As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, we would do well to consider our alliances, especially as other more malignant Empires loom on the horizon.
We need to talk about empires.
As today we begin the complex process of untangling ourselves from the European Union, this is more important than ever.
Integral to the movement for leaving the EU has been the strong desire for national sovereignty and the rejection of a perceived European empire. Britain’s laws and borders remain, in the final analysis, under the control of the British people.
At the same time, I think we might be losing sight of the foreign-policy implications of Brexit. An important part of striking out on this new path is the relationships we will have with other nations. And I’m not sure we’re talking about this nearly enough as much as we should.
Even in the month of January, as we prepare to leave the EU, we have already seen the importance of Britain’s cultural and military alliances emerge twice.
First of all, there was the US killing of Gen Soleimani in Iran. Amid rumours that the UK wasn’t consulted prior to the attack, serious questions were asked of the state of the Special Relationship.
Then just this week, the government voted to accept the limited use of equipment from Chinese state-backed company Huawei, in the UK’s 5G network. The decision was taken in the face of US warnings and the threat of changes to the existing networks of intelligence sharing. Real cracks are beginning to show in the Anglo-American alliance.
Even as post-Brexit Britain celebrates its freedom, then, it cannot escape the urgency of its global relationships.
Because while the nation-state rises, empires aren’t going anywhere.
Who, in the end, will we call our neighbours? Countries that share our values or countries that do not?
The Rise of the Nation-State
Since the referendum result, there has been a fairly understandable focus in the UK on our relationship to ourselves.
We’ve begun to consider how the different parts of the UK relate to one another. And this is no bad thing.
This internal focus is largely the result of the fact that the nation-state has risen once more to the fore of Western politics.
2016, with the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump, was a cataclysmic year for national sovereignty. Of course, there have been a wave of national populist movements both preceding and following Brexit and Trump. But these two moments constitute a watershed which signalled that a profound change in the geopolitical landscape was afoot.
Among other things, the Brexit vote heralded a victory for the Somewheres. The Brexit vote was a revolt of those who benefited the least from globalisation against those who have benefited the most.
Brexit was also, in many cases, a repudiation of a perceived European empire. As Ed West puts it,
Rather than longing for imperial greatness, a majority of English Leave voters don’t even care if the Union breaks up. Leavers are not generally keen on foreign intervention, either; if anything, as Tom Holland put it, they’d just like to go back to the Shire and smoke pipe-weed.
While it is the Brexiteers that are frequently accused of being pro-empire, imperial ambitions are more often to be found among some of the liberal elite in Brussels.
There are legitimate fears that an empire without borders has already overrode national sovereignty and the freedom of nation states to determine their own course. The Brexit project is the rejection of a new world order and the full embrace of the free nation-state.
A World of Empires
At the same time, I’m wary of the fact that we might be ignoring the rise of other empires that are far more dangerous.
For all that the nation-state has been making a come-back, we still live in a world of empires.
The 2010s saw China become a major geopolitical player. Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has already connected China with parts of Europe and Africa. Judging from the first month of 2020, James Kirkup’s prediction that the Western response to the rise of China will define the 2020s seems entirely reasonable.
With the Huawei case, the UK has already found itself caught in the new Cold War between the US and China. Will we choose the Pax Americana or the Pax Sinica?
Even more worryingly, imperial powers are joining forces. Russia and China frequently vetoed UN Security Council resolutions to deliver aid to Syrian civilians. Around Christmastime, I was shocked to read that China, Russia and Iran were involved in join naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman.
Assuming that we are never going to get rid of empires, shouldn’t we seek to ally with like-minded powers against the rise of such dangerous regimes? My fear here is that in focussing purely on freeing ourselves from the European project (or, as some would see it, empire), we are naively blindfolding ourselves to other empires with extremely malignant and despotic designs.
A Modest Proposal
Very few Leavers are talking about this, however. British parliamentary sovereignty appears to trump any concerns over the rise of the Chinese empire.
And this does make sense. After all, Brexit is about focussing on levelling up all of Britain. On reaching out to those left-behind places. In post Brexit-Britain, the national takes prominence. As Danny Kruger put it so well in his maiden speech this week, “our first loyalties are to the people we live among”.
But we can’t forget our global ties, particularly to other long-standing allies who share our values.
Ultimately, I happen to think that these two points are not mutually exclusive—we can uphold national sovereignty by exiting the EU while still actively seeking out partnership with those states who stand for democracy and freedom.
There are two important questions here, though, that must be faced with open-eyed realism:
1) First, will other like-minded nations always want to interact with us?
The Huawei debacle has imperilled our relationship with an important ally. In Global Britain, we must not risk losing friends over the need for short-term, pragmatic, economic and technological gains.
2) In the wake of rancorous debate over our state as a nation, will our government give enough consideration to issues of foreign policy and our alliances with other nations around the world?
I welcome the swift actions taken by the government to level up all parts of the UK. At the same time, if we are to become Small Britannia, with a strong commitment to building a better Britain, we risk overlooking the part we can play in having a positive global influence.
I am not primarily talking here about being an economic powerhouse, as important as that is. Sadly, in those instances when politicians do consider “Global Britain”, it is invariably in economic terms. To only think about our role in global markets is short-sighted. After all, man cannot live on spreadsheets alone.
Nor, when I mention global influence, am I talking about intervening militarily at every possible juncture, as necessary as that is in certain scenarios.
I am speaking rather of the role of persuasion. In reducing our global influence to the military or markets, we lose sight of the various forms of soft-power that we possess. What of the cultural heritage which we can humbly but firmly offer to those willing to engage with us? I believe that when invited, we have a duty to convince others of the virtue of the values we have tried and tested over hundreds of years and which now form the bedrock of our constitutional democracy—the rule of law, the universality of human rights and the accountability of parliament. While we far from perfectly embody these values, we have a lot to offer.
Something good and important will be lost if we do not consider how we support those (for instance, in Hong Kong), who seek similar freedoms under totalitarian imperial regimes.
Roger Scruton, who died last month, was a passionate proponent of national sovereignty. Yet he was also globally-minded, supporting dissidents in areas under the Iron Curtain and setting up an underground university in Prague.
National interest and global influence often represent competing priorities but they need not always be mutually exclusive alternatives. While the balance is rightly shifting towards the national, in post-Brexit Britain we must not lose sight of our role in the world, and those in it that we would call our neighbours.