Institute.

Prof. Clarke began with the rather trite comment that this was a very uncertain time in international affairs. At such a time think tanks such as RUSI had a lot to offer, for they had the luxury to stoop and think while politicians were too busy reacting to events.

He began (apologetically) with a biblical quote: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong … [for] … time and chance happeneth to them all”. The them for (and title of) his essay was Strategy and Fortune, for luck as much as good planning played a role in foreign (one might argue all) policy. Good strategies can ride over bad luck, whereas bad strategies were destroyed by it.

Having said this, he turned to a long analysis of the Blair years. Until 1997, UK foreign policy had been shaped by Realist orthodoxy: sovereignty; territorial inviolability; balance-of-power. Blair characterised this as a “doctrine of benign inactivity” (though it was clear that he did not see this as quite so benign, as bystanders watching the tragedies of the Balkans and Rwanda might appreciate).

By comparison, Blair’s own foreign policy would be shaped by three strands:
1) Policy designed around values such as liberty, democracy, tolerance and justice, where “idealism becomes Realpolitik
2) The integration of “hard power” (the power to compel) with “oft power” (the power to attract)
3) A recognition that the world was not benign to the UK and that we would therefore need to fight for our values: thus the liberal interventionism exemplified in his Chicago Speech.
This liberal interventionism would have to be based on two strategies: Leadership and Positioning. Leadership meant that the UK should be in the foreground – as it was with Kosovo, climate change and Iraq. Positioning meant that the UK’s success would depend on where it stood; in Blair’s view, the best place to be was among democratic allies, shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States.

Clarke then described Blair as a Shakespearian character whose great successes were followed by great tragedy. And he did indeed begin successfully: his first term saw an increased give and take within the EU, more focussed on the bigger picture; successful intervention in Kosovo where British and French leadership – the willingness to break a deadlock by using ground forces – won the war with Milosevic; a textbook humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone; and Operation Desert Fox, which Clarke argued was in retrospect far more successful than was at first thought – it nearly led to Saddam’s ouster.

But the events of September 11th changed both the world and Blair’s fortune – not because of what Al Qaeda did, but because of America’s reaction to it. Blair’s April 2002 meeting with President Bush at Crawford, Texas left Blair convinced that the US would invade Iraq and that the UK must therefore back them. He therefore came up with a five point plan that highlighted both his focus on positioning and his self-belief (some might argue hubris). He would
1) Get Europe to back the US, which would encourage
2) The US to work though the UN, which would include
3) The US committing to a renewed push for peace in Palestine, which would lead to
4) A regional settlement for the whole Middle East, which would
5) Draw in the Neo-Cons in Washington as it would play into their democratisation agenda.

Eventually (perhaps sadly) he failed on all counts. Consequently the US went it “alone”, and the UK was bound to join them because of Blair’s conviction that this was the position that the UK must adopt if it was to have influence internationally. Four years later the objectives of the coalition have been radically revised, from creating a peaceful, democratic and free Iraq, they are now happy just to retreat with honour from an Iraq stable enough to hold together while Iraqis settle their own differences. The result for Blair was that he lost his power to lead or to take the initiative; indeed, an axis formed against him personally, led by Putin, Schroeder and Chirac. Blair tried to recover. Clarke noted the focus after 2003 on Africa, the environment and global poverty. Gleneagles was a personal triumph for Blair but perhaps also a parting gift from a G8 glad to be seeing the back of him.

The key messages from the Blair era were that
1) Globalisation is not inherently benign (especially if you are from the Third World) and is certainly not equitable
2) The UK is very well placed to benefit from Globalisation because it has an open society and a flexible economy]
3) The UK lives (and dies) by collective action
4) There is a crisis of collective action in the world today.

At this point Clarke turned to the future, and noted that the challenges for the future depended on how one viewed it. Traditional international security problems would focus on the Middle East, a resurgent Russia, Britain’s place in Europe. Trans-national problems included crime, terror, WMDs, energy-, cyber- and food-security. Structural problems include global inequality, climate change, health and failing states. What is not clear is in what way these impact on Britain. What is clear is that the international consensus is weak, unclear and ineffective, and that even the powerful were struggling to impose their will.

In dealing with the apparent problems highlighted above, however, there was a tendency to ignore the problems of international structures – how one achieves an international consensus. There was almost a tragic fatalism that accepted the failure of international institutions since the Cold War, with new sources of legitimacy replacing “clear pillars” with a “subtle constellation of power”; difficulties of control and influence as a result of network, globalised and disaggregated economies; changing “rules of the game” as international law leant more towards human security.

In fact, international law was weaker rather than stronger, and the West only had itself to blame. The West had played fast and loose with international law – acts of humanitarian intervention had undermined legal norms. This was a dangerous game to play, for in what would be the “Asian Century” the West would lose power and influence, and “rules matter most to the least powerful.”

Yet Clarke remained optimistic. He believe that the US would gain from considering and addressing these issues; the UK would gain by working collectively, which it was traditionally good at; the UK remained part of a broad international consensus (if one looked beyond the immediate challenge of Iraq); and the UK had good armed forces. But Britain must be cautious about using them; their very quality led to a tendency to reach for force too soon. He also lamented (as did Lord Ashdown in his recent book) that while the military was more joined up than ever, it was woefully disconnected from humanitarian and civil agencies.

Blair was, in Clarke’s view, correct to position itself beside the US, but the UK must also recognise that the US is entering an introspective stage, and that when it emerges the old certainty that its Janus-faced strategy would always put the Atlantic fist would be gone; in the coming century, America would be a Pacific power first-and-foremost. The UK’s role in the C21st would be to be a hub rather than a pillar of international security, acting to articulate and lead the consensus (as the Stern Review did on climate change).

As for Europe, it would remain peaceful and prosperous, but in the Asian Century, it would increasingly struggle for latitude in which to manoeuvre.

A full transcript is available from RUSI.

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