The Future of Foreign Policy - An Exchange Between Scott Payne and Chris Dierkes

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Scott: There’s been a lot of discussion about the austerity measures that are being introduced by David Cameron and his coalition government in order to effectively address Britain's fairly dire economic situation. In particular, Cameron's proposed defense cuts have caused quite a stir because they are, relatively speaking, fairly wide and deep.

Responding to criticisms that he is simply looking at the balance sheet, Cameron offered the following explanation that really grabbed my attention,

Mr Cameron opened his Commons' statement by denying the review was simply a "cost saving exercise", saying it was a "step change in the way we protect this country's security interests".

He said Britain would still meet Nato's target of spending 2% of GDP on defence and would continue to have the fourth largest military in the world and "punch above its weight in the world".

But he said the country had to be "more thoughtful, more strategic and more co-ordinated in the way we advance our interests and protect our national security".

Combating the tendency to see this as rhetorical glad-handing, Alex Massie some weeks back admitted that, with regards to Cameron's speech to his own party, the Prime Minister's approach has a certain sincerity to it that manages to disarm the inevitable cynicism of political requests for sacrifice.

But if Cameron challenged parts of his own party he challenged the country still more. And here classic, even timeless, Conservative and Liberal themes took over: this was a paen to self-reliance, to thrift, to mutual support and hard work. Delivered differently it could have sounded moralistic, even threatening but, as Cameron packaged it, this message was transformed into something strangely inspirational. There was a quasi-American "can do" spirit about it that proved surprisingly effective. For a moment even cynicism was disarmed...

Whether Cameron really meant what he said or was simply prettying up a slash and burn exercise in fiscal conservatism, the fact that he said what he said about the future of the country's foreign policy strikes me as significant. It is, in many regards, the first real acknowledgment that modern foreign policy has to change in order to be effective strategically, as well as economically.


Of course, Cameron isn't the first to announcement major funding cuts for defense. Some months back, Robert Gates announced significant budgetary cuts to the Department of Defense in the US, which earned him center stage in one of August's many political firestorms. But even Gates' suggestion doesn't, at least to my mind, represent a sea change in understanding about how foreign policy is conducted on a modern world stage.

Judging by their actions, it seems fair to say that Obama and Gates are still operating under a business as usual mindset. It's just that business as usual's pockets are a little less deep than they used to be.

But if the past ten years has taught us anything, it is that in a world of non-state actors and fourth generation warfare, business as usual with tanks and fighter jets and all the comfortable military accoutrement of might-equals-right foreign policy are incapable of getting the job done anymore. Even our own shared country of Canada, which prides itself on a "peacekeeper" identity, is rushing to prove its military worth by spending $9B on F 35 strikers that some corners are calling unnecessary.

The upshot of what I'm getting at here, I guess, is that it seems increasingly like we need to de-militarize our notions of foreign policy, at least in an exclusive sense. And so seeing Cameron make what seem like overtures in that direction strikes me as significant.

Chris: Thanks Scott and thanks to the League for letting one its "old timers" come out of retirement for a day. It's good to be back here.

On to the important matters.

I just wanted to flesh out a little something you wrote towards the end that I found very weighty:

But if the past ten years has taught us anything, it is that in a world of non-state actors and fourth generation warfare business as usual with tanks and fighter jets and all the comfortable military accoutrement of might-equals-right foreign policy are incapable of getting the job done anymore.

This is precisely the point. This has its finger on the issue at hand. The question remains what is the best way to tackle the problem.

One school of thought (of which I know both you and I are quite familiar) is that of Thomas PM Barnett. Barnett argues that an alliance must be formed by the traditional major powers in the world (US, Germany, Britain, Canada) along with rising powers like Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil, China, India, etc. A kind of military parallel to the G20. The linchpin that will practically unite these groupings is a separation in military affairs from the war phase and the reconstruction/peace phase.

Where the US (and its allies including Britain) continue to lose in their military engagements is in the post-war reconstruction/stabilization phase. See Iraq and Afghanistan in particular for proof of this assertion. Barnett's strategy is to create a parallel grouping of reconstruction, peace, civilian infrastructure to complement the heavy artilleries and navies of the world. A country like Britain (or Canada) would be well placed to move out of the War phase and into the Peace phase.

