We Could Do With Another War – Syria and Geopolitics #2

Previously I have held to the view that the Iraq war at the same time as Afghanistan has threatened to wreck the traditional British consensus on liberal intervention. I saw parliamentary control of war as being the best mechanism we have to ensure an active foreign policy in future, it represents the best opportunity we have to keep the public engaged in what Lindley-French describes as our missionary Foreign Policy. From the point of view of an effectively communicated geopolitics I was happy see the PM retain this power, but feared it would only be a faster route to Belgium.


However, Alistair Burt has given me pause to reconsider, and to refine my thoughts on Parliament’s role.

It’s a problem of parliamentary precedent and our missionary foreign policy, and recognising the difference between our national interest and a public good.

Alistair writes as follows:

“What exactly can a British government now do in terms of action abroad without explicit parliamentary approval? Since the build-up to war in Iraq in 2003, parliament and government have worked to a convention that if troops are to be deployed, then the Commons will get a vote. We had a vote on Libya, but not for the support we provided to the French for Mali….

Unwittingly, then, the UK finds itself in quite a mess. If we are now in the position of having to convince half of parliament plus one before difficult foreign policy executive action can be taken, to what can government commit itself in discussions with allies, or prepare in advance for regional strategic defence?…

Provided they are ultimately accountable to the public through election, or that a vote of confidence could do for a government’s existence, I do not believe the democratic balance is unfairly skewed by the executive retaining power to act solely by consultation and not immediate vote.”

He’s right. Our ability to influence geopolitics in our favour is in large part built on trust. Trust that people can come to us with hard decisions and expect that we will not shrug them off as a problem for someone else. Just as is the case with that other 21st century medium power (France), trust that we can and will intervene is what allows us to justify our UNSC seat.

The two problems we are evolving toward are self-reinforcing ills that threaten to paralyze our foreign policy:

1. The public seems not to like war any more, therefore the Gov’t does not have the moral authority to act anymore without first seeking wider consent

2. The Government doesn’t seem to have the moral authority to act anymore, therefore public expectation that this action is sometimes required diminishes

As Julian Lindley-French puts it:

“With the connivance of a risk-averse political leadership much of British society has been lulled into a strange almost child-like state; at one and the same time uncertain and uneasy and yet in many ways disengaged from their own security.  In the absence of an elite consensus on strategy there is no honest debate with the people about the aims, costs and responsibilities of security”

However, i’m not entirely with Alistair here when he says:

“If Iran threatens not shipping lanes and UK interests directly, but a smaller Gulf state friendly to the UK that asks for our assistance, do the prime minister and foreign secretary decide and expect support, or do backbenchers decide?”

What are our direct “interests” in the Gulf if not friendly Gulf states?

In short we need to separate Britain’s national interest from our role as an enforcer of an international rules based system where laws and norms are adhered to. Yes, there is no clear distinction between the two for an an international rules based system where laws and norms are adhered to is also clearly in our national interest. However, we have a network of alliances, treaties, and intergovernmental organisations that span the world that could readily be used to delineate a specific interest from a general good.

A COIN weary public want reassurance that another crusading premier won’t lead them into further multi-decadel conflicts that they don’t recognise as being in their interest. So, by all means build public consent into the process of advocating and implementing the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. UN sanctioned action is increasingly going to rely on R2P as the legal foundation justifying military action, and if the UN approve it will likewise lower the bar for consent in the British electorate.

To return to that Gulf state; is it a friendly nation associated with Britain via some cooperative organising framework?

Having defined what is a public good, and what is a national interest we then bump into the problem of parliamentary precedent…

What we need is a war. The right kind of war. A limited conflict, that arises suddenly, and represents a serious threat to a friendly nation. Unambiguous enough that the PM can override the clamour for parliamentary approval, and the public can settle back into the role that Hague terms our enlightened national interest.

Will we be that lucky?

8 responses to “We Could Do With Another War – Syria and Geopolitics #2

  1. No, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I? By his inept leadership of his own party and the shameless grandstanding of Her Majesties (Loyal?) Opposition Cameron and Milliband between them seem to have surrendered a key Prerogative Power which had a critical importance in our maintaining our reputation as a reliable ally with an effective foreign and defence policy.

