“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”
This quote is (dubiously) attributed to Lenin but I like it nonetheless as it appropriately captures the times we live in.
That’s not to say nothing’s happened for decades, far from it. The years following the last financial crisis have seen seismic changes across Western societies and the wider world. The Eurozone crisis, Middle East civil wars, tsunamis of illegal migration, Ukraine torn in two, Brexit, Trump, plummeting birth rates, economic stagnation, and the explosion in political corruption that resulted in the criminal psychological operation that was the pandemic and continues through war and ‘green’ policy. The weeks following Russia’s so-called ‘Special Military Operation’ felt like weeks when decades happened. Yet something about these last few weeks – with a war (even more senseless than the intra-Slavic trench slaughter) threatening to suck in the whole world – feels like we have moved into an accelerated phase of global change.
This is a familiar motif of history. Decades of failed rebellion against the Tsars eventually led to the February and October Revolutions. Newly educated generations in Africa and Asia quickly used their power and influence to kick out their colonial masters. The ticking time bomb of financialisation that started in the 1980s didn’t explode until decades later. Likewise, the absolute failure of decades of collective Western foreign policy, as dictated by the U.S. via NATO and other organisations, has now started to show some of its very worst consequences.
Never in living memory have we as a nation been more ignorant about international relations and had less perspective about our place in the world. The dumbing down of our foreign policy debate (and its incorporation into the ‘culture war’) is a far cry from even the Brexit era, when millions of Brits followed the machinations of our foreign entanglements with interest, engaging in relatively honest debates about what they should be and where our national interest lies.
In 2014, one of Nigel Farage’s major criticisms of Brussels was its ‘militant’, ‘expansionist’ and ‘absolutely stupid’ foreign policy. In a debate with then deputy PM Nick Clegg, he said the Lib Dems represented hatred and extremism by ‘constantly screaming out for us to go to war’, adding he was ‘sick to death of this country getting involved in foreign wars’. Farage said the EU had ‘blood on its hands’ for encouraging the Maidan coup in Ukraine, as well as ‘bombing Libya’ into becoming an ‘ungovernable breeding ground of terrorism’, and arming rebel militias in Syria ‘because they didn’t like Assad, despite being infiltrated by extremists’. How prescient.
Now, this type of critical discourse is almost entirely absent from our political spectrum and media. There has been a chilling uniformity of message on the blood-soaked meatgrinder that is Ukraine – more weapons, more money, Putin is Hitler, Slava Ukrainii. A feeling engineered by the unquestioned, key narrative of an independent democracy facing an unprovoked invasion (a narrative which is demonstrably untrue). With the latest conflict in the Middle East, the right has fallen behind Israel in complete lockstep, calling for deportations and arrests for speech expression, and taking a harder line than many Israelis. The left, barren of a moral compass and mentally ill, has resorted to second-hand asabiyyah and strange attempts to pinkwash Hamas, joined on the streets by the usually out-of-sight 3rd-gen Islamist yoof. It’s an ugly sight.
What is missing from all of this is Britain. What are Britain’s interests in this rapidly deteriorating international system? No one, it seems, has bothered to ask. This is a problem. The points I have made so far often provoke accusations of ‘isolationism’, and not realising that a stable globe is one of our most immediate needs. That is not in any doubt. What is highly questionable is the way we go about promoting that stability, as it clearly hasn’t been working.
In the West we still believe that we make alliances and enemies based on good and evil, or ‘shared values’, and we think this is the same as our interests. Whether ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘supporting democracy’, the arguments made against the abuses of certain countries must be applied equally or not applied at all, otherwise it is not a reason for action, but a pretext. The onus should be on those who argue for action, not on those who argue for not getting involved, to make their case. Especially with the mountain of evidence that outside intervention, militarily or otherwise, almost always makes countries worse.
A good case is made for this in A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship, a compilation of Ron Paul’s speeches to Congress over 30 years, each containing dozens of examples of foreign interventions and interference being counterproductive to U.S. interests. Yes, other countries are very often not nice places to live and have disagreeable cultures, but the best way to deal with them is engaging economically and not getting involved in their domestic politics. Our strategy has been to bomb countries and organise armed coups. Importing millions of people from these same countries has also turned out to be a bad idea.
So, if we step back from ‘policing’ the world, how then would we be able to ensure a stable international environment? Like charity, order starts at home. We preach to the world about how to run their societies when we have so many problems of our own. We defend the sanctity of others’ borders and sovereignty while making a mockery of our own. We accuse our selected ‘enemies’ of criminality, propaganda, and deception when we do a pretty good job of all that ourselves. In other words, we don’t speak softly and carry a big stick, we bark and scream. ‘Be change you want to see in the world’ – another made up quote attributed to a world leader – is a motivational meme but it should be an axiom of a ‘moral’ foreign policy if that’s what we want.