The failure of NATO in Afghanistan in many regards is that most (if not all) of the other countries other than the US in Afghanistan are built for peacekeeping and stabilization not war. These other countries are however (e.g. Canada in Kandahar) put in offensive, war positions.

The reason insurgencies can not (by and large) be wiped out with unmanned aerial drones, naval destroyers, and fighter jets is that these groups can embed in the midst of society. Those types of militaries are designed to destroy opposing standing armies. But absent the addled brains of some neoconservatives, the US is not headed to war with China. Britain has substantial nuclear weapons and if worst came to worst and some major power threatened Britain (why you might ask would this ever happen?) they would just threaten to drop nukes and inflict untold damage. Mutually Assured Destruction seems still to have some force in the post Cold War world. Iran and Israel seem poised to test the limits of that framework, but otherwise life goes on much as it has in the post Cold War world.

If Cameron and Clegg wanted to move the British armed forces more in this peace direction, it could I believe work well with the overall political strategy of The Big Society that the British coalition government is pushing. A Big Society for a Big World I suppose? Helping countries around the world (what Cameron called "engaging in the world" in his speech) take on their own forms of health sustainable societies.

Scott, you mention a de-militarization of foreign policy and here we really mean the US. While the US continues in the (stupidly in my view) militarization of far too much of its foreign policy, the rest of the world is simply routing around an increasingly isolated US, pouting in the corner and flailing its (admittedly powerful) arms in a haphazard manner.

But I think worldwide the trend will continue towards de-militarization of international policy as more and more it is clear that economics and political reform drives much of the move towards reconstruction and modernization. There will still be the need for big guns I suppose, and more likely covert military operations, surveillance, and the like. Undoubtedly al Qaeda and the nexus of terrorist groups in Southeast Asia are quite brutal but they are hardly the Nazi regime.

As an example of a country charting its own course, look at Turkey's entrance into the world of regional diplomacy.

While Barnett's synthesis is quite lucid and actually gives a role to the nation-state in terms of global security affairs that otherwise seems to lack a rationale for its existence, it's not clear to me that in practice interventions are as simple as War and Peace. He's certainly right that a framework needs to put in place to channel the rising hubris and energy of powers like China and India, where nationalism is steadily on the rise.

But of course Britain really needs its cross Atlantic partner the US to drive a strategic global review. Until then I think this last defense cut is intriguing but I'm not sure how much punch it really has. Frankly, militaries in the West are massively over funded, bloated, and dinosaurs of a by-gone era (The Cold War). Militaries in the post-industrial nations are like the housing market in the US. In the short/medium run they really have nowhere to go but down. The over-hang of personnel, equipment, and bureaucracy from a former age will have to be culled. Particularly as the likelihood of major nation state to major nation state war continues to dwindle.

If they want to go the Barnett route, then de-militarization occurs through a shift to civilian and peacekeeping (which the military hates I'm sure). if they don't want to go that route and simply feel the need for defense, the major security threats in the world are trans-national terrorist cells, so de-militarization is inevitable there as well as the fight moves much more to human intelligence, policing, surveillance, and so forth.

Scott: You point to something that continues to bother me about the Barnett frame for discussing where we go from here vis-a-vis foreign policy when you say,

While Barnett's synthesis is quite lucid and actually gives a role to the nation-state in terms of global security affairs that otherwise seems to lack a rationale for its existence, it's not clear to me that in practice interventions are as simple as War and Peace.

In this regard, I think we're still operating from a militarized frame of reference that doesn't do justice to the kind of re-evaluation in which we need to engage. In Barnett's analysis, peace isn't really distinct from war, so much as it is a later phase of the same movement.

First we have war, in which evil dictators and deplorable regimes are either forced into surrender or simply destroyed. And then we have peace, in which the good and freed people of the region are enabled to realize their dreams through the provision of modern systems of life. It's all part of the same story, ultimately, and by my lights it is still a story of military force. It's a kinder, gentler might equals right, with the best of intentions.

Of course, we know what they say about the road to hell...

It is not at all surprising that Barnett would remain within that frame of reference. He is a civilian, back his background is all military. And so he is, in many respects, answering the military's question, "What are we to do now?" In that regard, I have a lot of respect for Barnett because I think that is an important question to be answered.

