Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Conservative diplomacy: An interview with Ashley Cox

On 20th June 2019, SOAS University of London, and the Henry Jackson Society are holding a joint event at the Houses of Parliament, to discuss the characteristics and impact of conservative diplomacy, with a particular focus on the United States (US). In this interview, Dr Paul Stott, Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, speaks to Dr Ashely Cox, Lecturer in International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London, about the nature and characteristics of a diplomacy shaped by conservatism.

PS: Firstly, is there such a thing as ‘conservative diplomacy’?

AC: That is a good point to start! As we begin a project it is important to define our terms. This project is designed to investigate how American diplomacy has been influenced by the tenets of conservative thought. Broadly, how diplomacy can be used to promote the concepts of individual liberty, freedom of speech, free market economics and personal property. With representative, sovereign and limited government as the guarantor of these rights.

PS: How, potentially, do you think conservative diplomacy may differ to diplomacy per se, or diplomacy conducted under a Democratic or left leaning administration?

AC: First I think it is important to distinguish here between broadly ideological positions and political parties. Therefore, it is perfectly possible for Democrats to follow the policies of conservative diplomacy.  Likewise, it is possible for Republicans not to do so. That said, it is clear that ‘left leaning’ administrations have more of a preference for a supranational solution over an international one. That is, conservative diplomacy does not necessarily need to be unilateral in nature but also does not see an inherent legitimacy in overarching international institutions.

PS: A diplomat is arguably a diplomat regardless of the political stripe of his government. Can we isolate specific conservative trends in American thought, as opposed to simply – American diplomacy? I am thinking here of big beasts whose influence runs across several administrations over many terms, like George Kennan or Henry Kissinger?

AC: That is true and it is a very good thing. Civil servants need to be neutral and implement government directions as instructed. This is especially important in foreign policy and diplomacy involving foreign governments that may take advantage of any domestic differences to further their own agenda. This is a key component of the implementation of limited and sovereign government. However, it is clear there are long term normative effects of these beliefs that both Mr Kennan and Mr Kissinger share that became a cross-party consensus such as containment and the opening up of China – although the former was not overly keen on some of the decisions of National Security Council Paper 68!

PS: Conservatism does not stand still. Arguably, the success of the ideology is its ability to adapt to change – from the extension of the franchise through to including in the modern era concepts such as racial or gender equality. Does conservative diplomacy evolve in the same way, shedding some characteristics, while accepting others?

AC: Yes, I think the key to conservatism’s long-standing success as an ideology is that slow and determined evolution of government is superior to revolution, that has allowed it to adapt as an ideology. This has been particularly important in the context of the US where the constitution prevents radical change. It is clear that there has been an expansion of the understanding of personal liberty and economic freedom to include these concepts.

PS: Sir Julian Critchley, the late Conservative Member of Parliament, once remarked that conservatism was at its best when it governs ‘by the seat of its pants’. Is conservative diplomacy an ‘activist’ or ‘quietist’ creed?

AC: The answer here is probably both. There have been times when activist approaches have been required. But overall it has been more effective when in its quietist form. Slow evolution is something that is hard to force.

PS: The parliamentary meeting on 20th June is to be chaired by Lord Howell, a former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It will include Erol Morkoç, Mark Mclelland and myself as speakers. What will your presentation focus on?

AC: My paper will set the scene for this coming project, identifying how we can further our understanding of American diplomacy by analysing conservative influences.

PS: The final question: How easy is it to study conservative ideas in the contemporary academy? I certainly noticed, as an academic who campaigned for ‘Leave’, that the phone rang a little less from 24th June 2016 onwards. A few people stopped sending Christmas cards. My list of Facebook friends shortened. Is the intellectual climate sufficiently tolerant in British universities to discuss conservative concepts and their impact? Or is it all about ‘intersectionality’, with no room for teaching about leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower?

AC: I have always believed academia has a responsibility to teach people how to think and not what to think. Academics have a responsibility to deliver both sides of any position with equal zeal, so their students can critically asses the information and come to their own conclusions. This is particularly important for the social sciences and humanities.  I have been lucky in working with colleagues at CISD who respect good research and vigorous lines of enquiry that contribute to the academic debate. I am more than aware this is not true of every academic experience. I have found that those who do not engage in vigorous debate or shut out the other side are more insecure about their own position than their rhetoric would suggest and simply wish to avoid scrutiny. To me, it is clear that intellectual diversity must be at the centre of the academic system to produce an environment where ideas are considered and reviewed with due scrutiny. After all, one might appreciate the nuances of ‘intersectionality’ more if one had an appreciation for Gen Eisenhower.

PS: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

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