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Latour to British Foreign Policy via Blair, Part IV: Still Looking for A Policy

October 15, 2013

In this post I want to make the connection between Blair’s globalist vision and some of the more normal concerns of this blog about the machinery of government in the UK.

The basic argument here is that we have seen the development of a gap between high level visionary abstraction of the Blairite persuasion and the workings of a modernizing government machinery.

I think a key element here is the conjunction of two factors at work in British foreign policy over the past decade and a half; firstly the failed state agenda and secondly, the push for modernization in government.

Failed/fragile states have attracted a lot of policy attention –  Bosnia followed by the interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq in addition there’s been relatively sustained policy interest in countries like Pakistan and Somalia.

Modernization had many facets but it was ‘joined up’, getting different bits of government to work together and it developing defined objectives that would allow assessment of value for money.  This is not something that has just happened in the UK.  Here’s a comparison between the UK, Netherlands and the Nordics.

It’s the combination of these factors that has led to a degree of learning and innovation in British statecraft.  This also saw policy innovations such as the Conflict Pool – funding accessible by different departments – and efforts to think through how to deal with this problems eg the Building Stability Overseas Strategy.  The result was an extremely coherent account of British statecraft although accounts of the system in action are much less impressive.

Despite this in there has a been a growing concern over the lack of strategic thinking in British government.  Including in the military.

What’s going on?  How can we have strategies but no strategy?

I think that the Building Stability Overseas Strategy gives hefty clue.  It explains why stability matters to the UK, what produces instability and how, faced with a situation of instability, UK government departments will work together and with other people to address the problem.  If this was a military document it would be extremely clear what it is.  It’s doctrine not strategy.  Doctrine gives a common understanding of a problem and an approach to working together to address it.  It doesn’t tell you which circumstances the UK will become involved or in which cases, it doesn’t tell you about resources, it doesn’t give timeframes.

In 2010 The FCO put out a training booklet on policy skills which laid out a hierarchy in which  strategy was placed above policy. To a Clausewitzian like me this raises a red flag.  Clausewitz places policy at the top of the tree not because it’s a label but because politics is where different aspects of the world are composed.  It we have five different priorities which do we choose to pursue? How do they affect each other?  How do they affect other people?  Can we get others to support us in this particular situation?

There is a parallel with a critique that applies to the  British and American armed forces.  Because national  leaderships will not or cannot properly define objectives and strategies based on political realities military thinking has tended to expand the reach of operational thinking (Strachan 2005, 2010, 2013, Bailey, Iron and Strachan 2013, Ledwidge 2011) .   I think that the same has been going on in foreign affairs more generally;  there has been lots of thinking about means and instruments much less about politics, policy and strategy.  What we get is a gap between the broad generalities of the Blairite vision and the working level.  This is gap that capital D diplomacy should partially be filling.

In the UK as in the US it’s become more common to see diplomacy, defence and development referred to together but in the context of failed states it’s the diplomacy that gets squeezed between defence and development.  In the US it’s common to see complaints about the militarization of foreign policy but in the UK it would be more accurate to think in terms of developmentalization foreign policy becomes an adjunct to development.  If we’re thinking in terms of modernizing government development and defence do planning and projects, they spend money and as a result have lobbies, they also both feel nervous about politics.  That’s really what diplomacy should be doing but the 3D formulation tends also to reduce diplomacy to a small d instrument of policy rather than a mode of interacting with the world.

There’s a big gap at the heart of British foreign policy between a particular one world vision and a set of techniques and resources to build that world.

In the final post of this series I’ll try (emphasis on try) to suggest a way forward.

Bailey JBA, Iron R and Strachan H, eds (2013) British generals in Blair’s wars. Farnham: Ashgate.
Ledwidge F (2011) Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Strachan H (2005) The Lost Meaning of Strategy, Survival, 47: 33–54.
Strachan H (2010) Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War, Survival, 52: 157–182.
Strachan H (2013) British National Strategy: Who Does It?, Parameters, 43: 43–52.
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One comment

  1. […] via Tony Blair, Part1,” October 8, 2013; Part 2, October 8, 2013, Part 3,October 11, 2013, Part 4, October 15, 2013, Part 5, October 28, 2013; “German Democracy Support in Middle East,” […]



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