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Why do we have a foreign policy?

This blogpost is shamelessly inspired by reflecting on this article by T Jackson Lears, and by my own thoughts about the determined Atlanticism of the British centre-left, which was partly the subject of my last blog.

That pompous introduction out of the way, here’s a serious question.

Why does a country have a foreign policy?

It’s a serious question, even if it seems too simplistic for words.

It’s also a question that probably doesn’t get asked enough on the kind of Oxbridge degree courses where international politics and diplomacy is the great game, a constant source of historical investigation and counter-factual speculation.

Let’s just ask ourselves a question. Why would Russia want to intervene in American elections? All the evidence is, as Lears points out, that American politics radically tilted to the right in 1980, with the election of Reagan, and nothing has changed in the intervening thirty years. Both Clinton and Obama sanctioned and agreed to foreign wars and extra territorial military acts no different in style or substance to Reagan’s intervention in Grenada.

If Russia did intervene in American elections, what did it gain? The policy gaps between republicans and democrats on foreign issues are at best marginal. Russia has no special interest in American domestic policy, and as an institutionalized kleptocracy has no ideological mission to pursue. Choosing Trump over Clinton may make presentational sense, but in terms of policy it’s almost certainly a large investment for a small return.

So why does Trump represent any additional benefit or threat to anyone else? I’m a child of the 80s. One of the most potent arguments fielded by CND in the 80s was that the fear of a Russian invasion, forensically mapped out in Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising was a phantasm, a nightmare that was only frightening in the dark. Would Russia really pursue a huge and riskly investment in swinging an election to ensure the victory of a less stable, less predictable president? Or is Russia a convenient villain after a divisive election in which the actions of American politicians left the American electorate feeling less at ease, less secure, less comfortable with their neighbours?

That thought made me wonder why any politician with unassuaged guilt about the significant errors of the Democratic campaign would not find it useful to promote an idea of an external enemy, a wolf permanently at the door. Instead of being open and honest about the distasteful messages conveyed by the nomination, as if by divine right, of Hilary Clinton, and the endemic chicanery of her way of operating the Democratic machine, the people who acceded to her ascent have been focusing their fire on Russia, on voters who wouldn’t do as they were told. and on Bernie Sanders for having the temerity to challenge the divine right of the less than heavenly Hilary. The whole noise about Russian intervention seemed to me, even at the time, like the stories about Russian spies at Greenham Common or Soviet intervention in the miners strike, like a piece of political misdirection, a summoning o the bogeyman to distract the audience.

Thinking back to the 80s I think I knew even then that there was no genuine competition between the USSR and the Atlantic bloc in terms of trade or industry, and the fact that the Middle East was the cockpit of the cold war seemed entirely irrational to me. It still does. I have visceral memories, around the time of each Gulf War, of the rationalizations the left and right applied to each war, the need for there to be a legitimate explanation for what seemed entirely irrational.

What if Orwell was right, in the worst remembered lesson of 1984, and what mattered was that there was a permanent war, a permanent enemy?

Suddenly the wars in the Middle East in every decade since the 50s make sense, not as ideological struggles between competing power blocs, but as the logical consequence of a need. If you start from the assumption that every country needs an enemy, a thing to be against, perhaps foreign policy becomes not a set of principles, but an ex post facto justification of needs acted out.

Of course  the question arises as to who benefits from such a profoundly irrational set of behaviours. If there’s one thing that I regret about politics today, it is that the thoughts of Daniel Guerin and Dwight Eisenhower, unusual political bedfellows, about the military industrial complex, have so little resonance.

The idea that there is a cyber army of Russian hackers subverting American and British elections is fascinating, if badly evidenced, and is, if nothing else, a lucrative new line of business for the military industrial complex.  Somewhere, hopefully, a journalist is exploring the contracts and costs for all the new cyber intelligence agents America’s sixteen intelligence agencies require.

Sixteen intelligence agencies. Think about that. Each of them working to justify their existence, each of them determined to prove that they have a right to exist, that they address a need that would otherwise be overlooked. Turkeys, especially well paid turkeys with a story to tell, do not vote for christmas. Peace on earth and goodwill to all men is not an obvious beacon of hope for those employed to identify ill-will and the threat of war.

To such people a new threat, a new line of business is a godsend. Before I’m accused of being an apologist for Russia, think again. There is a clear military industrial complex in Russia too, and it too needs external wars, external opportunities, external grievances to justify its existence.

What if Russian agencies intervened in foreign elections  for no other reason, like dogs licking their balls, than because they could? What if, as Jackson Lears hints, we’re all chasing the wrong ball in this controversy? Fake news is nothing new; this article about the Chilean coup in 1973 illustrates that point perfectly. Anyone who lived through the miners strike in Britain in 1984 will know the full weight of fake news, and the way in which internal struggles were linked to external threats in order to justify oppressive state action.

So, to return to my original question, why do states have a foreign policy?

The answer, at its simplest, is because a coherent and publicly obvious policy enables others to understand how, in any given circumstances, a state might act.

That requires that there is a principled way of having a foreign policy, of setting out the grounds on which you will or will not trade or engage with another country.  It’s the exact opposite of the great game theory of diplomacy, where there is nothing more important than securing an advantage, even if that involves keeping secrets and, in the old phrase, lying abroad for the benefit of the country.

At the heart of international relations is all too often a ritualized version of the prisoners dilemma, not even the complex iterative version of the dilemma, but the simple one off version of the game. All too often the sophisticated guesses of the diplomats as to the motives of the other players are just that; guesses. Dethroning the expert is a very twenty first century idea, but we need to learn from the evidence that, in so many areas where expertise is believed to the application of the uncodified knowledge and experience of practitioners, we need to be sceptical, and test whether they do any better than the general population.

A foreign policy based on clear principles, where the actions of a nation would be capable of being inferred in any circumstances would, it seems to me, be both a sensible practice and a model of how wealthier and more secure countries, such as Norway and Sweden have conducted themselves. Indeed, if you think of retaliation as being a key strategy in the iterative version of the prisoner’s dilemma, you can see how the other player’s foreknowledge of the resort to retaliation might influence their choices. Oddly, this approach is central to some key foreign policy actions, such as mutually assured destruction, and warmly welcomed by politicians, but unwelcome as a general principle of foreign policy.

So there are my key ingredients for a foreign policy; principle and predictability.

Now think about Brexit. Think about the utter and complete nonsense that is the government’s assessment of the economic impact of Brexit. There’s an old anecdote about Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor and wanted to win the argument over the Euro with Tony Blair. He invented his five conditions for entry, and commissioned hugely complex and weighty assessments of the impact of entry. He then summoned each member of the cabinet to the Treasury, handed them the assessments, and gave them the facts. The overwhelming defeat Brown inflicted on Blair left scars that changed their relationship permanently, but Brown won with evidence, not bluster or pseudo poetical allusions to Britain’s place in the world and all the nations wanting to welcome us to the sunlit uplands.

That’s how foreign policy negotiations should be conducted. If Britain really thinks Europe needs us, even if we aren’t part of their club, where is the overwhelming evidence base that will cow the European negotiators? David Davis and his team seem utterly unaware of how they appear, and how far they are from good practice. In the absence of clear principles, clear practice and clear goals, they look like chancers who are utterly unpredictable.

We need a foreign policy that is more than just opportunism; somehow I doubt we will get it from a  government that knows its own demise is no further away than the next spat with a minor party about the basis on which their support is bought and retained.



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This entry was posted on January 1, 2018 by in Uncategorized.


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