David Coates

UK Foreign Policy

Comments at a roundtable discussion on UK foreign policy, held at the University of Hull, May 13 2015.

UK foreign policy always strikes me as post-imperial, and weaker/more problematic for still being more ‘imperial’ than ‘post.’ You can see the legacy of empire in the frozen international architecture in which we still operate. The settlements made at the end of World War II still shape much of our world. Though they actually marked the British Empire’s last hurrah, they still left UK sitting on every top table (UN, IMF, World Bank, NATO.) You can see the legacy of empire in the UK’s disproportionate military capacity – disproportionate, that is, relative to its current economic standing: even to the point of retaining the pretense of an independent nuclear deterrent. And you can see the legacy of empire there in attitudes governing the use of that military capacity – with a political class that still thinks it is legitimate to unilaterally alter other people’s political furniture while being horrified if anyone tries to rearrange ours; and with certain Prime Ministers at least still keen to “punch above their weight”. Churchill, Thatcher, Blair:1 each was willing to strut the world stage as though they were later incarnations of Lord Palmerston. But in international matters, it is invariably wrong to punch. Punching above our weight just makes us look foolish in the eyes of others. We look like America’s poodle (and whoever respects the dog?)

For the last 70 years, the UK has effectively played second fiddle to US imperialism, anchored in the notion of a special relationship, and in gratitude for US help after 1939. UK prime ministers and foreign secretaries are always trying to be a bridge between Washington and Europe. That needs to end: there is no ‘special relationship’ from Washington’s end. There is just ‘old Europe.’ It needs to end too because the US empire is currently in serious trouble, trouble that will only get worse. (US in trouble at home & abroad. The troubles are linked. It is vital for the US to scale back abroad, the better to regroup at home. It is not likely, however, to do so.)2 Imperial decline will be complex and bloody for US, as it was for the UK after 1945 – bloody abroad, difficult at home. It is best for the UK to keep its distance

There is an on-going need to adjust the character & scale of UK foreign policy to match the UK’s current status as a moderately successful European economy & power. There is a need to adjust to the re-emergence of a multi-polar world. The UK cannot be an independent pole in that world. The UK needs to be a key force inside a pole that will count. The task now is to strengthen the voice and influence of Europe as a global player; to maintain distance on the US when necessary; and to prioritize the defense & advocacy of EU values whenever possible. NATO without US requires a stronger German-French-British core. Now is the time to build it. So it is vital to scale back military spending, and refocus it as part of a European military force. No Trident is required. It is vital to demilitarize the UK manufacturing sector, and rebuild UK prosperity as part of a revitalized European bloc that can act as a genuine beacon of freedom and social justice – as a better model than anything currently on offer in the United States itself. It is vital to treat UK imperial past as just that – past – and as something to apologize for rather than/as well as celebrate. It is vital to take a firm stance against – to both condemn and keep our distance from – unilateral action by any power on the global stage: be that power America, Russia, China, and certainly not the UK. And it is vital for the UK to put all its energies into resuscitating the capacity and legitimacy of international/multinational agencies, and to restoring the role of international law & international courts.

Move from hard power to soft power. Finally this. In the broadest sense, foreign policy based on soft power is likely to serve the UK better over time than policy based on military might alone. People abroad (in the English speaking world at least) give the UK enormous credit for a string of things that people living in the probably take entirely for granted, and don’t think about (or particularly value) at all – things that are strongly rooted here but sadly absence elsewhere – the quality of the BBC, the self-deprecating nature of British humor, the English acting corps and all those fine exported dramas, the deeply-rooted nature of social democratic values of fairness and tolerance, the Tory ones of noblesse-oblige: British political culture, that is, in its non-imperial sense. You don’t have to be hard and aggressive to win friends and influence people. The quiet authority of a politically-educated middle class is not to be under-estimated. It is not very glamorous, but it is hugely important in a world riven by ideological/religious tensions. I remain very proud of my British heritage: not because our predecessors once ruled the world – in spite of it, actually – but because I come from a country that still values education, still tolerates diversity, and still knows that spending 5 days on a single game of cricket is an entirely exciting thing to do.

First posted on the blog site of the British Politics Group, a related group of the American Political Science Association

1 See David Coates & Joel Krieger (with Rhiannon Vickers), Blair’s War. Cambridge: Polity, 2004.

2 On this, see David Coates, America in the Shadow of Empires. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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