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

The Significance of Suez 1956: A Reference Point and Turning Point?

This is the third in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.


From a British perspective 60 years after the crisis, Suez has an almost iconic status, often used as a short hand for everything ‘wrong’ in foreign policy and decision making. It is said to be the moment when Britain’s status and reputation as a global power ended and with it a decline of British moral power and prestige, the ultimate exemplar of Albion’s perfidy. In this way ‘Suez’ evokes a specific response which intends to tap into a shared meaning that is still used today.

For example, in the context of the Brexit debate, Matthew Parris wrote in The Times on 15 0ctober: ‘As in a bad dream, I have the sensation of falling. We British are on our way to making the biggest screw-up since Suez and, somewhere deep down, the new governing class know it. We are heading for national humiliation, nobody’s in charge, and nobody knows what to do. This Brexit thing is out of control’.

In Britain and the Suez Crisis, the historian David Carlton argued that ‘No event in the post-war period has so divided the nation as the Suez crisis; in none has the government so adamantly obscured the truth, and there has been much controversy as to its effect on Britain’s standing in the world. In consequence, many will see 1956 as one of the turning points in Britain’s post-war history’.

In these ways then Suez is both a reference point and a turning point.


Background to the Suez Crisis

So what was the crisis about? What was at stake that produced what Enoch Powell later called ‘a national nervous breakdown’?

First of all, it was not about the Canal Zone or the Suez Canal Company and if it had been it could have been solved peacefully, through the UN. Instead it was a multi-crisis at the international, regional and state levels, and only Nasser’s removal would resolve the crises because he was perceived to be at the centre of them all.

But was it really mainly about prestige? We are used to arguments that suggest Britain’s interests in the Middle East and the maintenance of her informal empire was linked primarily to the control of important resources and the security of essential military facilities. Britain did not seek to retain its military presence in the Middle East to protect oil. In 1956 there were 16 plans for unilateral British action in the region. Fifteen plans were for national evacuation operations and only one was for a conventional war: to support Jordan against Israel. Neither did Britain seek to remain in Egypt because of the importance of her military facilities. This may have been the case in the Second World War and the early post-war period, but by 1956 the Suez base was considered to be of no military importance in peacetime. Yet the British still refused to meet Egyptian demands for evacuation because, significantly, they feared this would be seen as being forced out and, therefore, as damaging to their prestige and influence in the rest of the Middle East.

Traditional accounts of Britain and the causes of Suez highlight British defence of her longstanding interests and influence in the Middle East dating back to the 1870s to protect the vital trade and communications route through the Suez Canal to the remainder of the British Empire in the Far East. In these versions, the main threats to British influence were the lack of resolution to Arab-Israeli dispute, the rise of Arab nationalism and the threat of communism.

When Nasser became President of Egypt he seen as positive and treated as a client of the west and key to a number of British and American policies in the Middle East. For example, Egypt was central to Anglo-American Cold War strategy in the Middle East which aimed to create a Middle East defence organisation along the lines of NATO. For the United States this would act as a bulwark against Soviet penetration in the region. For Britain it would have the added advantage of formalising Britain’s bi-lateral arrangements in the region and become an umbrella collective defence organisation of existing British defence interests with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Britain and the United States also sought a resolution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, through plan ALPHA, essentially an early version of a land for peace deal: territorial compromises and an agreement to recognise borders.

But in 1953 American policy was re-evaluated. John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State toured the region and concluded that the British role in Middle East defence and Anglo-Egyptian relations hindered rather than served Western interests. He believed that the lack of settlement on the Suez Canal base undermined potential Arab unity and alignment with the west.

Nasser was increasingly perceived to be a threat to western interests. While the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement gave Britain 20 months to withdraw their troops from the Canal zone and the right to reactivate the base if the freedom of the Canal was threatened by external powers seemed to indicate a resolution to the problem of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, Nasser undermined the British sponsored Middle East defence organisation the Baghdad Pact, by pressuring Jordan not to join.

Nasser’s opposition to Israel threatened to renew the armed conflict in the Middle East. As a result his requests for military equipment from the west were refused. In July 1955 he turned instead to the Eastern bloc with an agreement with Czechoslovakia. Crucially, however, while there was western agreement that Nasser had to go, it was for very different reasons. For the United States it was because Nasser stood in the way of Middle Eastern unity in opposition to the USSR and Britain because Nasser was undermining Britain’s position in the region and the rest of the British empire. Opposition to Nasser’s policies led to Britain and the US withdrawing their promised finances of the Aswan High Dam in mid-July 1956. Nasser found an alternative source of income in his nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company on 26 July.

That evening when the news came in Eden was having dinner with the King and Prime Minister of Iraq and said Nasser had to go because he could not be allowed to ‘have his hand on our windpipe’ and ‘knock him off his perch’. But this was not going to happen quickly or decisively due to problems with military capabilities and readiness.

In private preparations were made for the use of force, including collusion with Israel and France for a pretext for the use of force which led to the Sevres Protocol on 22 October. In public, however, Britain pursued a diplomatic settlement thorough negotiation: a Maritime Conference of 22 Nations in August and the American sponsored Suez Canal Users’ Association in September.

