The British are a self-critical lot when it comes to thinking about their national interests. Normally this is fine – it can even be an advantage. But when self-doubt tips over into something closer to self-loathing it becomes more of a vice than a virtue, and an impediment to serious strategic thinking. Beware the following ‘seven deadly sins’ that undermine our thinking about the British national interest:
1. ‘To think about national interests is to hark back to a bygone age.’
The first sin is the knee-jerk association of the British interest with ‘empire’. Ironically, the people most likely to hang onto an outdated notion of the British Empire are not – despite the accusations – the ones who are enthusiastic about the national interest, but rather those who are most uncomfortable with the notion. Calls to ‘bring back the empire’ are vanishingly few compared with the larger number of articles, speeches, and rhetorical attacks that use ‘longing for empire’ as a way to smear or de-legitimise anyone who talks about a successful future for the United Kingdom (UK), or any future except as a passive, isolated and insular nation. Even some Global Britain sceptics acknowledge that there are far fewer pro-empire thinkers in British politics than is often imagined.
The weaponisation of the history of ‘empire’ is selective, referring only to bad parts like racial hierarchy, economic exploitation, political oppression, cultural chauvinism, and so on. The spirit of going out into the wider world – enterprise and exploration – are seldom acknowledged.
There is no escaping the fact that Britain had an empire; however, it has very little to tell us about how to envision and secure the national interest today and into the future. Harking back to empire as a way of knocking the idea of pursuing the British interest is self-indulgence: good for virtue signalling but irrelevant as part of a serious policy debate.
- Resist lust for moral purity.
2. ‘Britain is a power in decline.’
Like all ‘-isms’, declinism is an enemy of clear thinking because it places one factor above all others in a way that is more normative (signalling that is how things ought to be) than intellectually honest or politically practical. Socialism, for instance, goes beyond a recognition that there is such a thing as society, to insist that society should be the central issue for political understanding and action. Similarly, declinism is more than an objective acceptance of relative or absolute decline in terms of material resources and capacity – it is a mode of thinking that insists that decline is the dominant characteristic of our national status. It says decline is our destiny and should, therefore, shape our actions.
There is a dangerously seductive kernel of truth within any -ism. Declinists can always accuse their enemies of being naive or irrationally in denial about Britain’s global standing. However, this sin is easily avoided by simply enlarging the context in which any single factor in relation to the UK’s global role is evaluated.
- Do not envy the past.
3. ‘We should accept Britain is now a small and unimportant country.’
This is a way of thinking related to the cognitive phenomenon of ‘relative deprivation’, where emotions stem from regret for what has been lost, rather than what Britain is blessed to have. For instance, a millionaire might be envious of the fact that they used to be a billionaire. They are more melancholic than the every-day person who inherits a million pounds.
Apply that analogy to contemporary thinking about Britain’s place in the world: the country is among the top five economic, military and cultural powers in the world, but it is glum because it has fallen down from number one. Now imagine how different a middling country would feel if it suddenly rose to be in the top five? That is how Britain should feel. The correct comparison is not with the UK of the past, but with other countries of today.
- Ignore greed for long lost status.
4. ‘Britain is an international laughing stock.’
The UK’s post-Brexit discourse has emboldened a type of commentator who revels in the notion of national humiliation. The peculiar thing about humiliation is that it is self-inflicted — something someone feels only through the projection of how they think others see them. The word ‘humiliator’ is seldom used because the successful humiliation requires complicity from those who would be humiliated. However much one power may try to humiliate another, the target can only be humiliated if it actually feels and acts as if it were humiliated.
At times like this when British politics is undergoing a once-in-a-generation constitutional transformation, the turbulence can be unsettling. The course may not be predictable, but the process has been channelled through legal and peaceful action. Heads are being cracked this year in the streets of Moscow, in China – even in Paris and Barcelona. But not in London because the political system is working. This is a time to keep a sense of proportion, trust in common sense, and resist the hysterical temptation of internalising a self-image that does not serve the British interest.
