Losing Itself in a Role: A Half-Century of British Foreign Policy

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Philip Stephens, Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit (Faber, 2021)

In 1962, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson dealt a crushing blow to the British foreign policy establishment. With a wry phrase he created a Sisyphean task. It was the latter part of Acheson’s much-used aphorism that “Britain had lost an empire and failed to find a new role” that stung. Given that he would go on to criticize Britain’s attempts to provide openings for dialogue with the Soviet Union, while praising Britain’s application to the Common Market, it is likely Acheson did not intend to touch a nerve as much as he did. But both then and afterward, the statement was a source of existential angst for Cabinet ministers and Whitehall alike. Failing to find a role implied that Britain still had a role to fill. The search for this role hardwired itself into British officialdom and seeped into public consciousness (the two most popular responses to a recent poll on what Global Britain means was that Britain was a “champion of free trade and globalisation” and “a diplomatic powerhouse”).

An Atlantic Bridge. A global power. A power that “punches above its weight.” Cool Britannia. A global hub. Philip Stephens’ Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit is worth reading alone for its ability to assemble and decipher these quintessentially British clichés. These roles offer a patchwork narrative that attempts — not always successfully or even comprehensively — to blend an awkward amalgam of geopolitical circumstance, relative power, interests, public sentiment, and political savoir faire. The role that ministers and officials wanted Britain to play often dictated the goals Britain pursued. A belief that there was still a distinct role for Britain to play in the world was a comforting solace. The search for a role and Britain’s decline were intimately intertwined. As a result, Britain’s foreign policy often showed an alarming lack of focus on what was good for Britain.



On the face of it, the U.K. government’s recently released report Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy  (or Integrated Review, for short)threatens to continue that trend. Billed as the most significant review of its kind since the end of World War II, and attempting to review not just defense and security policy — as the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review did — but also to include foreign and aid policy, it sought to bring together the entirety of Britain’s foreign and domestic policies to chart a post-Brexit path. The report is replete with title headings like “soft power superpower,” “regulatory power,” “convening power.” All these supercilious roles attempting to put meat on the bones of the Global Britain project.

Yet the essence of this review was not the chest-thumping, ostentatious roles that were at any rate coined long before the review was instigated, but rather the interests it reasserted and how they fed into a vision of where to go next. The three ultimate orienting principles of British external policy remained the same: maintaining the security of the United Kingdom; ensuring the prosperity of the British people; and protecting individual freedom and liberty. But what is different about this report from previous white papers is what stemmed from these orienting principles: realistic foreign policy goals rooted in clear national interests. Clarifying these goals and interests has been an important step in clarifying any lingering “strategic suspense.

The strategic framework within the review sought to delineate four overarching goals of policy out to 2025: sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology; shaping the international order of the future (which is to say ensuring open societies can flourish); strengthening security and defense at home; and building resilience at home and overseas. Each aspect of the strategic framework was fully developed including, critically, an explanation of its importance. The framework stressed the United Kingdom’s continued commitment to both the United States and Europe, marked by the addition of “Euro-Atlantic” to the British strategic lexicon. The report usefully leaves behind the idea of being a bridge between Europe and the United States as well as a predilection for “boosterism” in U.K. strategic documents. A corollary to the report, and a section that grabbed significant attention, was the Indo-Pacific tilt, presciently elucidated by William James in these pages. It would be easy to caricature a British Indo-Pacific tilt as a think tank fad or an act of vanity by Whitehall elites, but the report takes the time to explain why the tilt is not just desirable but necessary: 1.7 million Britons live in the Indo-Pacific region; the region is central to trade; and it is important as a crucible for global challenges like climate change and biodiversity. The report twins an identification of core interests with concrete actions that the United Kingdom will take. This is a valuable contribution to undoing the tendency for policymakers to think in terms of how an increasingly marginal Britain can matter in the world, focusing instead on how British foreign policy matters to Britain.

This shift may seem modest but as Britain Alone makes manifestly clear, the vainglorious search for a role in the world has led down some dark alleys. As Stephens eloquently details, the Suez crisis would be the first example of knee-jerk hubris, but by no means the last. Britain’s desire to maintain a nuclear arsenal would force it to submit to the stiff terms of the Nassau Agreement with the Kennedy administration, which would create an independent British nuclear deterrent in name only. As a result of its desire to maintain its global role Britain would also humiliatingly be forced to go, cap in hand, to the International Monetary Fund, an institution it helped create, for what was then the largest bailout in the institution’s history in 1976. The commitment to what David Edgerton would call the “warfare state” — a state geared toward war-fighting — persisted throughout the Cold War at great economic and political expense.

These policies were not just simple one-offs, bad negotiations, or long-term economic mismanagement. The official documents and speeches of the Cold War period are littered with examples of officials trying to build roles for Britain in the world. The Study of Future Policy, 1960–1970 initiated by the Macmillan government and completed in 1960, contains within it some excellent geopolitical diagnostics, but it was critically undermined by phrases like “we are much too important a part of the free world to be able to retreat into a passive role like Sweden and Switzerland.” The officials writing the document then dedicated the rest of the future policy study to policy after policy about how Britain could be valuable to the United States, Europe, and the Commonwealth. These officials were probing for a coherent role that Britain could play between these spheres at the expense of a consideration of what really mattered to Britain.

