Posts Tagged ‘UK Foreign Policy’


Is Rules Based International Order the New Credibility?

February 25, 2019

The Henry Jackson Society recently put out a report The South China Sea: Why it Matters to “Global Britain”.  The core of the argument is that China is trying to exert claims over the South China Sea that should be opposed and that the Royal Navy should carry out freedom of navigation patrols to contest this claim.  Fair enough.  This then slides towards a claim that the navy should be big enough to manage (in collaboration with others) the Chinese threat.  Given the history of the Naval presence in the Far East during the 20th century (for instance concluding the Anglo-Japanese Treaty  allowed the withdrawal of forces to confront Germany before the First World War, the sinking of of the Prince of Wales and Repulse in December 1941) you can ask how feasible or sensible this is.  However what I was really struck by was use of ‘rules based international order ‘as a justification for this: the Chinese actions threaten the RBIO Britain is committed to defending the RBIO hence Britain must respond.

The idea of RBIO is a staple of UK foreign policy discourse.  The difficulty is I have with it is that practically anything can be made part of the RBIO.  It is the equivalent of ‘credibility’ in US Cold War discourse.  Anything can be treated as threat to credibility any retreat or restraint could be damaging.  What was dangerous was the failure to look at problems in a bigger picture that evaluated different values instead of a reduction to a single ill defined consideration of credibility.   It’s the same with the RBIO, what’s needed are ways of defining what the RBIO is and prioritizing threats and responses and areas for negotiation.  If RBIO is always treated as a seamless whole but which lacks a shape or nuance its defence becomes a slogan for practically anything.




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).


New Thinking on Foreign Policy from the Labour Party?

November 21, 2013

Having been writing quite a lot about British foreign policy recently I noticed that Douglas Alexander, the Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary, has co-edited a collection of essays called Influencing for Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy  so have ideas moved on from the Blairite paradigm?

The essayists are drawn from the establishment think tanks (RUSI, Chatham House) with some Americans mixed in. The book has no less than 10 prepublication puffs telling us how great it is.

Some of the pieces have very little directly to do with the UK (eg Rolf Ekeus on a Middle East WMD free zone)

What’s noticeably missing is an attempt to answer the question how we got here or to take stock of British foreign policy generally. There’s also no discussion of spending levels for foreign affairs other than a commitment to the 0.7% development target.

Alexander concludes that Britain needs a foreign policy which is

Multilateral in character, innovative in the use of the power the UK still has, and respectful of international law.  We have called for an approach that is simultaneously Asia-conscious and pro-European, and simultaneously focussed on a mutually beneficial partnership with the US while still being concerned with matters across wider Europe.  And we have collapsed for an approach that is responsible as it exercises sovereignty and is informed by the challenges opportunities presented by new technology.


That list of regions can be read in at least three ways;  ‘the rest of the world is not a priority’ (is this strategic choice?) or   ‘we can’t make up our mind about where our priorities are’ or ‘we’ve forgotten to mention the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.’

The overall impression is that what we are getting is Tony Blair Lite foreign policy, at one point Alexander does say that we should reject ‘the hubris that the UK can “reorder the world”‘  and generally in most of the chapters there’s more of an emphasis on diplomacy than we might have expected a decade ago but without any sense of a major rethinking of what it means to do foreign policy for Britain.  In contrast the contributions on climate change and responsibility to protect you see the Blairite paradigm in full force.

There are some interesting chapters here.  Mark Leonard’s contribution on ‘Making Britain China Proof’ is blunt in its assessment that the rise of China is hollowing out the global liberal order and this needs to be resisted and it includes what I take to be a dig at previous Labour foreign secretaries:

‘British foreign policy-makers have clung to some heroic assumptions about the power of multilateral institutions to socialize emerging powers.  It is vital to hang on to the values and strategy of promoting a world bound by law rather than power, but the tactics will need to be revised’.

Charles Grant’s chapter on the EU has a section on the rise of Germany hegemony in Europe which is a theme that is becoming increasingly common.  Robin Niblett argues for a the UK as an insider/outsider power without being entirely clear what that means but I think that there’s something there – we’re part of lots of networks and that has the potential using the arbitrage between them more effectively. Paul Collier has an interesting chapter on development – for instance improving capacity for tracking how money flows out of developing economies by corruption.

You can get a second hand copy on for £3.08.


It’s Strategy Week in the UK

October 19, 2010

Yesterday the government published a new UK National Security Strategy (NSS)  document and today we have the publication of of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).  Obviously the new government has been doing some deep strategic thinking… except that tomorrow we’re getting the results of the latest Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) which will announce major cuts in government expenditure so not surprisingly the assumption is that it is the CSR that has driven the NSS and the SDSR.

Tomorrow we should have an idea of how much the foreign affairs budget will be cut by even if we don’t know precisely where the axe will fall.


The Foreign Office and Post International Politics

September 16, 2010

I’m working my way through a big pile of documents on British diplomacy at the moment hence the UK centric nature of a lot of the recent postings.

In developing public diplomacy studies it is important to build up a picture of how different countries conceptualize the field.  Over the past 10 years the UK has developed a very distinctive approach, one that now appears to be evolving in a different direction.

The approach has been rooted in an analysis of the world that would be familiar to readers of James Rosenau or Ferguson and Mansbach, basically we are in an era of post-international politics.

The analysis set out in white papers and annual reports goes something like this.

We live in a world of global issues, eg climate change, terrorism, illegal immigration.  Individual states cannot deal with them in isolation;  these problems require global solutions.  This is understood as the formation of international regimes to provide appropriate regulatory structures and the capacity to strengthen governance within states.  The traditional diplomatic role of managing relations between states becomes less important.

Therefore, the appropriate role for the Foreign Office is the construction of coalitions (or partnerships or networks) that can manage these global challenges.  These networks take in other UK government departments, other countries, international organizations, civil society groups, business etc.   This leads to the blurring of distinctions between diplomacy and public diplomacy.  This also leads to the reallocation of resources from countries or regions to issues.

The logical consequence of this analysis is a focus on issues and multilateral organizations not on relations with countries.  If anything in early iterations of the approach such as the 2003 White Paper UK International Priorities:  A Strategy for the FCO there is an assumption that it is possible to influence state behaviour by getting international organizations to adopt the UK’s preferred regimes.  The route to influence is by using the ‘international community’ to impose norms on its members.

Even in 2003 this analysis overstated the capacity of the UK to achieve its aims.  What has become clear since then is that countries like China, Brazil, India, Russia are much more attached to traditional Westphalian models of diplomacy (the axis of sovereignty is a nice turn of phrase here).   The ability of the UK (and the west more generally)  to define a problem in such a way as to generate an international consensus has declined.  I think that this is part of what lies behind the emphasis that William Hague is giving to strengthening bilateral relations with countries like India.  The emphasis on issues means that you lose focus on the relationship with the country.  The thought seems to be that in order to manage the issues we need to manage the relations with the country ie diplomatically.  The result is that, to some extent at least,  PD will reallocate resources to building relations with countries rather than building issue based coalitions.

One of the motifs in writing about post international politics is the diffusion of power from states.  The rise of the axis of sovereignty points to a different logic of the shift in influence  from one group of states to another.