- Do not let pride cloud strategic thinking.
5. ‘Globalisation has made national interests obsolete – Britain has to be multilateralist.’
Half-digested postmodernist notions about power, meaning, and theories of globalisation have led some to deduce that because national identity is ‘socially constructed’, national interests do not matter. According to this perspective, global problems cannot be solved by a single country acting alone. The idea of the ‘national interest’ must therefore be obsolete and unworthy of consideration. This narrative has been given a new normative twist since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald ‘America First’ Trump, in which nationalism (bad) is cast as the opposite of multilateralism (good).
Far from being in opposition, multilateralism is merely a tool for advancing the national interest; a logic expressed very clearly by Emmanuel Macron, the President of France – none other than the co-founder of a new ‘alliance for multilateralism’ – who clarified in his inaugural speech that France sees Europe as ‘the instrument of our power and sovereignty’.
As long as states remain the dominant actors in global affairs national sovereignty will continue to be the building block of international cooperation and the source of legitimacy for collective action. Under conditions of globalisation, all states look to minimise friction between internal and external political systems by pursuing assertive and adaptive modes, depending on respective strengths and weaknesses. A clear appreciation of the national interest is thus vital to that process because it is both starting point and yardstick for success in striking the right balance.
- Avoid gluttony – it leads to intellectual indigestion.
6. ‘Talk of the national interest is “elitist” and “right wing”.’
Probably as a residue of the leftist internationale tradition, identifying or advocating pursuit of the national interest is sometimes seen as a preoccupation of the ‘right wing’ – with the implication that this is problematic. Perhaps because political orientation, authority and class are so deeply connected in the British imagination, this form of populism seeks to identify advocates of the national interest with an imagined ‘elite’, as opposed to a ‘left’ that professes to represent the interests of everyone, everywhere.
Great exponents of the national interest in British history – such as Clement Atlee, the post-Second World War Prime Minister – also come from the left. Today’s left tends to adhere more to ‘progressive’ ideas and attitudes – in which Sins 1, 3 and 5 are trigger points – within which anything that privileges the ‘national’ is suspect and may even betray a taste for cultural discrimination, arrogance, or hegemony.
In fact, one of the best things about the nation, the nation-state and the national interest is that it represents all citizens equally, regardless of political preferences.
- Do not succumb to wrath towards fellow citizens.
7. ‘Britain’s relationship with Europe is at the heart of the British national interest.’
‘Europe’s security is our security’ says the 2018 ‘National Security Capability Review’, but this is an over-simplification. Hanging onto the assumption of the centrality of Europe – a popular form of geostrategic myopia – is the final deadly sin.
In the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis, three essential elements of the British interest were identified as overlapping in Europe: deterring the main threat (the Soviet Union), developing post-colonial era economic prospects (through European integration), and adding value in terms of the strategic focus of the United States (US) (containing global communism, mainly from within Europe).
This no longer the case. While geography dictates that continental Europe will always be an important economic and strategic element of Britain’s strategic policy, contemporary trends suggest the European theatre has ceased to be the ‘key terrain’.
First, the post-Soviet Russian threat to the British interest – while not trivial – is no longer central. Second, there is no power outside of Russia in Europe with the means or inclination to threaten the UK, yet Europeans are able (if the choose) to defend themselves without much help – including by deterring Russia. Third, the Indo-Pacific region has become both the locus of global economic dynamism and the priority theatre of Britain’s strategic ally, the US. The triple overlap has moved eastwards.
The conclusion: if Global Britain’s interests are shifting then there is a need to rebalance resources and adjust to the new geostrategic context. Devote one third to Europe (trade and the Atlantic alliance, with an emphasis on maritime roles), one third to the Indo-Pacific, and one third to global public goods (upholding norms of sovereign equality and non-interference, and so on).
- Cast off slothful thinking.