Like you, I don't envision a world in which “big guns” become unnecessary. That's just day dreaming. But I do think we need to really grapple with the idea that there is actually a distinct element of foreign policy that does not operate in complete isolation of military action, but is neither an arm of that action.

This represents a real sea change in terms of our very notions of foreign policy because, insofar as you are right in condemning American foreign policy as excessively (exclusively?) militarized, then I think we have to acknowledge that the way we have come to think about foreign policy has been defined by American dominance on the world stage over the past few decades. And so even if the rest of the world is not militarized in their foreign policy to the degree that the US is de jure, the way we think and talk about foreign policy is from a militarized frame, de facto.

The usefulness of that frame has, as we've both acknowledged, become pretty severely compromised. Not the least of which is demonstrated by outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan. But also in terms of the frame of "peace" and the "spreading of democracy" as demonstrated by the 2006 election of Hamas to the Palestinian Parliament.

For all our rhetoric about freedom and democracy, what we're after isn't really freedom and democracy, so much as it is stability and civility. Insofar as the legitimacy conferred upon Hamas by its election has acted as a major source of increased frustration in the region, we gave up on the notion of democracy as a foreign policy panacea.

Which is to say that even insofar as Barnett and other grand strategist frames seek to move our discussion of foreign policy in a constructive direction, they do so by extending the parameters of an outmoded frame, rather than setting on the work of generating a new -- or at least differentiated -- frame. Part of what that new frame needs to do is cultivate a renewed humility around just what the degree of our understanding about the evolution of nation-states, countries, and regions actually is at this point. And that exercise is vital because it goes towards dispelling unduly simplistic ideas about generating a more stable world through the regimented application of "war" and "peace" efforts.

We have a much improved notion of the sort of physical constructions that accompany the evolution of countries into a space of modernization and how those physical structures contribute to the sorts of stability and civility of which we are in pursuit. And so we tend to take this knowledge and sort of extrapolate an, "if we build it, they will come" attitude to foreign policy that found its logical conclusion in the reason d'etre of nation building.

This made for a perfectly snug fit in a meta-analysis of military force as foreign policy that, I think, pervades in the analysis put forward by a Barnett. In Tom's own words, the "trigger-pullers" pull it all down and the "ground pounders" build it back up.

But the kind of evolution towards which we're actually aiming isn't entirely a built thing. Or, at least, it can't be entirely understood in those terms. There is a built element of that evolution, for sure. But to grab hold of that element and declare that you have the "big picture", is akin to having the trunk and describing the elephant.

And this is what I think we have done in terms of talking about building in the "peace" phase of our model. We've only got, at best, half the story and our results are, to my mind, a testament to the incompleteness of our analysis.

So even when you say,

But I think worldwide the trend will continue towards de-militarization of international policy as more and more it is clear that economics and political reform drives much of the move towards reconstruction and modernization.

I don't think that's untrue, but I think that we have to start to wrap our heads around what I can only call -- as uneasy as this word is in a foreign policy context -- a cultural component here.

The importance of civil society in underwriting the success of our western democracies is a conventional wisdom at this point. But understanding just how the cultural components of that society come to pass is something on which I think it is fair to say that we have an exceedingly poor grasp. And insofar as we can ever really understand this process of evolution/modernization on a mass scale, I think that understanding represents a key component to our analysis of foreign policy.

In and of itself, this is a profoundly tricky area to operate because, of course, our history as regards cultural spaces is one primarily of colonization. And for all the talk of what capacities the British occupation of India left to Indians that have helped to enable their current economic rise, we are also awash in the broken trail of travesty, resentment, oppression, and injustice that our past collective actions have left in our wake.

So we have that mill stone hanging around neck. In some regards, I'm inclined to look at that history as being the surest sign post that we have work to do here.

But developing a greater dexterity around navigating and negotiating precisely these cultural spaces remains the direction in which I think our foreign policy needs to head. Note here that I describe the modus operandi as "navigating and negotiating," a choice of words that is not unintentional.

None of which gets into the challenges that come with giving up our unspoken assumptions about that evolutions turning out partners that come to more closely resemble us. The "made in his image" component of foreign policy and particularly nation building is a related can of worms that deserves its own post. But let's content ourselves to say that in giving up the notion that we can somehow simply build a better country/nation, we are forced to let go of the specific contour of the outcomes our efforts. We can be a part of the process,but we don't control the process.