The hegemony of the West is coming to an end and there are no two ways about it. According to comedian turned IR expert Konstantin Kisin, ‘Multipolarity requires a decade-long process of the unipolarity disintegrating. And will inevitably result in an eventual return to unipolarity with a different hegemon. This is why this process should be opposed with everything we have’. I hate to break it to him, but that disintegration has been happening for a long time already and is not something that we can now ‘oppose’ with centre-Right politicians. Their neoliberalism is why we are so exposed, having exported our manufacturing and imported the world’s poor, while crippling ourselves with manmade social and economic breakdown.
The second point made by Kisin is interesting to dissect. Is it inevitable that the West ceasing to be the dominating ‘pole’ of international power will result in another power taking its place? No, it’s not. Unipolarity is a freak of human history. The positions of the U.S. and USSR after the Second World War created the bipolar world, and their respective empires. When the Cold War ended, the U.S. subsumed communist remnants becoming the pole of global power by default. It was the end of history, and liberal democracy was the endpoint of all human social evolution and the final form of government. On this basis the position of hegemon was squandered and abused.
The reality is that most of history has been a multipolar world and as we return to that state, it will not be peaceful or pretty. The man who coined the ‘Big stick philosophy’, Teddy Roosevelt, described his style of foreign policy as ‘the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis’. To apply that to Britain today would mean gearing up to be a Switzerland-on-Sea; a discerning, independent, and sovereign nation.
When it comes to defence, Switzerland is (like the UK) blessed with fortunate geography and a long military tradition. Unlike the UK, it is not in NATO, it conscripts its young men, invests in its defence infrastructure, and does not take part in foreign wars. It is also a natural home for mediating and resolving international disputes, trusted by most countries around the world.
This strategic neutrality seems to work quite well for the Swiss and they do this while still aligning with the U.S. They even enjoy a boost in arms sales as other neutral countries prefer to buy Swiss weapons. Would Western civilisation collapse and the world be taken over by an Axis of Evil if the UK also left NATO, rebuilt its army, and took part in peacekeeping missions instead of wars? Probably not (If it collapses it will be for reasons of our own making). It is accepted as fact that we must dominate the world to protect ourselves from it, when in reality our attempts to do so have created the fragile state of affairs that exist today.
The fundamental mistake we make is being so certain that other countries will think and behave exactly like us. China is an ancient civilisation-state that has shown limited expansionist tendencies over many centuries. The last time Iran invaded a country was in the mid-18th century. Russia is psychologically bound by its size, geography, and history to be obsessed with feeling secure. These complicated civilisations have all been UK allies at various points during the 20th century and there is no reason why we can’t deal with them as unpleasant neighbours as opposed to mortal enemies. Unfortunately, our entire discourse ties us to the fate of the dying American empire. By taking on others’ enemies we expose ourselves to becoming targets.
Today in Britain, unchecked thousands of fighting-age purposeless men from the most turbulent, radical and traumatised parts of the world, are entering the country illegally via fleets of boats, the state seemingly powerless to stop it happening. Some would call that an invasion. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv has become the new Kiev as Prime Ministers old and new rush to get involved helping another country. Despite our politicians saying otherwise, the claim is always that they are there to create an outcome and environment that is in the UK’s interests. Well at the very least that would entail calling for a ceasefire, and at most it would mean pushing for a comprehensive political settlement. Trying to avoid a new wave of refugees, an oil price crisis and global recession would also be in our interest. There is no sign of this on Sunak or Johnson’s agenda, but there is a lot of talk about ‘finishing the job’, sticking to the narrative and facing down Iran and its proxies – the stuff of wet dreams for many a lobbyist in Washington DC.
It may be comforting to buy into the expertly packaged narratives being put out about this latest conflict, but some of us have seen this film before, and it doesn’t end well. In fact, it ends up in situations like Syria, where Hezbollah ends up defending the world’s most ancient Christian communities while Israel supports ISIS. It ends with the Jewish President of Ukraine overseeing neo-Nazi brigades fighting against Muslim and Buddhist soldiers over derelict villages. Clearly, the world is a complicated place. We used to know this. When will we give up our simple, black-and-white way of looking at it? When will we stop falling for the simplistic narratives fed to us?
Why should we have to listen to the arguments made about supporting a side in some conflicts, but not others? We are not asked to choose between supporting Azerbaijan or Armenia – because the media hasn’t told us to get angry about that. We are not asked to condemn Pakistan for expelling hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees – a humanitarian catastrophe in the making – because the media hasn’t told us to get angry about that. Have you even heard of the ongoing massacres in West Darfur? Why the hierarchy of atrocities? If the military-industrial complex does not have an interest in these places, you will not hear about them. You will hear about the corrupt oligarchies you are supposed to hate but not about special interests that run Washington DC. In this environment, the way we see the world and our place in it becomes highly distorted.