The military operation ended abruptly when the UN called for a cease-fire on 2 November. The conflict led to a run on the pound and a sudden decline in Britain’s gold reserves. Although loans from the IMF would have eased the pressure, American backing for this was essential and so Britain had to bow to Washington’s demand for a ceasefire. The British had miscalculated, holding faulty perceptions of US policy: believed they would support or at least be indifferent, hoping at least for benign neutrality. Eisenhower summed up when he addressed the National Security Council on 1 November “How could we possibly support Britain and France and in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”


Results of the Suez Crisis: a Turning Point?

The crisis led to a change to the regional balance of power for while the Egyptian air force destroyed, Nasser emerged as the only Arab leader capable of challenging the west. Israel gained for although did not depose Nasser, the UNEF guaranteed freedom of shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba and this gave Israel a Red Sea port. France applied her lessons when de Gaulle became President 18 months later with a European focus to French foreign policy. Part of de Gaulle’s veto British entry into the EEC can be explained by the Suez experience, not allowing Britain to be a Trojan horse of American interests. France withdrew from the military structure of NATO and refused to support American policy in Lebanon and Vietnam.

Globally it can be argued that the crisis formalised the dominance of the two superpowers and established a balance of power that remained effective until the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Some see Suez as confirmation that Britain was hopelessly overstretched, that if a global role was to be retained it would have to be subordinate to superpower interests. The limits of post-war British power were demonstrated and the further British decline as an imperial power in Middle East, Africa and South East Asia was presaged. Others look at the relationship between Suez and the British decision to join the EEC, as if that decision was a result of Britain acknowledging and adjusting to a new reality – where it had lost an empire and was seeking a new role.

Margaret Thatcher certainly saw Suez as both a turning point and reference point. She believed the impact of Suez on British policy making thereafter, a “Suez syndrome”, was negative: ‘having previously exaggerated our power, we now exaggerated our impotence’. And she drew on Suez to enhance her foreign policy achievements: “The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat”. (The Downing Street Years).

It is also important to remember that at the time British policy assumptions remained the same. Britain still saw itself as a great power and still aimed to maintain global influence. And while Britain continued to exercise influence globally, on decisive issues it would do so only in close consultation with the US. In this way Britain continued to exercise its influence and remained active in the Middle East. British power may have diminished, but her interests remained the same. Britain remained concerned about Arab nationalism, communism and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Britain used military force in 1958 to intervene in support of Jordan and Kuwait in 1961, counterinsurgency campaigns were fought in Aden and Dhofar and Britain remained active and engaged even after the East Suez decision down to 1991 and beyond.

Whether or not Suez is a turning point or a reference point, it magnified British unpreparedness to undertake a limited war and the incoherency of British ends, ways and means. The fear that a failure to tackle Nasser would be disastrous for British prestige ended in disaster and ignominy. And in this way Antony Nutting was surely right to suggest that enduring significance of the crisis is its No End of a Lesson.

Image: Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956, via the Imperial War Museum.

Soft Power and Hard Brexit


Much has been written about the British vote to leave the European Union and its wider implications. It is perhaps the UK’s most important strategic decision in a generation or more. However, concrete predictions and forecasts about the post-Brexit future are still confined to the realm of uncertainty and speculation. This is particularly true for the twin themes of British access to the EU’s single market and EU immigration into the UK, which will dominate the Brexit agenda for the foreseeable future. Yet, as a recent roundtable on the security and defence implications of Brexit at the Joint Services Command and Staff College has shown, uncertainty is also the dominant feature in less central areas. In short, even leading security and defence experts cannot be sure about what is going to happen in their areas of expertise. The future EU-UK relationship may not be as complex in security and defence matters as it is in the economic and commercial field. After all, European security and defence integration is not particularly deep, as I argued already before the referendum. But it is contingent upon uncontrollable factors in other areas. For instance, EU-UK cooperation in defence procurement is dependent upon the type of access the UK gains to the EU’s single market, as Prof Matthew Uttley pointed out during the roundtable. It may even be influenced by the way President Putin of Russia is able to exploit the post-Brexit situation, as Dr Tracey German warned during the same event. The good news is that none of the roundtable participants expected a worst case scenario for EU-UK relations in matters of security and defence, although such a scenario certainly remains a possibility. Prof Luis Simon emphasized that the UK will remain a major political and military power even outside the EU. And Prof Malcolm Chalmers highlighted that the UK will remain a member of NATO, Europe’s most important defence organization. A completely different question is, of course, if the EU or Britain will actually gain any security and defence benefits from Brexit. And there were few, if any, positive answers to this question.

