Back to Reality: British Foreign Policy and Strategy in the Post-BREXIT Era


In recent months there have been two manifestations of a worrying trend that has been observable in British foreign policy making for nearly three decades now. The trend is a decaying of accountability for foreign policy making in the upper levels of government, combined with a policy making strategic culture that is almost anything but strategically minded, jargon rich, intellectually bereft of being able to discern between tactical, operational and strategic levels of activity, and syntactically chaotic to the point of being incomprehensible to those who are none of the above. The two manifestations are the Iraq Inquiry and the recent mini-me of inquiries, the Foreign Policy Committee report on Libya.

In both documents British strategic decisions were found to be at fault because the Government had followed other nations into war. In the case of the Iraq Inquiry volumes of testimony and guardedly worded findings implied that Tony Blair and the British Government had followed the United States lead into war. The expectation was, it appears, that America would know more and be more prepared for such actions than Britain. That such a reality might not have been the case, or indeed, that even if it was there no choice for Britain but to follow defies logic concerning the strategic realties of Team GB’s past 100 years of foreign policy: America has been the centre of Britain’s foreign policy world all that time, not always leading, but always the strongest influence. Following it was the strategic centre of gravity in the Iraq/Afghanistan war, as it had been since 1943. How could this be a failure then of strategy? Iraq and Afghanistan might have been operationally unsatisfactory conflicts, with tactical elements of success, but given the nature and the character of Britain’s strategic reality and culture following America into war is not a “lesson learned”. As for the Foreign Policy Committee’s report on Libya, declaring that David Cameroon “followed France” into military action, it is not clear from the report what coercion, allure or promises was used by the French to induce this followership activity. Such an unwillingness to be accountable for the UK’s own strategic interests, and the consequences of those realities, is a worrying condition of either the deliberate misappropriation of historical realities, or, a symptom of an unacceptable ignorance regarding power and its use by a state at the strategic level. Neither will be useful attributes by the UK’s policy making elite in the post-BREXIT age.

In both these cases the reflexive tendency to blame British “mistakes” on “following” implies a lack of independence of thought, or capacity for it, on the part of the nation. And it is there, in the organs of the state apparatus for thinking about and implementing strategy through policy that things go horribly wrong. The UK system appears to wish to put policy before strategy. Does one not have to have a strategy before you put your foreign policy, or defence policy, or healthcare policy, or transport policies in place? The role of the National Security Council has run afoul of this lethargic thinking, being neither policy making or strategic thinking. It appears from its limited operational existence to be advisor in a non-definite way, reactive not pro-active. Strategic thought is a continuous process, and so if there is no pre-thinking, reactive-thinking that is likely to have great utility is more a wish than a realistic expectation. And hope is definitely not a strategy. All of this is most worrying to think about as the state’s foreign policy making and strategic think apparatus gird their collective loins to meet the realities of a BREXITing Britain.

Strategic cultures are hard things to change. A product of generations of actions, promotions, reforms and personal prejudice and bias, of organisational malaise, of human nature’s natural desire to find security through the familiar because of fear of the unknown, the myriad inputs that go into a nation’s strategic culture are not easy to detect, let alone change. And yet, BREXIT most certainly will mean change. It is yet to be determined what Britain’s status will be in relation to many of its former “natural” relationships. Already the Australians have signalled that relying on shared history, language and culture is not going to automatically implied preferred trading status. Japan likewise, in a most un-Japanese fashion, has publically signalled Britain’s need to think carefully of its way forward if it is to expect economic relations to continue as they did before. Chasing China for greater investment and financial linkages will not endear Britain to any American Government, Trump or not. So has that strategic alliance, the centre-piece of a century’s worth of foreign policy making, no longer what it was? Will India care so much about stronger economic links with a Britain that is not in the single market? What are the principles upon which British foreign policy is to be based around: opportunism, economic recovery, isolation, liberal interventionism?

If one looks at a nation in the strategic position Great Britain now finds itself in, transitioning from a known position within the international order to a new, unknown position, an old, out of fashion concept can provide some utility as strategic thinkers and foreign policy makers attempt to find a way: Realpolitik. Used incorrectly throughout the last half of the 19th, and all of the 20th and first decades of the 21st centuries, to imply a selfish, nationalistic, superiority over collectivist approaches to national security thinking, the concept is worth reconsidering as a valuable analytical tool for Britain’s strategic thinkers. Too many years ago now to want to recall, I do remember a senior history honours seminar at the University of Saskatchewan, run by a Professor Ivo Lambi, on this very subject. Tracing the analysis of power and its relationship to the state from the classic Greek tradition through to the post-Enlightenment Europe, whose borrowing of those classics was the engine of their new progressive thinking about the human condition, Lambi postulated the inseparability of this philosophy-based, as opposed to politically-based, conceptualisation of the nature of the relationship between power and the state. If the UK is to deal more effectively with the new realities of its choices regarding the creation, utilization and maintenance of power, and not just military power, in the post-BREXIT age, perhaps now would be a good time to start recalibrating the strategic culture to the nature to thinking more philosophically and less politically, more Realpolitikly, about how and why it should wield power in international relations the way it does. After all, now that the nation has its sovereignty back, there can be no easy excuse that it was “lead” by anyone to do anything.

Image: John Kerry listens to Boris Johnson during a joint news conference in London, 19th July 2016, via wikimedia commons

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