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Ask Max Weber: What’s Wrong With British Foreign Policy

May 20, 2015

Britain’s lack of appetite for international affairs attracted some negative commentary during the election campaign, even the Iranians weight in calling for a more active foreign policy. Given that there’s a widespread belief in Iran that the British are as malevolent as the Americans this was a pretty big deal. The three main parties all had pretty much the same foreign policy in their manifestos so it wasn’t going to become a big issue.

So what’s going on? One explanation is that it’s to do with popular war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan. Public opinion won’t wear an active foreign policy. Given that Chatham House’s regular survey continues to show 60% support for a significant international role I’m not convinced. In fact Max Weber offers an alternative explanation; it’s the elites that are the problem.

Weber’s argument goes like this.* Support for active foreign policies come from elite groups who gain material (arms contracts?) or other benefits (status, promotions) from success in the international sphere. The success generates prestige that serves as one mechanism to legitimize the elite. In this scheme nationalism is the tendency of the ruled to identify with the rulers – and the more successful they appear to be the more popular they are.

So how is British foreign policy going? Well we invaded Iraq and then having told everyone we knew what we’re doing discovered that we didn’t. The army decided to have another go and got us involved in Helmand, and made it clear that we still didn’t know what we were doing. David Cameron’s Libya mission has gone south and on Syria I’m not convinced that he was really trying that hard. The political, military and foreign policy elites have all been thoroughly deflated on foreign policy. The politicians don’t know anything about foreign affairs and are more interested in clinging to office. I get the impression that senior military, FCO, and intelligence people are anxious to pass the buck – which explains their enthusiasm for the NSC. And the Iraq fallout isn’t over yet because we’ve still got the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War to come it covers the period up to 2009 which means that there are people still in senior positions who are implicated in events – so don’t expect brilliant new initiatives coming up from below to enthuse the political leadership any time soon.   New thinking is going to have to come from outside the government.

*Randall Collins discusses this in chapter 6 of Weberian Sociological Theory (Cambridge: CUP, 1986), this draws on the argument in Chapter 9 of Weber’s Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California, 1968).

3 comments

  1. Following the Weberian argument you outline, it seems to me that, instead of prestige, British political grandees have only problems to gain from dabbing into foreign policy. These are inherently complex matters, difficult to translate into readily understandable domestic political terms – except for those ready to interpret Ukraine as a new Cold War against Mordor, Iraq as a crusade against fascist Islam at home and abroad, and the EU as the devil who will rob your ale. Better leave that to civil servants.

    ON the other hand, there was plenty in this campaign which would have been qualified as “foreign policy” only 50 years ago: the EU, migrations, etc. It might be that foreign policy comes nowadays awfully close to home.


  2. I agree that its safer for the politicians to steer well clear but it’s also clear that the civil servants don’t know what they are doing either.


    • Clearly a much more worrying prospect.



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