Are we entering a new age of British isolationism?

Britain has shown that its notion of how to conduct world affairs turns on strong but unrealistic opinions fuelled by moral outrage. Let’s leave serious nations to get on with defending the world, shall we?

New Statesman
A convoy carries UN chemical weapons inspectors through Ghouta, the site of a 21 August suspected sarin attack. Photo: Reuters/Bassam Khabieh
Even before the parliamentary vote on Syria, British influence in the world was being maintained on a tightrope. That elaborate balancing act is becoming ever more difficult to perform because of the strains of our recent wars and swingeing defence cuts. Opining on world affairs is a luxury born of power, influence and security. History tells us that these things come at a price – a price that we are increasingly reluctant to pay, or would prefer if others paid for us.
 
These days we prefer to take the world not as it is, but as it ought to be. We yield to no one in our moral outrage. Yet when the world throws up complex conundrums – or instances of savage barbarism such as the gassing of children by a dictator just outside the capital city of his country – we struggle to formulate a coherent response.
 
David Cameron’s “I get it” statement in the House of Commons late on Thursday 29 August – when he ruled out the prospect of using the royal prerogative to engage in military action against the Syrian regime without the sanction of parliament – had the feel of one of those soundbites that will reverberate for years to come. With the government insisting it will not take the matter before parliament again, it is easy to see why it has been interpreted as a watershed moment in our foreign policy.
 
Naturally, we should beware the rush to judgement. Hysterical pronouncements of the deaths of “Great” Britain or the “special relationship” are premature. But the unavoidable reality is that the Commons vote on Syria was a grave blow to Britain’s prestige in the world. That is certainly how it played outside the country, in the places that matter, from Moscow and Tehran to Paris and Washington, DC.
 
Richard Haass, the esteemed US diplomat and president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, described parliament’s rejection of the government’s motion as “nothing less than stunning” and indicative of a trend towards parochialism and potential isolationism. An opponent of gung-ho interventionism, Haass is the epitome of the moderate, mildly anglophile US diplomatic establishment. His suggestion that the vote “reflects the reality that Britain and the rest of Europe are neither able nor willing to play a substantial role in these other regions that will define the 21st century” will sting.
 
American reassurances to Britain that its friendship is still highly valued and that “these things happen” have the ring of a partner reassuring their lover about an uncertain performance in the bedroom – mildly comforting to hear, but not quite enough to put them fully at ease. The only consolation, in selfish strategic terms, is that Cameron’s defeat begat further indecision in Washington. It prompted President Obama to blindside both his secretary of state, John Kerry, and his own advisers, and to seek congressional approval for a strike. To many others in the United States, let alone within Syria, that was no consolation at all.
 
Meanwhile, robust French support for the US – the inverse of what happened with Iraq – leaves Britain detached from its second most important military ally, with which it had been co-operating increasingly effectively over Libya and also, without fanfare, during the French intervention in Mali in January. Kerry’s praise for France as America’s “oldest ally” was intended to hurt.
 
The embarrassment is compounded by Britain, together with France, having consciously “led from the front” and kept up the pressure on a reluctant Barack Obama to act for many months. The latest incarnation of British “positioning” – a time-honoured foreign policy tactic pioneered by Winston Churchill – had been trialled over Libya. The strategy, too, of running ahead of the US on Syria began to run into grave trouble before the parliamentary recess. In May, it became clear to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary that both the Labour Party and a growing number of Tory rebels would oppose any efforts to arm the Syrian rebels.
 
On 21 August, however, Syria’s latest and most grotesque use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta made it impossible for Obama not to respond. It was at that moment that the Prime Minister saw the opportunity he had been waiting for. He reassured Obama of his full support and ratcheted up the diplomatic, military and political preparations for war. The president’s clear preference for limited action also made the equation simpler, in the short term, at least. It was now more a question of enforcing “red lines” and restoring western credibility than an attempt to decide the final outcome within Syria. William Hague summed up the new common denominator in the approaches of Britain, France and the US: “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons in the 21st century to go unchallenged.”
 
In failing to attain parliamentary support, Cameron has been criticised for his management of his own party and of public opinion. Yet when it comes to how Britain is perceived beyond these shores, that is an irrelevant footnote and should be of little comfort to those who think seriously about Britain’s international standing. Parliament had its day and its say; the issue runs deeper than a mere tactical dropping of the ball by Cameron, or an indictment of his “essay crisis” style of governance.
 
After the vote, the Chancellor, George Osborne, stated that Britain needed to enter a “period of soul-searching” about its place in the world. Far better we start with trying to understand the nature of the world in which we operate, and how we got to the position where we could afford the luxury of strong opinions on global affairs. “Get real” might have been the more appropriate note on which to end the debate. 
 