Where Stephens is at his most lucid and engaging is in his description, across multiple chapters, of Harold Macmillan’s administration’s effort to pick up the pieces after Suez. Increasingly backed into a corner, there is almost a sense of sympathy for Macmillan’s attempt to be a British Greece to America’s Rome while at the same time trying to ensure that Britain was not excluded from European policy or European markets. Macmillan was forcing a recognition that there was no inherent contradiction in good relations both with the United States and with Europe, a recognition that would evidently transcend Macmillan’s tenure. This idea would be the seed that would develop into Britain’s inescapable need to find a distinct role between these two power blocs.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson initially rejected Macmillan’s proposition that Britain needed a close relationship with the United States. When he stood before the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough in 1963 he decried the notion of relying on a “special relationship” to “bail us out” in a move to distance Labour from the perceived slavish devotion to the Anglo-American alliance of the previous administrations. But he would not break with Macmillan wholesale. Wilson turned his attention to Britain’s role on the global stage, claiming a role in which Britain will “have as much influence in the world as we can earn, as we can deserve.” Even if relations with the United States were poor under Wilson — with Wilson refusing Lyndon Johnson’s request to send troops to Vietnam — the end of Britain’s attention East of Suez would entrench the United States-European dichotomy further.

The true sea change, according to Stephens, was the United Kingdom’s entry into the European Community under Edward Heath on Jan. 1, 1973. This cemented Britain as a power inside Europe and removed an anxiety, felt most acutely by Macmillan, that Britain could be locked out of a European power bloc. Heath chose Europe, and Britain’s accession assuredly anchored Britain in Europe. Such was Heath’s commitment to this goal that he would even try to distance himself from the United States in an attempt to woo European capitals. But Heath could not get away from the desire to find a role for Britain any more than his predecessors could. His decision was framed not as an attempt to ensure the prosperity of the British people but as a way to achieve a steering role within Europe.

Wilson and Heath’s temperance contrasted with Margaret Thatcher’s appetite. Stephens centers the orienting logic of Thatcher’s entire worldview around that of strengthening Britain. Thatcher squashed any notion of British corporatism, she pushed rapid deindustrialisation, she oversaw financial deregulation, she showed skepticism toward German reunification, and more obviously she went to war to defend the Falklands — all in the service of strengthening Britain. For Thatcher, strength, or at least perceived strength, meant a seat at the global table for Britain. Viewed from Washington, Britain could be Europe’s defender (the British Army of the Rhine continued to be Britain’s largest standing foreign deployment). Viewed from European capitals, Britain could be a friend in a common front against Soviet encroachments within Europe. Further afield, Britain was an assured global player, as capable of handling tough diplomatic negotiations to hand over Hong Kong as it was at conducting a major military operation in a tiny archipelago in the South Atlantic. But these visions often chafed with the reality of a middle power with some outsized influence in certain global fora. In the face of this ambiguity, British foreign policy was a Rorschach blot as much for British officials as it was foreign capitals.

Recently released archival material from the U.K. National Archives of the 1990s period confirms that this tendency in British foreign policy did not abate with the end of the Cold War. In a Chequers seminar in January 1995 ministers attempted to review British external policy considering events since the fall of the Berlin Wall, including the progress of Russia’s transition to a market economy and the ongoing civil war in Bosnia. The fact that Prime Minister John Major dubbed this an exercise in collecting the “personal and political judgments,” rather than their departmental positions, makes for revealing reading. Only one minister asked the ultimate question of “what British foreign policy is for,” which was ignored in favor of designing the perfect balance to adopt between France, Germany, and the United States. The more difficult question of considering the purpose of these relationships was ultimately eschewed in favor of the familiar search for roles.

For Stephens, a British sense of superiority, a World War II “Britain alone” moment in its most malignant form, and its island geography have permeated the thinking of ministers, officials, and the British public in the 21st century. Britain’s military role in both the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya, as well as the Brexit vote in 2016, were all painful examples of British role-playing and the final flourishes in the grim tableau that Stephens paints.

Where Stephens could go even further is in discussing the impact of declinist academia on those who steer British foreign policy. As postwar policymakers soul-searched, historians and theorists of all stripes turned their attention to the questions of the causes of British decline, when it happened, and whether it was inevitable. Correlli Barnett’s widely sold The Audit of War, one of the most famous declinist texts of the latter half of the 20th century, was read and discussed by Thatcher and her Cabinet. Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan read republished editions of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while in office. Baron C. P. Snow, whose The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution posited that British decline stemmed from prioritizing humanities education at the expense of scientific education, influenced Wilson, resulting in Snow’s being offered a position in Wilson’s Labour government. Attempts to grapple with decline by policymakers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries refracted into the work of academics of the period and, in turn, often reflected back into the thinking of those same policymakers.

The intellectual milieu in which the Integrated Review was conducted was no kinder. In 2020, as the United Kingdom topped the list for coronavirus deaths in Europe and the impact of Brexit began to be felt, “whither Britain” sentiment reigned. So too did proposals to try to make the United Kingdom matter in the world, such as the reemergence of support for an alliance among Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom among some members of the Conservative Party. Yet despite this environment, and the weight of British postwar foreign policy approaches that Britain Alone so clearly describes, the Integrated Review breaks with this tradition. It clarifies and elaborates core interests for Britain, it provides foreign policy priorities in defense of them, it signals changes and continuities within past policy, and it provides a framework to guide foreign policy decision-making into the next decade. The United Kingdom, to be sure, is a middle power, but it still has many means available to it to achieve its ends on the global stage. But this can be done only from a position of clear-eyed analysis, not by groping for roles to fill in the world or by appealing to nostalgic visions of a bygone imperial past. The onus is now on policymakers to build on the review to ensure that Acheson’s bogeyman is firmly put to bed.



Oliver Yule-Smith is a doctoral candidate and Leverhulme Fellow at the Centre for Grand Strategy in the Department for War Studies at King’s College London. His research looks at British China policy from 1922 to 1989 and British foreign policy. He sometimes tweets at @ollyys1.

Image: Royal Navy (Photo by Jay Allen)

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