Photo by Mikhail Svetlov

What happened to British realpolitik?

Britain needs strategic realism and foresight, and most importantly, new thought leaders

Artillery Row

Immediately prior to the EU referendum in the heady days of 2015, I wrote a short policy brief blog for a think tank in London, summarizing that in the (then unlikely) event of a British exit from the European Union, there might be a potential continental backlash. Either way, realpolitik dictates that British foreign policy establishment’s grand-strategy takes into account the changing strategic scenario that reflects a revanchist Russia, an increasingly disinterested and retrenching America and a potential Euro hegemon; and return to a tested balance of power realpolitik, which will fundamentally include two prospects: a détente with Russia, and backchannel diplomacy and quid-pro-quo with all the major power centers, that goes beyond electoral propriety and avoids the pitfalls of a volatile public opinion. It was very politely declined due to two given reasons: one, Britain was unlikely to leave the EU, and two, British interest was in supporting a rules-based promotion of “liberal democracy” in Europe.

Last week, both Chatham House and RUSI explained how it is in British interest to confront Russia and promote a rules-based liberal order. Listing a whole laundry list of British military assistance to Ukraine, including naval support, training and aid, an article in RUSI argued that British political support for Ukraine is “unequivocal”. It never mentioned why. In a more theoretical piece in Chatham House, it was argued that “resolutely resisting Russian ultimatums and providing Ukraine with all possible assistance in meeting the likely cost of doing so is an investment in setting the limits of Russian power”. It never defined “the West”. Nothing much has changed in the last few years, and the London blob clearly learnt nothing new.

That is how a great power thinks, only in terms of narrow interests

Why is the British blob gunning for Russia in Ukraine, and where is the alternative realist perspective? Balance of power and ruthless amoral realism was once in British blood. Britain perfected “divide and rule” to an artform. Why do the think-tanks now seem like a Brezhnev-era state college, unoriginal and unimaginative, with diverse names from all across the spectrum and opinions ranging from a B- all the way to a B+? Moscow State University in the 80s had students from Syria to Mongolia, everyone arguing about how crucial scientific socialism is in preserving a healthy crop of soy-beans. Change socialism to liberal internationalism and rules-based order, and you’d see no difference with the foreign policy research being churned out from premier London hivemind. At least here in the US, there is a healthy ascendency of reactionary realism. That is how a great power thinks, only in terms of narrow interests.

There is, of course, no direct British strategic interest in Ukraine, a real-estate which is existential for Russia, but peripheral for Western Europe. Russian products will face quality control if Ukraine is in the EU security architecture, Russian military is resource dependent on spares and hydraulics, Russian navy has a warm water port in Crimea, and Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia, are their last defensible territorial buffers. Anyone who studies Russian military journals will know that they consider (rightly or wrongly) “color revolutions” as a form of Western NGO-funded hybrid warfare, and see no difference between an EU (Germany) and NATO (USA) expansion. Whatever one might think of Putin and his increasingly Tsarist regime and to a post-modern human-rights grad sitting in London, nothing is more antiquated than a reactionary strategic consideration based on narrow national interest the truth remains that strategic considerations are purely rational and based on material concepts like aggregate power, defensible frontiers, vast oceanic moats and spheres of influences. Things, ironically, that the rest of the world cares about deeply.

The French understand that, as do the Germans. Neither of the two great powers are interested in a hysteria about Ukraine and most of their outrage about Russian revanchism is performative. Why would they? There will not be Russian tanks rushing through Polish or Belgian meadows anytime soon, if ever. The Russian navy carrier churns more smoke than an industrial revolution era Manchester chimney. The Russian GDP is similar to Italy and lower than California. Russia never carried out any misadventure in any region where they did not already have a naval or military base, and Russian return after punitive actions in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine demonstrate a rationality that they understand, perhaps more than us, their own limitations. These are not the acts of an imperial power on an expansionist binge; these are the measured and calculated acts of a power desperate about its own narrow sphere of interest, pleading for a grand-bargain and threatening to be revanchist and pursue an alignment with the much greater Chinese threat. Ukrainian war is a humanitarian catastrophe, but it does nothing to change the overall balance of power in Europe; otherwise one would see, by the logic of foreign policy, massive rearmament across the continent. Western Europe meanwhile perfected what we call in international relations the strategy of “buckpassing”. They have Anglo-American troops placed between Russia and themselves. British troops patrol and defend the Baltics (one might guess to the bemusement of European Union officials constantly at odds over migration and northern Ireland), British military engineers are determined to defend Polish borders (while failing to stop migration in the channel), British neoconservatives and liberal-internationalists give barnstorming speeches about defending Ukrainian sovereignty (while ignoring their own).

No one from Manchester or Michigan is willing to die for Mariupol

London’s policy of being more catholic than the Pope seems increasingly comical as Washington is determined to focus on Asia-Pacific and have a grand-bargain with Russia. Consider recent actions and statements. American Secretary of State Lloyd Austin refused any redlines in Ukraine or Taiwan, as President Biden ruled out any military action to deter Russia. Ukraine is after all, not a treaty ally, and no one from Manchester or Michigan is willing to die for Mariupol. In London, there is no qualitative difference between what one can read in the Telegraph, The Times and Guardian, all worried about civil society and human rights in Ukraine. In Washington, the biggest television personality on the American right, Tucker Carlson thunders in primetime dinner telly, “Vladimir Putin’s soul? Who cares. We can leave that to his priest, assuming he has one. The only question that matters, the only question, is how does intervening in Ukraine help the core interests of the United States?” Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being pumped in new thinking which promote realism and restraint in Washington DC. There’s no British equivalent to that line of realpolitik. As Aris Roussinos noted recently, “…the ultimate downfall of any Tory counter-revolution is the absence of any infrastructure for nurturing a new wave of conservative thought.”

British interest is partially similar to Americas, as a maritime power, interested primarily in trade, severely defensive about a narrow sphere of influence (think Gibraltar, etc.) and amoral about a disunited Europe. Objectively, any Euro-sceptic government in France or central Europe is a net gain for Britain, and the British state should throw its weight behind it along with the power of British media. The European Union is gearing up for an ideological split between a liberal evangelical Germany under a new government, a split France with a heavily far-right minority and a social conservative central European bloc. Britain should at least cultivate all the sides with deft backchannel Kissingerian diplomacy.

Britain should also avoid any further entanglement in the security of Eastern Europe and Ukraine, as realism dictates avoiding a potential great power war over peripheral interests. Let Germany and France balance Russia and spend a fortune on the defense of their eastern frontiers. As a mid-tier maritime power with a world-class economy and a strong nuclear force, London should ideally be at an advantage, being the indispensable power bridging London, Berlin, Brussels and Moscow. That would need strategic realism and foresight, and most importantly, new thought leaders, instead of a sclerotic London blob churning out obsolete mid-90s “democratic peace theory” nonsense.


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