Anyone for realpolitik?

Britain's foreign policy, like its banks, has run out of capital. Time for a more realistic approach
November 23, 2008

The discussion between David Miliband and a number of experts in last month's Prospect centred on concepts that have formed the core of the British and western view of international affairs for the last two decades: liberal interventionism, universal values, multilateralism, globalisation, and ethical foreign policy. But these ideas have lost plausibility as "the west," their main champion, continues to suffer a loss of authority, not least as a result of the financial crisis.

The end of the cold war was followed by a brief decade of euphoria. Our politicians talked of our moral duty to intervene in other people's affairs to force them to behave properly. Foreign office officials were discouraged from using words like "hegemony" and "multipolar," because they had a whiff of anti-Americanism about them: the clarity of their thinking suffered accordingly. British foreign policy became out of touch with reality, and largely irrelevant in world affairs.

We and our closest allies are now reaping the reward of hubris. Today, history is back with a vengeance, and the instruments of US military and economic power which were at the centre of our worldview have proved unequal to the task. Take as only one example the recent Georgian conflict, which showed that the US could not make good on an implied guarantee to defend a small, far away and badly-led country whose politics they barely understood. We may see a clear distinction between our bombarding Serbia and recognition of Kosovo, and the Russian invasion of Georgia and its recognition of Abkhazia and South Georgia. The distinction is not apparent to others. We are amazed when foreigners accuse us of double standards. But the foreigners are not wrong.

Of course, most of us remain deeply attached to the values of the liberal and secular Enlightenment. None of us want an unethical foreign policy. But much of the rest of the world does not agree that it is the west that decides what is valuable, what is liberal, what is ethical. They will not accept that it is we who define the rules of international behaviour to which it is their task merely to conform.

This is the background against which we need to forge our policy towards Russia. There is nothing at all mysterious about Russia's present behaviour. After more than a decade of humiliation, of having their interests and warnings ignored, of seeing Nato enlarged despite assurances that it would not happen, the Russians are now reasserting themselves, and deliberately poking the west in the eye. This might have been averted by farsighted western statesmanship in the 1990s and a more genuine willingness to treat Russia as an equal partner. How western attitudes worked in practice is well illustrated by the remark that President Clinton, who really did try to get along with the Russians, made to an adviser as they jogged round Moscow in 1996: "We haven't played everything brilliantly with these people… We keep telling Ol' Boris [Yeltsin], 'Okay, now here's what you've got to do next—here's some more shit for your face.'"

But there is no point in wringing our hands over past mistakes. British ministers should look on Russia today as their predecessors did: as a great power whose domestic arrangements we may dislike but with which we need to co-operate, and whose foreign ambitions we must accommodate when we cannot contain them.

The government seemed surprised at what happened in Georgia in August 2008: we can at least now try to draw the right lessons from it. The crisis had been building for two decades, and both those who knew the region, and the Russians themselves, warned that an explosion was coming. At its height, British and American politicians stepped up their previous calls for Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine. The Georgians naturally assumed that this was more than mere bluster: that by some means or another Georgia would be saved from the consequences of its own lack of wisdom. But when the Russians invaded the Georgians were left to dangle in the wind. We should not give small countries security guarantees that we cannot or will not implement.

A more realistic policy in the Caucasus would have been no less ethical. The right course would have been, and still is, to give Georgia political and economic support; to advise it to manage its internal disputes better, and to get on as best it can with its big neighbour—as Armenia and Azerbaijan do. The same is true of Ukraine. In cautious meddling there is a risk not only of infuriating the Russians, but causing the Ukrainian state to implode, with consequences not only highly damaging to the Ukrainians, but also to ourselves. That is one of the reasons why a majority of the Ukrainian people do not want their country to join Nato.

The Russians have, however, thrown down the gauntlet, and we are bound to give a measured response. They will no doubt complain whatever we do. But that should not stop us from doing things that are sensible and practical. The campaign to install American ABM missiles of questionable military value in eastern Europe may be neither, but in the aftermath of Georgia the signature of the treaty with Poland was inevitable. Now we must do what we can to restore the frayed credibility of the Nato alliance. We should abandon the pretension that Nato can police the world, and get back to basics. Nato is a European defence organisation; its members need to know that its pledge of mutual defence means something.

In the first instance this means shoring up the Baltic states (and to a lesser extent the Poles) by responding sharply to Russian verbal attacks, by rejecting Russian accusations that the Russian minorities are being badly treated (and being seen to encourage the Balts to mend their ways where necessary), and by some measured adjustment to our military arrangements, which might include stationing symbolic Nato forces in the Baltic states.

None of this will bring us back to the simple bipolar world of the cold war. The east-west relationship is no longer the driver of international politics, and Russia's resurgence is not the only problem facing Britain. But recent events in Georgia reveal a wider truth. We now live in a multipolar world, in which the US and Europe are only two of a number of big powers—and in which small subversive groups are well able to oppose our will. Britain is comparatively small, though sophisticated, yet the idea that it can "punch above its weight" has misled our politicians into one muddle after another for decades. British foreign policy should serve British ends; and it should be proportionate to British means. It will be painful to move beyond formerly fashionable notions like liberal interventionism and adjust to these new realities. But we will get ourselves into even more trouble if we do not.