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British diplomacy in the dock

A former diplomat’s new book reveals that, for 25 years, UK foreign policy has left mainly harm and disorder in its wake.

By David Edgerton

In 1997, just ten days into office, Labour’s foreign secretary, Robin Cook, issued a new mission statement for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He invited its staff to work with the Blair government “in a joint project to make Britain once again a force for good in the world”. He had the grace and political wit to write “once again”. Since then, the phrase – stripped of that crucial qualifier – has been used repeatedly in official publications as if it represented past, present and future reality. In the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, for example, the defence secretary, George Robertson, noted that: “Our forces must also be able to back up our influence as a leading force for good in the world” (the phrase appeared another nine times throughout the document). It also appeared in the 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy. In 2019 Dominic Raab, then foreign secretary, claimed that “Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good”. The “Integrated Review” of 2021 claimed “a renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world”. 

Arthur Snell, a British diplomat between the late 1990s and 2014, who served in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, is contemptuous of the idea and the delusions behind it. “Put bluntly,” he writes, “a lot of the bad stuff happening right now is happening because of Britain.” From Kosovo to Brexit, Britain’s role in the world has been a force less for good than for the lamentable and abhorrent. It never stops to ask if it could actually “punch above its weight”, or even whether it should be trying to punch at all. Snell exaggerates the UK’s status in world affairs, but nonetheless offers a lucid rap sheet of egregious errors and self-delusions that have left destruction in their wake.

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With insight that comes from years of front-line diplomacy, he shows that the UK has helped fracture the global order and undermined trust around the world. The story that emerges is of a “country that is desperate to show the world that it is still militarily virile”. He has no time for the mawkish, infantilised discourse around Britain’s armed services. He notes with embarrassment – as have others with experience in these theatres – that the British army floundered in Iraq and Afghanistan, where self-aggrandising nonsense about a special British aptitude for counter-insurgency was humiliatingly exposed. The Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6 – “desperate to please, delusional, self-important and slapdash” – receives similar treatment.

Snell also contradicts common assumptions about the interests underpinning UK foreign relations. The relationship with Saudi Arabia, he argues, is not about oil, or the prevention of terrorism, but armaments. Through decades of corrupt business deals Britain has directly armed the House of Saud, which since 2015 has waged a brutal assault on Yemen, often in violation of the laws of war. For Snell, the “decades-long policy to let Saudi Arabia poison global Islam with sectarian bigotry, export terror, prosecute a merciless war in Yemen, while supplying it with the weapons and expertise… has failed”. The UK may stand up to a dictator every now and then, as it did in 2003 against Saddam Hussein and 2011 against Muammar al-Gaddafi (following years of friendly relations with both), but the truth is that, in the name of lucre, it mostly supports and forgives foreign oppressors, such as Mohammed bin Salman and, until recently, Vladimir Putin.

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The directness of Snell’s book is refreshing, and its indictments land harder because it is a view from the inside. But it does not tell us anything that alert critics did not already know. It may be shocking to the political consensus to read that the bombing of Kosovo in 1999 caused more humanitarian problems that it was supposed to solve, or that the UK has Yemeni blood on its hands, but these are hardly grand revelations. Nor is the fact that, for all the self-glorifying talk of upholding the so-called international order, the UK has repeatedly disregarded its rules, such as by invading Iraq, deporting Chagos islanders and violating the EU withdrawal agreement. At the very least, we can hope that Snell’s account embarrasses politicians and journalists from incanting “a force for good in the world”. But of course, it won’t.

Neither will it do much to alter existing policy. That is because there is no serious explanation of why the UK behaves as it does. What exactly was it in the nature of political and state elites and their policy programmes that made them disregard international laws and norms, arm tyrants, befriend despots, laud the military, indulge the arms industry, falsify intelligence and wage illegal wars? There is the standard reference to post-imperial hubris, but that is not enough. In the 1960s and 1970s the UK pulled its troops back from “East of Suez” to concentrate on the European theatre. What then drove Britain to expand eastwards once again, to the Middle East, and now, with the “Indo-Pacific tilt”, as far as China?

Part of the answer is that the UK armed forces needed an enlarged post-Cold War role to justify high military expenditure. Limiting Britain’s defence to western Europe would have entailed slashing defence budgets and contracts. Successive governments couldn’t refuse their roles as helpmeets of long-range American power: the Chilcot Inquiry in 2016 revealed that the British army was aghast at the initial invasion plans for Iraq in 2003 which did not require a full British division to be deployed. Use it or lose it. 

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Snell’s answer to the problem of a serially dysfunctional and dangerous foreign policy is more spending on better diplomats. Recognising the declining quality – and potential advantages – of the diplomatic service is welcome, but there is no evidence that better diplomats would make any difference to Britain’s new disorder. Was it only the second-rate and overworked officials who supported government plans over the years? The low quality of foreign and defence policy statements and reviews – the ludicrously named “Defence Command Paper”, for example – suggests this, but there is clearly more to be said.

Snell is silent on one crucial factor: the impoverished thinking of the political classes and their advisers. What makes them think supporting Saudi Arabia is good economics or politics? Why do they repeatedly fail to appreciate that the UK is more like a big Canada than a small United States? When will they realise that they oversee a withering economic power?

The biggest problem with Snell’s account, however, is that he does not acknowledge that all the disastrous policies he enumerates were opposed. Robin Cook, kicked out of the Foreign Office in 2001, resigned from government over the plans to invade Iraq. A minority of Labour MPs also opposed the war, the same minority that criticised nearly every other grievous policy, including the sordid relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is striking that the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Labour right, with few exceptions, have been on the wrong side of these debates. But there is no accountability for this, and no recognition that those who have got it right have not so much been ignored as condemned for their positions.

What we have seen unfolding is a general crisis of capability in the British state, and a crisis of political imagination in Westminster. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Labour is now demanding “unshakeable support for Nato” from its MPs and members. But is it really the case that Labour is supposed to applaud every Nato mission? Why can we criticise the disastrous adventure in Iraq, but not what was done (or not done) in Afghanistan or Libya?

There was a time when Labour leaders mounted some opposition to the state’s warmongering, the sale of arms to bad guys and delusions of grandeur: Hugh Gaitskell denounced the attack on Egypt in 1956; Harold Wilson opposed both the sale of warships to General Franco and the supposed British independent nuclear deterrent. Were they wrong, or did they not in fact put the interests of the nation first? Surely, they did.

The sad reality is that for Britain to have a positive impact on the world, it must undergo a radical transformation of its politics, culture and governance. And at the heart of such a change should be a critique of what has been done in the past 30 years in the name of doing good.

How Britain Broke the World: War, Greed and Blunders from Kosovo to Afghanistan, 1997-2021
Arthur Snell
Canbury Press, 416pp, £25

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars