What drives British foreign policy?

Drawing on a 1990 Chatham House speech, Srdjan Vucetic argues that British foreign policy is still driven by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ ideas.

4 minute READ

Srdjan Vucetic

Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

Isabel Muttreja

Former Marketing Manager, International Affairs, Communications and Publishing

Three decades ago, Chatham House’s director of research William Wallace made a bold statement about UK foreign policy: that it largely is driven by ideological assumptions which paint Britain as exceptional while ignoring both the legacy of empire and the implications of EU membership.

In this interview, Srdjan Vucetic talks about his new article in International Affairs and examines how Wallace’s ideas can still help us explain the UK’s interaction with the rest of the world today, from Brexit to ‘Global Britain’.

In his address to Chatham House William Wallace said: ‘the whole ethos of this country’s foreign policy continues to be biased by ideological assumptions which date from the Edwardian era and before’. Is this true?

In many ways, yes. The address, and the subsequent International Affairs article, echo an earlier and more general argument about British political culture and a failure of British elites to throw off the falsehoods of the past.

Wallace draws a distinction between two schools of thought, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘European’, setting them up as a lens for examining patterns of national identity and identification. He finds that ‘Anglo-Saxons’ cultivate a selective amnesia about empire, while also clinging to an outdated ideology of English exceptionalism.

He also finds that talk of a ‘European’ future, two decades after the UK joined the European Community, never stopped the churn of ‘Anglo-Saxon tunes’, as he calls them. Under these conditions, a ‘European’ identity could not grow.

Although very much a product of the immediate end of the Cold War days, Wallace’s article remains an excellent starting point for looking at UK foreign policy and its prevailing ethos.

What ‘ethos’ drives UK foreign policy, according to Wallace?

It is that the UK must remain a world power rather than turn itself into ‘just another European nation’. UK politicians, bureaucrats and pundits have long been clear on this point. One could probably publish an entire anthology of jibes, wisecracks and unfavourable contrasts they made about Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and so on.

This ethos also entails an obsession with so-called hard power. Recall Winston Churchill’s famous ‘three circles’ metaphor from his address to the 1948 Conservative Party conference in Llandudno. There, he positions the UK not merely at the intersection of ‘the British Commonwealth and Empire’, ‘the English-speaking world’ and ‘United Europe’, but ‘at the centre of the seaways and perhaps airways also’.

The word ‘perhaps’ is significant here, as Churchill and the rest of postwar leadership acknowledged that the UK would no longer be able to influence the shape of the world’s future on some crucial and very material dimensions. So, at the heart of this foreign policy ethos is also a fundamental problem: how do we keep going?

Virtually every foreign policy document published since has attempted to address this question. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ answer––we might also call it ‘Churchillian’ or ‘Atlanticist’––is that the UK should pursue a ‘special relationship’ with the US and more broadly with the so-called English-speaking world, now better known as the Anglosphere.

On one level, this is plausible. The Anglosphere manifests itself in many areas including security, for example in the recent alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS). But all alliances and partnerships come with opportunity costs. Wallace emphasized this point, calling the special relationship an ideological illusion.

Where do these ideas stem from? Were they commonly held?

They come from state and political institutions, from educators and intellectuals, and from everyday life in general, including sports, art and travel. At one point in his article, Wallace mentions ‘Anglo-Saxon’  media moguls. Here we can think about the HBO television show Succession, which fictionalizes some of these moguls in a tragic-comic manner, in turn exploring the relationship between culture and politics.

No wonder ‘European’ voices had so much difficulty legitimating EU membership.

Building mostly on how the post-war British left wrote about on ‘cultural hegemony’,  I find that Britain’s ‘Atlanticist’ foreign policy is not simply a function of the nation’s political class acting on the basis of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ elite obsessions. Rather, it comes from popular, everyday, and gradually evolving national identity ideas that are deeply sedimented and entrenched within British and, more specifically, English society as a whole.

For example, playing a global power role was consistently one of the most important ways people understood what it meant to be British across colonial, Cold War and post-Cold War contexts.

Did ‘Anglo-Saxon’ ideas impact the vote on Brexit?

This is a difficult question, and one reason why the Brexit vote will keep scholars busy for decades. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ ideas, especially the emphasis of English identity, certainly helped make Euroscepticism an especially potent and durable force in UK politics.

