This is the British Moment


A funny thing happened at Thursday night’s launch of the Henry Jackson Society’s new foreign policy manifesto, The British Moment. A room full of two hundred of ‘the great and the good’ cheered to the rafters at the prospect of a huge increase in both the scope and frequency of British ethical intervention abroad over the coming decade. And this at a time when the nay-saying, doom and gloom-mongering and general negativity that has been heaped on the whole democracy-promotion movement in this country has never been greater (negativity, incidentally, that is largely based on the misapprehension that events in Iraq constitute the totality of that agenda rather than a small subsection of it).

So what could possibly explain the dichotomy between the perceived atmosphere and Thursday night’s reality? Could it be a failure to engage with the fallout that previous ethical interventions have left behind? Or perhaps a sadomasochistic desire for opprobrium?

Actually, the British Moment’s enthusiastic reception must be understood in the context of its central assertion: that the pursuit of an ethical British foreign policy is both idealistic and realistic; that by considering the internal characters of regimes when framing foreign policy, the British government will be able to create not only a better and more just world but also a safer and more secure one; and that in the process of so doing it can rally liberal interventionists, conservative internationalists, muscular liberals and neoconservatives around a permanent foreign policy consensus: the pursuit of democratic geopolitics.

Some may be unaware of the Henry Jackson Society’s purpose and principles. Launched in 2005, we are a non-profit and cross-partisan UK organisation, inspired by the example of the late US senator Henry M ‘Scoop’ Jackson, who supported an active internationalism and engagement in world affairs, and whose signature foreign policy issue was opposition to the realist policy of detente with the Soviet Union.

‘Scoop’ believed this to be an unprincipled accommodation, that abandoned the wider cause of human rights and compromised international security. For by engaging with the Soviet Union as an ethical equal, the pursuers of detente obscured the fundamental qualitative difference between democratic and undemocratic regimes. They thereby provided succour to other authoritarians and tyrants who remained free to terrorise their populations and menace the freedom-loving world by expanding anti-democratic space without facing the glare of moral ignominy or the prospect of intervention to halt their actions.

Taking our lead from our namesake, the Henry Jackson Society:

  1. Believes that modern liberal democracies set an example to which the rest of the world should aspire.
  2. Supports a ‘forward strategy’ to assist those countries that are not yet liberal and democratic to become so. This would involve the full spectrum of our ‘carrot’ capacities, be they diplomatic, economic, cultural or political, but also, when necessary, those ‘sticks’ of the military domain.
  3. Supports the maintenance of a strong military, by the United States, the countries of the European Union and other democratic powers, armed with expeditionary capabilities with a global reach.
  4. Supports the necessary furtherance of European military modernisation and integration under British leadership, preferably within Nato.
  5. Stresses the importance of unity between the world’s great democracies, represented by institutions such as Nato, the European Union and the OECD, amongst many others.
  6. Believes that only modern liberal democratic states are truly legitimate, and that any international organisation which admits undemocratic states on an equal basis is fundamentally flawed.
  7. Gives two cheers for capitalism. There are limits to the market, which needs to serve the democratic community and should be reconciled to the environment.
  8. Accepts that we have to set priorities and that sometimes we have to compromise, but insists that we should never lose sight of our fundamental values. This means that alliances with repressive regimes can only be temporary. It also means a strong commitment to individual and civil liberties in democratic states even, and especially, when we are under attack.

The British Moment is the first attempt at codifying this whole panoply of points in a comprehensive single structure, encompassing democratic enlargement theory with a practical agenda for action in various parts of the globe. Specifically, just as ‘Scoop’ Jackson highlighted the strategic folly of equality of engagement with the Soviet Union, so today there has been a major strategic error committed in engaging with undemocratic regimes around the world on equal terms since the collapse of communism.

Realists thought that by so doing, radicalism could be kept under control by the firm hand of authoritarianism and that repression overseas was the best guarantor of international stability. Instead, as the events of 11th September 2001, 7th July 2005 and beyond have shown, this firm hand has proved to be a dead hand, and that it is not merely the oppressors overseas who have paid the price for this.

It is thus only an idealistic position – a foreign and security policy that breaks with repressive regimes, holds out to their peoples a better future and thereby guarantees to us a stable energy supply, prosperous markets and reliable strategic partners of whom we need not be ashamed – that can aspire to be the ‘new’ realism, and to which we should adhere for moral and strategic reasons.

And why should this expressly be a British moment? Because this country possesses the resources and historical background required to play a key role in bringing about progressive, aspirational and positive change throughout the world.

This is not a plea for a notion of British exceptionalism. It is, however, an acknowledgement of Britain’s particular circumstances in the world today.

The absurd phrase that we can ‘punch above our weight in the world’ was coined in the 1990s to suggest that Britain somehow performs at a higher level of commitment within the international community than is warranted by our position within it. It reeks of the mentality of decline.


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