Back in the days of our imperial splendour, Prime Minister Palmerston summed up British foreign policy as well as anyone. “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
Palmerston was speaking against the background of centuries of bloody and frequently unproductive British involvement in the power politics of Continental Europe. Alliances were made and broken as we attempted to maintain a balance of power in Europe and to stop any one country – usually France or Spain – coming to dominate.
To get a sense of our European entanglements, in the 100 years before Palmerston spoke in the Commons, Britain had been at war with most of the major powers and rebel forces of the age – notably France, Spain, Austria, and the Indian princes. We had also fought for and lost the American colonies, while later having the solace of burning down the White House.
Today, nearly 200 years later, Palmerston’s advice still holds true. As Britain emerges from the enervating embrace of nearly 50 years of EU membership, we can again define and follow our interests.
The trouble is that two generations of politicians and officials have come and gone during the period in which we have largely stopped thinking about our place in the world and sought refuge in the woolly internationalism of Brussels – a Utopian project much like the League of Nations in the 1920s and the utterly hopeless UN today. A world full of fine words, pious intent, hypocrisy and hand–wringing inactivity. A world of conferences, summits, seminars and consultation. A world where nothing normally gets done and where the national interest is lost in a mush of platitudes.
All that is coming to an end. At the conclusion of this transition year, Britain can no longer turn to a conclave of obscure, powerless, puffed up EU foreign ministers and their wordy communiques to figure out where it stands on the thorny questions of the day. To govern oneself is to choose. What will those choices be?
Over the last 30 years, the answer has seemed to lie with the USA. Harold Wilson may have kept us out of the Vietnam war, but when Iraq invaded Kuwait back in 1991, we were quick to join the US-led international coalition intent on throwing out Saddam Hussein. A typically forthright Margaret Thatcher went so far as to warn President Bush “not to go wobbly on me”. A few years later, after much dithering over the Serb bombardment of Sarajevo’s bread queues and the subsequent savage Serb attack on Kosovo, the UK gave up on a European response and lined up with the Americans to stop the slaughter – by sending in the F-15s. All of which underlines the point that if you are under fire, better to call Uncle Sam than Europe’s inactive External Action Service.
The Iraq war of 2003 was the high point of Anglo-American “liberal interventionism” as Tony Blair teamed up with our American ally to confront Saddam for a second and final time. The Europeans, notably France, Germany and Spain, backed away but the invasion still went ahead. It is not popular now, though it was at the time, partly because no weapons of mass destruction were found, partly because Blair and his henchmen over-egged the case for war, and partly because we screwed up the peace.
Blair became Bliar and America’s poodle. His name is mud in the Corbynista, “Cuba and Venezuela are our idols”, modern, unelectable Labour Party. Nor is he much respected among the Tories, even though he was faced with a strategic call after 9/11 – a slap on the wrist for Al-Qaeda or send in the Marines (or the gunboats, as Palmerston would have done)? A stance backed by the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs, except for Lord Ken Clarke and a few other fastidious Tories.
The last decade has been more timid as Western public opinion has turned against foreign wars. High-level bombing (Libya, Iraq, bits of Syria) and drones (anywhere in a desert where terrorists can be located) are OK; boots on the ground are out, even when so-called “red lines”, such as Assad’s gassing of his opponents, are at stake. As for the mayhem in Africa, forget it.
These things go in cycles, at least in the West. JFK pledged in 1961 in his inaugural address as President to fight any fight. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Today, after Iraq and the glacier otherwise known as Obama, the US is in hibernation. Rhetorically, at least, isolationist Trump is bringing the boys home. Until next time.
So where is the jaunty little tug-boat HMS Britain, now that Juncker and Co have agreed that we can cut the hawser linking us to the rusty old Brussels battleship, which specialises in going around in circles?
To pursue the nautical analogy, it is sailing perilously between the Scylla of the fast-emerging superpower China and the only grown-up in the room, the Charybdis of Washington.
It will be intriguing to watch how this frail, but brave vessel gets on with Captain Boris at the helm. He has survived one passage over the benighted Chinese telecoms outfit Huawei, tacking away from the six-headed monster of Beijing without being downed by the whirlpool of the Trump tweets. The President reserved his fury for a person to person but private rant at the Prime Minister.
Conflict wracks the world – from the horrors of Islamic State as it falls back from Iraq and Syria to the softer target of West Africa (and the quiet streets of London Bridge and Streatham), to the only successful Iranian export – terrorism across the Middle East.
The FCO churns out words and the Defence Department scrabbles around for enough money to put a few jets on its aircraft carriers. But Boris and his gang care little of that. They want to build a fast train line, bridges and motorways in the hope they can hang onto their Blue Wall of newly won seats in the Midlands and the North. Parochialism rules.
They should go back to Palmerston. We don’t need to be America’s poodle; and we have walked away from the virtue-signalling EU talking shop. But what will serve the interests of our plucky tugboat?