If many elites and masses already ‘knew’ that national sovereignty must be protected and that ‘we are not just another European country’, then no wonder ‘European’ voices had so much difficulty legitimating EU membership, let alone the full implications of that membership.

How have colonial histories been ignored in the construction of British foreign policy?

Reading Wallace’s article, one might conclude that the empire was all but forgotten in national conversations at the time, and not just those on British foreign policy. We see this in his proposal to disrupt ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dominance over Britishness by radically reforming the ‘national’ history curriculum, one that would bring not only British history to English schools, but also more European history everywhere. But little is said about the need to revisit the realities and consequences of empire.

Today’s situation is very different. Colonial history has taken centre stage in several debates, a case in point being the demand for ‘decolonizing’ curriculums. An ongoing post-Brexit rethink of foreign, immigration and other policies is taking place within this context. When Foreign Secretary Liz Truss spoke at Chatham House in December 2021, she argued against constant ‘introspection’ and ‘fighting about the past’. This is wishful thinking.

Her own government have attempted to re-orient Britain towards its former colonies, namely by boosting Commonwealth trade and by convening an all-party parliamentary group on ‘CANZUK’, the proposed new alliance of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. If even civil servants were quick to deride these initiatives as ‘Empire 2.0’, you can just imagine the reactions of others.

Keep in mind that ‘British’ history and culture wars are never British alone. Rather, they are transnational and global, and, as such, they have implications for the construction of foreign policies around the world. 

Countries across Europe have expressed discontent with EU rule, so why has the UK been the only country to actually leave?

From the Netherlands and France in the 1960s to Hungary and Poland today, we have seen countless examples of discontent at EU rule. And for all its famous opt-outs, the UK actually had a pretty good record of implementing EU laws and policies.

What paved the road to Brexit, then, was an unusual confluence of factors. Some of these we like to call ‘structural,’ and others we like to call ‘contingent’. Among the former was a persistent inability of ‘Europeans’ to frame ‘Europe’ in a way that achieves a more positive response within hegemonic discourses of British national identity. This is what frustrated Wallace so much in 1990, and this was a relatively good year for his camp.

No foreign secretary can fulfil the lofty promises of ‘Global Britain’ if there is a war to be fought.

From then on, every successive prime minister, both Tory and Labour, had to deal with more EU laws and policies and in turn with more ‘tabloid Europhobia’ and ‘issue capture’ in various elections.

The politician who arguably took most advantage of these trends is Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Yet his extraordinary rise to power was contingent on both luck and a series of miscalculations made by his opponents. Contingent factors similarly shaped the decision to hold a referendum and its announcement in January 2013.

Almost two years since the UK formally left the EU, do you see any change to the debate around Europe? Will we ever be able to stop thinking in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘European’ binary frames?

It is possible that a future ‘Global Britain’ comes to better appreciate ‘the global in Britain’, meaning the heterogeneous networks of people and things that produce governance within and beyond the UK, but whose reference points are neither ‘Anglo-Saxon’ nor ‘European’. But I also don’t see how the debate around Europe could ever end.

Locality matters for foreign policy as well as in national identity formation. Even if the EU dissolves tomorrow, the UK would still be in Europe and have to deal with Europeans every day. Same if the UK dissolves: for each of the four nations, for the minority and immigrant groups in them, for London and so on, Europe will always be there – or rather ‘over there’.

The world can also change so quickly. The 2021 Integrated Review tied defence of the realm to what it called ‘the Euro-Atlantic’. It also laid out a strategy for the return to ‘East of Suez’, a.k.a. ‘the Indo-Pacific tilt’.

These choices and geopolitical constructs remain in line with Brexit ideology. Yet less than a year since the review was released, the UK is busy air lifting weapons to Ukraine, imposing sanctions against secessionists in Bosnia, and otherwise putting pressure on NATO and EU partners to protect European security. No foreign secretary can fulfil the lofty promises of ‘Global Britain’ if there is a war to be fought.  

Academia and policy cont.

What would need to happen in academia and policy to change our narrative on Britain and its place in the world?

Every International Affairs article calling for radical UK foreign policy reform emphasizes the importance of education reform. This is not the only answer to your question, but it is my favourite one, not least in light what our special issue attempts to accomplish.

Srdjan Vucetic’s article ‘Elite-mass agreement in British foreign policy’ was published in the January 2022 issue of International Affairs. It is free to access until the end of March 2022.