Leader: This should not be the start of a new age of British isolationism

In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention.

After an era of interventionism, stretching from the bombing of Iraq in 1998 to the Libya mission in 2011, the vote in parliament on 29 August against military action in Syria is being portrayed by some as the birth of a new age of isolationism. The morning after the government’s defeat, an anguished Paddy Ashdown wrote: “We are a hugely diminished country this AM. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.” For him and others, “All is changed, changed utterly.”
 
Beyond the parliamentary theatrics, however, it is doubtful whether the vote will prove the defining moment that some suggest. The narrow defeat of the government by 13 votes was more by accident than by design. Labour, which did not oppose military action in its amendment, failed to anticipate the result or David Cameron’s abrupt decision to rule out intervention. Of the 577 MPs who took part in one or both votes, 492 supported the potential use of force. Yet, for largely political reasons, it is in the interests of both Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband to avoid a second vote and the party divisions that would result.
 
In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention. It is just two years since parliament voted by a majority of 544 to support military action, in that case against Libya, with just 13 dissenting voices. In similar circumstances, it would undoubtedly be prepared to do so again.
 
That Mr Cameron lost the vote was a result not of his failure to assert the moral case for intervention against the Syrian regime, but his failure to address adequately the practical and strategic concerns expressed by MPs of all parties. It was never explained how limited missile strikes would prevent the further use of chemical weapons or other arms against civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s administration or his opponents, nor was it made clear how Britain would avoid being drawn into a wider and more dangerous regional conflagration.
 
If devoid of the significance that some have attributed to it, the Syria vote provides a moment to reflect on the purpose of British foreign policy. Dean Acheson’s gibe in 1962 – “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” – continues to resonate. Having gone to war so often in the past 15 years, we feel a sense of impotence when we do not. This is exacerbated by an increasingly powerful isolationist tendency, most visible in the form of the UK Independence Party, which combines an aversion to foreign entanglements with hostility to the European Union, open borders and overseas aid.
 
Yet between the poles of intervention and inaction, there is still much good that the UK can do. It should work with others at the G20 in St Petersburg to address the shortfall in humanitarian support for Syrian civilians, four million of whom have been displaced internally, and the two million who have fled the country. The Syria Regional Response Plan for refugees, which has called for funding of $3bn, remains 60 per cent short of this total.
 
In addition, Britain should intensify efforts to reach a political settlement, including greater engagement with the newly moderate Iranian leadership, as advocated by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, and some Conservative MPs.
 
Policymakers must reject the false choice between a neoconservative adventurism that disregards the limits of military force and a parochial isolationism that seeks refuge in the pursuit of narrow national interests. The priority remains to craft a multilateral approach that combines a commitment to ethical principles with an awareness of the gulf between the desirable and the possible. If the Syria vote encourages greater reflection on this task, then it could yet prove a significant moment in the search for a consistent post-imperial foreign policy.
A Stop The War campaigner holds up a placard outside Parliament on August 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit