What are Britain’s ‘National Interests’? A foreign policy crash course

As I’ve been made cruelly aware over the years, foreign policy is way down the list of people’s interests. Even people with an passion for politics have little more than a passing knowledge or interest on the subject. However one phrase everybody would have come across is ‘national interest’. But what does it mean, how are they pursued, and more importantly, what should ours be?

Crudely put, national interest just means what you as a country want. What’s important to you? How do you want things to be?

Britain, along with Japan, South Korea and most of the West, could be called ‘Status Quo’ powers. Broadly speaking, we like things as they are. The balance of power is in our favour. Borders are where we want them to be. Trouble makers are content to grind their own people into the dirt rather than annex chunks of their neighbour’s territory. Much of Britain’s efforts, therefore, are focused on keeping things as they are.

China, Iran, Brazil, North Korea, Venezuela and Russia, among others, are ‘Revisionist’ powers. They aren’t happy campers. They want to redress the balance of power. They want a greater say in how events play out, and in some cases, want to redraw the map on their terms.

So what specifically do we want?

Firstly, the free movement of goods and services. Free trade is good for Britain. Not only do we have access to foreign markets, but we have secure supply lines for the things we import. We are forced to rely on the good graces of foreign navies for this, but for the time being at least, our allies (principally the US) have the same desires as us

Secondly, the transatlantic alliance must remain strong. For our generation, growing up under the cloud of Iraq and Afghanistan, friendship with the US may seem more like an embarrassing liability than a boon. However our security and that of Western Europe is almost entirely dependent on our young cousin over the sea. That we are so dependent on the US is entirely our own fault (as I argued here). A succession of British and European leaders have taken the cheap option and relied on the US for the bulk of our defence strategy. The price tag, however, was an implicit agreement that we would support Washington when (not if) required. Broadly speaking this has worked because the has US wanted, broadly speaking, the same things. How long that will remain the case is another matter. That Britain supports a European defence arrangement is, in my mind, a mistake. Europeans will never put the resources into defence that their aspirations require. The myriad of languages, doctrines, equipment and training will continue to hinder cooperation. Would the US military machine be so indomitable if each of the fifty states had their own disparate militaries? NATO works because it is dominated by the US. Remove the US and it becomes a loose affiliation

Thirdly, Britain wants stability in the developing world. For decades that meant propping up local elites in much the same way as the colonies were run. Unlike other European empires, few British colonies were actually run by Brits. It was far easier and cheaper to use existing power structure and tribal loyalties. This is partly why former British possessions have fared better than former French ones. British colonies had an infrastructure in place come independence. In the Belgian Congo by comparison, any job more senior than traffic warden was done by a Belgian. When they left, there literally nobody in place to take charge.

Increasingly, stability means promoting democratic institutions in the developing world. The theory goes that the more Western a country becomes, the more stable it will be, both internally and in its relations with its neighbours. Coups, civil unrest, famine, natural disasters are all hindrances to this doctrine. This is why billions of your pounds go to the international development budget.

There are times of course, when stability and freedom are mutually exclusive, such as Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. In most cases, stability wins out, just as I advocated here

Next, though linked to the former, we have the battle against non-state threats. Criminal gangs, terrorists, drug cartels, mercenaries, and increasingly cyber criminals, all threaten our security and global security. Britain pours millions into combating these threats. From Columbia, to Kenya, Nepal and the Philippines, British agents work with local authorities in what may be a never ending struggle.

Finally, we have the traditional threats of hostile nation states. Our national interest for the five hundred years has was to prevent one power dominating Europe. That used to be Spain, then France, then Germany. Today the same principle is applied globally. China is being slowly encircled by, if not pro-Western powers, then at least anti Chinese ones. That’s good enough. Japan, South Korea, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia and the Central Asian republics are all being courted by Britain and lavished with aid.

A different tact is being tried with Iran. Sanctions are being combined with the encirclement strategy. In addition, Iran’s ally Syria is being slowly weakened from within, and Iran’s main adversary in the region, Saudi Arabia, is receiving copious amounts of British armaments. Add the deployment of British Special Forces and drones in Afghanistan, and the picture becomes clear.

The real foreign policy challenge facing Britain is, oddly, one of our own making. The European Union presents a unique dilemma to the UK, one that it is desperate to avoid. For nearly thirty years policy makers have positioned Britain in a grey area (diplomats love grey areas) which has allowed us to operate independently, whilst still publicly being committed to the stated EU aim of ‘ever closer union’. However this charade can’t last for ever. The pace of European integration is picking up. Barring any calamities a point will come, probably within the next ten years, when Britain will have to finally decide if it is an independent nation, or if it is a province of Europe.




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