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Liberal Britain, not Little England

A post-Brexit Britain needs a foreign policy reset

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, recently accused Rishi Sunak of having a “little England mentality” in relation to British foreign policy and called for closer cooperation with China. At the other end of the spectrum, Liz Truss used a speech in Taiwan to call for an “economic NATO” to take on Beijing. This raises a fundamental question: is there a contradiction between taking a harsh stance on China and promoting a global Britain? 

A classical liberal approach to international relations helps to break this false dichotomy. Its roots go back to Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith, who turns 300 this month. These thinkers provide a useful structure for how we should think about foreign policy in these increasingly challenging times. Smith emphasised that international order is about uncertainty, power, and violence, yet he also highlighted areas for international cooperation, which Smith argued was vital to ensure the best conditions for individual freedom to flourish. 

All international politics is about human action. Therefore, one’s view on human nature is important, and classical liberals explain human behaviour by both reason and emotions, with the first never able to completely overrule the second. In Hume’s famous words: “reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions”. Given the human propensity to quarrel and fight, violence remains a permanent feature in world politics, however regrettable that may be. Schools of thought that attempt to deny or suppress this fact float dangerously close to utopianism.

There is also an undeniable emotional attachment between individuals and the nation. Smith warned against cosmopolitan fairy tales, believing that the nation was the outer layer one is emotionally tied to, besides family, friends, town, and region. “Love for your country” and “love for humankind” are two different things. While there is a tension between nation state and individual freedom within liberalism, pleas for grandiose supranational schemes, such as global federations or world society are senseless. International relations is and remains a matter of states.

This world of states is no paradise, but contrary to pessimistic voices, it is no Hobbesian war of all against all either. Although the possibility of conflict and war can never be ruled out, as the current war in Ukraine once again makes clear, through diplomacy, international treaties and agreements, alliances, spontaneous ordering mechanisms as the balance of power, and informal, non-governmental channels, a society of states is possible.  

Adam Smith is famous for his pleas for free trade, and no doubt free trade is still the best policy for global economic development. Yet it does not have many political side effects. Trade neither increases the likelihood of war, nor does it foster peace, as the winding up of tensions between the economically interdependent United States and Peoples’ Republic of China shows. This is in stark contrast to the ideas of 19th century Manchester liberal Richard Cobden and his followers, who promoted the idea that economic interdependence between nations necessarily reduced the likelihood of war.  

Classical liberals are fierce defenders of individual liberty, which means they are also worried about state power. How to reconcile the two? Basically, by limiting state power to a minimum, both in domestic and international politics. At the international level, there is only a need for a number of treaties and international law to deal with cross-border issues. A few current examples make this clear.

The past decades have seen the explosion of international legal obligations. As international law is made by unaccountable international organisations and trumps national law in most cases, this is a threat to individual freedom. There must be no taboo on withdrawing international treaties, including those that were clearly meant for other times and purposes, such as the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. In general, the United Nations can be a useful talking platform to settle disputes and deal with technical issues, but most of its daughter organisations like the World Health Organisation have developed into big state outfits, without a clear purpose.

The same must be said for the World Bank system, whose organisations have not contributed much to the growth of underdeveloped nations. Besides short-term emergency relief, the results of international governmental development aid are poor, if not completely counterproductive. As Lord Peter Bauer used to quip: “it is about taking money from the poor people in the rich countries and bringing it to the rich people in the poor countries”. 

While the Conservatives generally have the better foreign policy arguments, the writings of Adam Smith and other classical liberals make clear that foreign policy is not only about states’ interests and short-term geopolitical strategy. Ultimately it must be about the best conditions for individual freedom to flourish, which demands a limited state at both the national and international level. Both Sunak and Lammy should consider this if they hope to re-establish a constructive foreign policy consensus in Westminster and take advantage of the foreign policy opportunities that Brexit provides.

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