Instead of harnessing Russia’s vast oil and gas supplies and integrating it into a pan-European powerhouse, we have made it into an enemy and pushed it towards China (our genuine rival). Yes, Russia is a deeply problematic country, scarred by a century of communism. Yet they are people who you can do business with if you respect their interests and treat them equally. Instead of trying to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together to heal and develop the Middle East (which China successfully started doing), we are now seizing on this opportunity to bang the drum for war with Iran while arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth. Yes, Iran is also a seriously problematic country, but we have meddled in their affairs and waged hybrid war against them for decades. We deposed their first democratic leader replacing him with a decadent monarch who sparked an Islamic revolution. Since then, our aggressive stance in the Middle East encouraged them to develop nuclear weapons. The P5+1 deal was a step in the right direction, and there is no reason we can’t go back to that kind of preventive diplomacy. Their resilience to our sanctions shows they are at least enterprising.We are not as powerful as we were, and the world isn’t as weak as it was – they want to make money and develop. Whereas we don’t even know what we want. So, we can either up our own game and grow together with emerging countries or die trying to maintain unipolar dominance.
The Monroe Doctrine, one of the founding foreign policy doctrines of the United States, holds interference into the affairs of South and Central America as hostile. In other words, it’s their turf. Yet we deny other major powers any legitimate sphere of influence. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ isn’t cutting the mustard anymore. Just for a moment think of the anger up and down the land over the weekend, as foreign conflicts played out on our streets, at the same time as one of the few remaining events of ancestor worship in Britain. Now imagine how larger this anger would be if China had military bases in the Republic of Ireland, or if Russia was funding a violent Republican overthrow of Stormont. We need a sense of perspective.
At a time of peak ignorance of the rest of the world, our domestic woes in the UK have never been more connected to global goings on. This is the sad paradox we find ourselves in. Our soft power erodes as we dilute our culture and destroy the fabric of traditional, family life. Our hard power is under-resourced and overstretched, leading to no strategic objective, and resulting in a lot of dead or traumatised soldiers and many more people who hate us with a vengeance. Our foreign policy – which is completely dictated by the U.S. – has radicalised parts of the immigrant populations we have brought in and left us exposed to unknown numbers of hostile actors. Sanctions warfare is paid for by the heating and shopping bills of the working class.
Brexit exposed the reality of how deeply controlled the UK is by international organisations. If you thought trying to decouple from the EU was an impossible task, detangling ourselves from NATO and the U.S. intelligence apparatus will be an entirely different ballgame. Brexit also revealed a genuine desire by the British public to be that global, independent, sovereign trading-nation making its own deals with countries across the world, not beholden to outdated policies and the groupthink of corporate-controlled politicians and the technocrats under them. Well, to actually do that we need to embrace a multipolar world and have a bit of confidence in ourselves.
Just as Remainers said we were too small and insignificant to survive outside the EU, so too will people say that we are too small and insignificant to survive outside the NATO/U.S. umbrella. It is doubtful there will be a NATO in a decade from now, so we might not have a choice. It is also likely the U.S. will suffer greatly (along with the whole world) from the eventual collapse of the dollar, finding it hard to avoid some form of civil conflict. Until then the music will still play on the titanic, but will the UK have the sense to get on the nearest lifeboat? As much as a military alliance provides protection from potential enemies, it also forces members to take on enemies that they might not ordinarily have, leaving them more exposed and then in need of protection.
Those imbued with the neoconservative zest for spreading liberal values by the bullet and bombing the world into democracy will no doubt be horrified by the suggestions made here, not being able to conceive of a Britain that doesn’t play the role of shit on the U.S. jackboot. I recall a different Britain, however. One that had the best diplomatic service in the world, staffed by the greatest linguists. A Britain that had state capacity and the ability to execute its will. A country that despite its allegiances was able to identify and pursue its own genuine national interest. To return to this state we ultimately must fix ourselves domestically and as a society. Until then, it would do no harm to pursue a more sophisticated approach to dealing with the rest of the world.By learning the difference between being allies with a country and being stuck in a political-military straitjacket with them, the West has an opportunity to revitalise itself and thrive in a multipolar world.
Deprived of global empire, the U.S. will be able to fight off its leviathan corporate oligarchy and develop to full potential. Europe will be able to pursue its own security and economic interests, not just American ones. Realpolitik will make its triumphant return. The UK, perhaps in the best position of all, will be able to take advantage of not being a subordinate and truly become ‘Global Britain’. I urge readers to reject those who want a war of civilisations and embrace this positive, sensible, and more human way to approach our future and the world.