The article by Janan Ganesh (whom I don’t know but whose writing I generally enjoy) “Small-scale vision is right for post-imperial Britain” (£) is a perfect example of what happens when foreign policy is seen entirely through an economist’s prism.
He argues that:
“Britain…does not need a foreign policy, if that means an overarching mission or a take on the world. What it needs are foreign policies. It must know what it wants in specific areas of vital interest – these need not cohere into some grand narrative to please the windbags of diplomacy - and be prepared to let the rest go.”
He defines the “rest” as anything other than the EU or its “volatile borders”.
Strangely, he claims a couple of paragraphs later that:
“Britain…has an interest in the preservation of a rules-based liberal order across the world, just as it did in 1914.”
Some might think that actually amounts to a grand narrative, but let that pass. He goes on to justify that vision by saying that Britain
“does actually have a role in the world, and it is that of host. It is a nexus for global flows of capital and people, and makes its living this way.”
That is true (up to a point). However, it doesn’t particularly depend on a global liberal economic order. Indeed, arguably, if Britain was the only liberal country in the world we might expect to do even better as host for foreign capital, just as Hong Kong and Singapore did in an illiberal East Asia, Cyprus in an illiberal Middle East, and so on.
So what is going on here? Should we be trying to influence the world or not? Reasonable people will of course agree with Ganesh when he argues that Britain’s economic heft should determine its foreign policy. We cannot have a successful foreign policy if we are an unsuccessful economy. But he draws the wrong conclusions from this, as so many do nowadays. Why?
First, he exaggerates our past power. Even in Britain’s heyday of the mid to late 19th century whole areas of the world were off limits to Britain for anything other than economic activity: most of the Americas, much of East Asia, and indeed much of continental Europe. And it was our inability to be the offshore balancer of Europe by the end of the 19th century that forced us into the Entente and all that followed. More recently, for all America’s power, it was on the defensive for big parts of the Cold War, and even thereafter was not able to impose its will even on small and relatively undeveloped countries. In short, even the world’s mega-powers have had significant limits on their influence. Was that a reason for them to give up on foreign policy? No. It was a reason to take it seriously.
Second, in a smaller globalised world our strategic vision needs to be broader, not narrower. Ganesh might actually have been more right twenty-five years ago. In 1989, at the beginning of the current wave of globalisation, a major power like China could threaten Britain only through using nuclear weapons, not through conventional means, and a country like Iran could not seriously threaten us at all. Nowadays remote cyber-attacks can bring key parts of national life juddering to a halt. Human-delivered chemical or biological weapons can cause mass casualties. Even serious economic sanctions can have dramatic effects. In short, with not much effort, any country is within reach of any other nowadays. So, even if we had no global interests at all, it would still be sensible for us to take an interest in other powers’ foreign policy and political intentions, and to do what we could to reduce conflict and promote prosperity.
Finally, and most importantly, Ganesh implicitly buys into the narrative that Britain has little capacity to influence events – “one medium-sized power among many”. Luckily, that is simply not so. Of the 193 UN member states, we rank sixth in economic power, and we will probably be fifth again soon when we overtake France. The British economy is bigger than Brazil, bigger than India, bigger than all the ASEAN countries put together. As far out as 2050 we will still be in the Top Ten global economies. Indeed, only the US and China are genuinely in a different class as powers. And if Britain and France could really get their foreign and security policies together, as many hope and wish, together they would be the world’s third biggest power, bigger than Japan or Germany.
So let us forget this idea that Britain can’t have strategic reach. We can. But we need to be ready to pay for it. What we are is not a weak power, but a strong power that chooses not to act strong. We simply don’t invest in a strong external policy. That is not just the ability to wage expeditionary warfare. It’s the ability to train and work with others’ militaries, to maintain military expertise and production that others want to buy into, and to maintain a diplomatic effort that genuinely knows what is happening overseas and can properly define interests and direct activity at home. It’s also the ability to stand by our word, our allies, and our friends, and to see things through. In short, to command respect.
In neglecting this, we seem to be gradually becoming “normal European”, with the diplomatic services and military getting by on a shoestring, with much potentially constructive activity wasted on futile multilateral coordination, posturing, and such-like displacement activity, and with the country unable to see projects through for infirmity of purpose.
As Philip Larkin put it in 1969:
Next year we are to bring the soldiers home.
It's hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it's been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Our children will not know it's a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.