So while you might be right to question the real punch of Cameron's words, I continue to think that their utterance is significant. And I’ve realized in the course of our exchange that part of the reason for my believe in this regard is precisely because it is David Cameron who was doing the talking.

For as much as Cameron is engaged in an economic exercise, here, he has also demonstrated a distinct adeptness in matters of culture. Where Obama has become the great cultural icon, Cameron has proven himself the great cultural creative. The irony, of course, is that as an icon, Obama gets a lot more attention than does Cameron. And yet, as pertains to cultural issues, Obama's proclivity is towards side stepping issues of culture altogether. This in spite of (or perhaps because of) his iconic status.

Cameron, on the other hand, based a not insubstantial amount of his Tory resurgence on remaking the British Tories on cultural grounds. Cameron, in no small part, went about refashioning his party towards a British conservatism that was a real alternative to the flagging Labour government and was updated to be palatable to twenty-first century Britons.

Of course, the dynamics facing Obama and Cameron are entirely different. But it is not insubstantial that Cameron has generated, to my mind, a more culturally evolved British conservatism than Obama has an American liberalism.

It therefore makes a tonne of sense to me that the locus for an actual shift in our conceptions foreign policy would originate with Cameron in Britain, given my beliefs about what direction such a shift needs to be aimed. And even if Cameron's words are, at this point, just words without punch, the fact that Cameron feels compelled to say them is potentially significant for me. Especially insofar as those words stand to represent a tangible shift in his own thinking on the matter.

Of course, there is a lot of speculation going on here. So ultimately, as always, time will tell.

Chris: These are some really important points.

As to your intriguing proposal vis-a-vis culture, I guess my question is: Is it really feasible to think that a nation-state (a 19th and 20th century bureaucratic product) is really up to the task of such a cultural attunement?

When we are thinking about countries shifting into their own versions of modernity, we're talking about pretty mass movements and mass instruments (often blunt in nature).

I mean I think about Great Britain's or the US' movement into modernity--it wasn't exactly culturally sensitive to put it mildly. At least not in the short/medium term.

Point blank, this s#!@ is hard, whether we are talking internal development or external relations.

And who exactly is going to do it? State Departments/Foreign Ministries in the major powers of the world are built to deal with other major powers. They are poorly designed to deal with non-state actors, states trying to build themselves up, and the like. See the history of colonialism and the legion of failures with foreign aid as examples.

Others would say the market. Certainly the only thing so far that has brought millions of people out of poverty is intense industrialization which wrecks societies and ecologies -- those the societies in question are in many regards oppressive, so maybe wrecking them isn't all that bad. That mass movement of globalization is going to engender serious resistance and then the military/policing issue becomes front and center.

The vicissitudes of the market are then dealt with typically by non-governmentals (or at least NGOs attempting to persuade governments to do something about them). Those groups--more generally speaking--have the kind of cultural ear (in comparison to governments which do not) that you are speaking about. By what role practically should NGOs really have? What kind of checks on them exist?


If however we take our focus off the nation-state and move it to a different social location, then I think the kinds of issues you are raising become very prescient. That other location would be (in my thinking) the rise of 21st century city-states or a renewed polis. Here the so-called black hat of globalization (to Barnett's white hat), John Robb is worth mentioning I think.

Robb's notion of the resilient community comes into play strongly in this discussion. This is another and quite different/alternative social location as a point of global influence than then the nation-state or the consumptive markets to which the nation-states are subservient.

I've never exactly thought of the resilient communities having a "foreign policy". It's an interesting thought exercise. When you look at something like the Transition Town movement, it wouldn't really be right to talk of them having a "foreign policy" as they conceive of themselves as globally-transmitted hyper-local entities.

Foreign policy is a construct of a state--at least how we've understood the state (I suppose) for the last 300 years or so.

But in the meantime, I have a hard time seeing where the kind of foreign policy you are talking about will come from structurally. I could see some rhetorical moves in that direction. I could also see how the creation of a Deptarments of Everything Else (as Barnett calls them) could really start to move in that direction (to some degree) absent the specific cases of interventions.

But as long as it currently is US intervention, then everyone else is basically staying out (read: China).

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