It could be argued that the most likely – or as some would argue, the most desirable – outcome of Brexit is no or only very little change of the current state of affair of European security, at least in terms of hard power. Although Prof Uttley cautioned that there is the possibility that a weaker pound means that the UK can buy less military hardware abroad, especially in the United States, the capabilities and structure of the armed forces in both the UK and the remaining EU member states will be largely unaffected by Brexit. Other classical power attributes such as population, geopolitical location or GDP will also remain by and large the same after Brexit. Likewise, European nations will retain their power to coerce other actors on the world stage, in particular if the UK joins the other EU member states in coercive actions such as imposing sanctions. However, the roundtable at the Joint Services Command and Staff College drew the audience’s attention to another, perhaps even more important form of power, namely soft power or, citing its standard definition, ‘getting others to want the outcomes that you want’. According to Joe Nye, who coined the term at the beginning of the 1990s, ‘The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)’.

While British culture may change only very slowly after Brexit, it are the UK’s political values and foreign policies where Brexit may have its most immediate impact. In the eyes of other nations, leaving the European Union is a sign that the UK is going to be more inward-looking and less committed to advanced forms of international cooperation. Perhaps quite tellingly Theresa May is the first Home Secretary to move straight into 10 Downing Street since Lord Palmerston in the 19th century. What is also clear from the magnitude of the Brexit decision is that – paradoxically – the UK’s relation with the EU will be at the centre stage of British foreign policy for years to come. In other words, even though the UK may want to re-emphasize its traditional political values of an open, outward-looking power committed to international cooperation by re-enforcing its ties with the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international institutions, the necessary resources to do so will be absorbed by the more pressing need to implement Brexit, especially if it takes the form of a ‘hard Brexit’ that will sever the ties between Britain and the UK in a more profound way. So, despite the difficulty to gauge the exact knock-on effects of these developments, it is very likely that in a world of growing political populism other nations may want to follow the British example to withdraw from international organizations and re-nationalize their foreign and security policies. This, however, would certainly not be in the long-term national interest of the United Kingdom, as it depends for its own security on an open international system based on cooperation. In fact, such developments would be an ironic – and tragic – effect of its soft power: getting others to want the outcomes that the UK does not want by following the UK’s lead. In short, although we will always have NATO, as the Brexiteers (rightly) highlight, it are the intangible, hard-to-predict factors that we have to watch out for in the long-term.

Image via public domain pictures.

What BREXIT means for the Middle East


The June 23 vote in the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU) sent shockwaves across the country, continent and globe in the political, economic and security spheres. This has already had and will continue to have ramifications in the Middle Eastern region. These are likely to be both positive and negative, depending on where one is sat, based on their perspective, in the region and what issues are of their concern.

From the perspective of Western-allied governments and actors in the international community, the development can be seen as weakening the cohesiveness of the forces tackling international security issues both in the region and outside of it. Indeed, when viewed in the context and desire to increase alliances, cooperation and integration, the BREXIT result can only be detrimental to this cause.

From the perspective of those who reject foreign influence in the region, this is a positive step. This camp includes a range of peoples and actors who cut across the different levels of society, government and non-governmental entities in the region. The concern here comes from the average Middle Easterner who is fed up of the continued presence and impetus of foreign powers in the region whom exercise their will. Indeed, regional desires to curtail outside interference stretch back at least as far as the Ottoman Empire and the mandates which managed the region following the first and second world wars, as well as global powers using the territory to fight proxy conflicts (i.e. during the Cold War). Additionally, this camp includes the various governments and actors across the region who have continued to reject foreign presence and policies in the region, the most notable of which being the Islamic Republic of Iran regime, Russia and the Bashar Al-Assad Administration in the context of the Syrian Civil War.

Rather despondently, this group also includes non-governmental actors and militant groups, such as Al-Qaida and DAISH (aka IS, ISIL, ISIS and the Islamic Caliphate). Indeed, for these militant organisations, a more divided or perhaps more poignantly, a less aligned and cooperating enemy is only a good thing. Further, the conceptual impact of the BREXIT result for these actors is one which represents less cooperation and coordination within the anti-DAISH coalition. That being said, the counter to this point is that due to the grave, and as some have called it, existential threat of DAISH, there will always be an alignment in the international community among those who have an interest in seeing the terrorist organisation fail. However, the point remains that, despite its many shortcomings, organisations like the EU nevertheless provide a forum in which countries come together and discuss issues of mutual concern. Indeed, examples of where this has already proven to be problematic are evident when concerned with issues surrounding Greece and Turkey. With both countries being members of and therefore eligible to attend North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) led meetings and discussions, but only the former’s membership of the EU means that the latter cannot attend meetings in an EU context.

Resultantly, there are both positives and negatives for the various actors across the region. Indeed, the BREXIT can be either a positive or a negative, depending on where you sit. What is clear, however, is the fact that whilst what the BREXIT represents, that is a sentiment of ‘independence’ as noted by the Leave Campaign. Further, the likes of DAISH have continued to capitalise on the interdependent and liberal nature of the international community, by targeting western and non-westerners in their terror campaigns across the globe. Therefore, increasingly ‘independent’ states must ensure that they maintain their place in the interdependent nature of the international system in order to tackle such terrorist threats.

Image: Middle East geographic. Courtesy of NASA’s globe software World Wind via Wikimedia Commons.