 Despite crowing by Ukip and some Conservative rebels, the Commons vote did not herald some sort of final victory for a “Little England” view of the world. Little Englanderism is nothing new in debates over British foreign policy. It has its roots in the mid-19th century, when Lord Palmerston was in the ascendant and our confidence about Britain’s place in the world was at its peak. Often associated with the pacifist champion of free trade Richard Cobden, and sometimes the anti-imperialist William Gladstone, it was by no means an ignoble tradition.
 
Lord Palmerston addresses the Commons during debates on the Anglo-French treaty of commerce, 1860, at the peak of British diplomatic power. Image: Bridgeman Art Library, John Phillip (1817-67)
 
To its late-19th-century critics, Little Englanderism was characterised by a preference for cosmopolitanism over patriotism and was based on a naive and utopian understanding of world affairs in which non-interference in other nations would leave us secure. It tells a story in itself that “Little Englander” has now become shorthand for unsophisticated xenophobia – the definitive crime of modern British political culture.
 
As a nation we have never been more internationalist and cosmopolitan. Our print and broadcast media brim with discussion of foreign affairs. We are emotionally and intellectually engaged in the affairs of other nations; we are extremely well travelled and have pet causes around the world. More than in any other major country, our national curriculum has been tilted to the study of other peoples. Any attempt to reset the balance is denounced by the British academic glitterati as a return to “isolationist, monocultural English nationalism”.
 
This is what makes the 29 August vote so striking: that parliament so readily sealed itself into its own echo chamber. Moreover, it did so for a combination of narrow and self-referential reasons – including party management, political advantage and the desire of MPs to exorcise their own ghosts from the Iraq war. Edmund Burke once described the great privilege of a seat in parliament as “doing good and resisting evil”. The sphere in which Britain is able to do that has been diminished temporarily.
 
How effective will it be the next time we stomp our feet in protest when Israel makes an incursion into Gaza or Lebanon, or even, say, deploys white phosphorus? How can we act as America’s “liberal conscience” from the comfortable confines of a security umbrella it provides us? In the case of Syria, we had the luxury of knowing the job would be done by someone else, whether we participated or not. 
 
Our interest in the world and our understanding of how it works have never been so misaligned. We think that we are outwardlooking; in fact, we are much more out-of-touch and self-referential than we can see. The issues we choose to focus our energies on tell us more about ourselves than they do about the world around us. For instance, when it comes to the Syria crisis, where have Britain’s moral warriors been, the ones who surge on to the streets in protest against US foreign policy? In the last term of parliament, House of Lords questions relating to Israel- Palestine ran at ten times the rate of those asked about Iran and Syria. China and Latin America received less attention still. What looks worldly is not always what it seems.
 
Perhaps future historians will look back at the government’s defeat on Syria as a great moment for parliament – though the previous great moments, such as the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, were mostly somewhat more outward-looking. The events of 29 August will certainly have far-reaching domestic political repercussions. A wound was inflicted on David Cameron, though Ed Miliband’s expression at the end of the debate betrayed a concern that this may not equate to a victory for him, and already that consensus has hardened.
 
Whatever occurred in Westminster at the end of August, in both the Commons and the Lords, one thing that did not take place was a clear discussion of contemporary foreign affairs. With some exceptions, on the left and the right, for and against the measure, many of the speeches were swimming in neurosis, self-regard or high esteem for a set of international “norms” that we are increasingly reluctant to do anything to enforce. We may continue to shout from the sidelines in outrage at world affairs. But, in the short term, on an issue of pressing strategic and moral significance, we have left the stage.
 
As far as “calls to arms” go, the coalition government’s motion was tentative compared to John Kerry’s articulate and forceful war speech, which came the following day. It was a vote for the principle that military action might be considered as part of a coordinated international response to what had occurred in the suburbs of Damascus. As the government began to realise in the course of the day that it faced a rebellion, the House was promised a second vote before military action would begin.
 
In practice, parliament was asked to put its name to very limited US-led military strikes against chemical and biological weapons facilities. Britain’s military participation would probably be limited to intelligence support, the use of Cyprus as a staging post and the firing of a relatively small number of cruise missiles. Though the phrase “humanitarian intervention” was used in the motion, there was no serious prospect of entering the conflict on the ground, beyond the “special forces” already reported to be operating there in an intelligence-gathering capacity.
 
All such military actions are open-ended, of course, and there is never any guarantee that the parameters of conflict will not be extended, as they were in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Libya. Yet the idea that we now need to know not only the beginning, but the middle and end of any putative intervention is a formula for perennial inaction. We have never had this luxury and we never will. This is to enter the realm of fantasy foreign policy.
 