    I was appalled at the time, not necessarily by the decision not to act but by the long term implications of the way it was reached…

    I am now just more than usually Gloomy

  2. Interesting to read your thoughts on this and your response to others.
    Although I float in the circles of those who have an interest in all matters military and geopolitical the politics of use is always something I’ve tended to avoid. I usually stick to the line that the existence, strength and capabilities of any military forces should be divorced from the politics of their use. Admittedly this is largely a reaction to the majority of debates or conversations ending up embroiled in the politics of involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan for over a decade with no clear accomplishment.

    As to the debate on the executive authority of the Government of the Day I really don’t know where I stand on the issue, at least not with any great sense of solidity. On one hand I favour a stronger, a more direct democracy but on the other I feel we cannot take decisions by committee therefore the Government must retain the ability to act to then be judged at the polls. The desire to move the ball back into the Prime Ministers court I agree could be accomplished by a conveniently timed intervention, although the mind wonders what and where would be sufficient.

    • “On one hand I favour a stronger, a more direct democracy but on the other I feel we cannot take decisions by committee therefore the Government must retain the ability to act to then be judged at the polls.”

      Very much agree, trying to find a sensible middle ground will always be a bit of a muddle.

  3. There is a real issue here but to the average non Foreign policy expert some parts of your argument will seem absurd. You come across as the priority is to have a ‘missionary foreign policy’ regardless of the cause because the real priority is to maintain our seat on the UNSC because we are special and different and want to punch above our weight!

    That is not going to convince an electorate tired of decades of inconclusive warfare.

    There is an argument for use of force to support Britain’s specific interests and the electorate will support those, the Falklands being the obvious case.

    There is an argument for use of force to support Britain’s interests which are also in the interest of other Western states, the NATO commitment to immediate defence of actual NATO members, would still get support but in present circumstances seems unlikely.

    Use of force ‘out of area’ to support general western interests whether endorsed by EU or NATO or UN. Needs to meet two standards, one is will it actually make a difference and the other is are the other Western states making a commitment commensurate with the interest. Here you get to your supposed gulf state and Iran, Britain pulled out of Aden in 1967 and everything since has been in collaboration with others.

    Britain has the 5th largest Defence budget on the planet, but Saudi has the 4th so in your scenario, what are the Saudis doing? It is in UK interest to have access to gulf oil and gas but it is also in the interest of India, China, Japan! the other 27 members of the EU and the US, how many of them are willing to help.

    Britain seems to want to accept its role as a medium sized European power, marginally more active than the others. France did not take part in Iraq, sent 3000 men to Afghanistan rather than 10,000 and has left already while we still have 5000 men there but they do not seem paranoid about loss of a UNSC seat.

    • “You come across as the priority is to have a ‘missionary foreign policy’ regardless of the cause because the real priority is to maintain our seat on the UNSC because we are special and different and want to punch above our weight!”

      Nearly, but not quite.

      Nukes and the post WW2 balance-of-power might have been the prime determinant of power/prestige in the 20th century, but it will not remain so in the 21st.

      For sure it will remain a factor, and an important one, but In short R2P is where its at for France & Britain.

      The Libyan intervention is perhaps the template by which Britain and France will continue to justify their veto-wielding permanent UNSC seats, precisely because this conflict has given legitimacy and legal-standing to the normative framework through which this liberal-intervention can utilised; Responsibility to Protect, or R2P in shorthand.

      Both Britain and France will sink from the top five to the top ten, or thereabouts, in economic power over the next forty years, and will cease to be technology leaders in the same time-frame (remaining only peer nations in a much larger group).

      If they want to to justify the retention of their seats they will have to bring something to the party, and they have decided that can only be military intervention in the advancement of UN mandated goals. Thus the need for Armed Forces configured for sovereign and strategic power-projection.

      And that requires a public that accepts this role, and so we return to the Missionary foreign policy, and how you implement governance to ensure it is tolerable to the that public.

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