The choice was whether or not to join the US and France in sending President Bashar al-Assad a simple message – that the use of chemical weapons to kill hundreds of people was not consequence-free. In other words, and for reasons that are just as dear to the Americans (and, indeed, the French), what was presented was not some sort of formula for Iraq Mark II. That could not have been clearer. Parliament was asked to give its stamp of approval to a limited military operation to enforce international conventions on chemical weapons. The action, it is worth remembering, would take place with or without its consent.
 
That the Iraq war loomed over the parliamentary debate is understandable. That it diluted rather than enhanced the discussion is not. The French philosopher Régis Debray, who fought alongside Che Guevara in 1967 and became President François Mitterrand’s official foreign policy adviser in the 1980s, once wrote that “nine out of ten political errors result from reasoning by analogy”.
 
“Just as an art lover’s sensibility comes from comparing works, so people tend to react to current events by comparison with the past,” he noted, “something that helps them to reason but also causes gross idiocies.” The least Syria deserved was a sober discussion of the question on its merits.
 
The conformity (if not quite uniformity) of opinion within the Labour Party on this question must be one of the most anomalous events in the history of its attitudes to foreign affairs. Back in the 1930s, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin were divided over even the comparatively uncontentious matter of offering trade union support to the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish civil war.
 
The liberal humanitarian case for a limitedaction military intervention in Syria was much more compelling than the case for the action that occurred in Iraq in 2003. Why was it left to Tony Blair alone to make the case for supporting the government’s motion? What was so different this time round, compared to Libya? The government did not answer these questions well; but they are the types of questions that an aspiring party of government must also address. While the Labour amendment provided a useful cloak for opposing the government, and a shield with which to deflect criticism at the next election, it was never intended to offer a viable alternative.
 
Furthermore, one look at Hansard confirms that our political classes seem to have elevated historically contingent international institutions to the position of some sort of heaven-sent bureaucratic fantasia. We fetishise procedure and due process while others flout them. It is hard to think of a nation that has such an unrealistic attitude to the functioning of the United Nations.
 
As we have often heard in the past two years, diplomacy is always preferable, even to the most limited act of war. But diplomacy needs to be understood for what it is; it is a tool of foreign policy and not an abstract good in or of itself. As the historian, diplomat and former Labour MP Sir Harold Nicolson noted in 1946, reflecting on the failures of appeasement in the 1930s, foreign policy was “based upon a general conception of national requirements, and this conception derives from the need of self-preservation . . . and strategic advantage . . . Diplomacy, on the other hand, is not an end but a means; not a purpose but a method.”
 
Even when it comes to military affairs, our usefulness to our allies does not quite fit our self-image. Our much-vaunted counterinsurgency techniques – about which we often lectured the Americans during the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan – took a battering in Basra and Helmand Province. Our understanding of “hearts and minds” has never been quite as acute as we like to think it is. Ironically, it is in the murkier elements of warcraft – special forces operations and intelligence – that we often excel. These are the types of tactics which make us much better equipped for coalition warfare than for going it alone. And the world is not becoming a safer place in which to plough a lone furrow. 
 
It was industrial and naval power that made Britain the dominant nation in the 19th century. As others caught up, and that leverage diminished, Britain shifted to a balancing act based on history, positioning and certain pinpoint diplomatic and military capabilities.
 
Luckily, and by no means inevitably, Britain found itself on the winning side in the three great power struggles of the 20th century. It was left with important attributes, such as a seat on the UN Security Council, nuclear weapons and a particularly strong intelligence- sharing relationship with the world’s most powerful nation.
 
Since 1945 our response to world affairs has been crafted largely around the actions of this ally. In so doing, we have had – for cultural and historical reasons and for reasons of realpolitik – a headstart on other nations.
 
We have often, in Harold Macmillan’s phrase, played Greeks to the Americans’ Romans – or, as one Foreign Official put it in 1940, made “use of American power for the purposes which we regard as good”. However, by failing to provide support to the most cosmopolitan and unobtrusive US president in recent memory – in one of the least morally objectionable, most justifiable interventions in modern history – we have momentarily abdicated this terrain. The question now is whether we are content to retreat from positioning to posturing; or to become, in the words of Richard Haass, “more parochial, focused mostly on matters of governance and economic policy”.
 
On 16 May this year, parliament appointed the Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence. Its purpose is to examine the use of soft power in furthering the United Kingdom’s global interests. Perhaps it will discover a new way of conducting international affairs and securing the national interest that we have missed so far. Otherwise, for the moment, we might just have to let the rest of the world get on with it.
 
John Bew, a New Statesman contributing writer, is reader in history and foreign policy in the war studies department at King’s College, London. From next month, he will take up the Henry A Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC
Tags:Syria