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About this book

Foreign policy has dominated successive governments' time in office and cast a consistently long shadow over British politics in the period since 1945. Robert Self provides a readable and incisive assessment of the key issues and events from the retreat from empire through the cold war period to Humanitarian Intervention and the debacle in Iraq.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction: Britain’s Place in a Changing World

Abstract
During a period of less than half a century after the end of the Second World War in 1945, Britain divested itself of an empire spanning almost a quarter of the world’s landmass and population. It withdrew from far-flung military bases scattered across the globe and engaged in innumerable reviews of its defence commitments in the vain hope of reducing expenditure, while throughout much of this period remaining heavily engaged in military operations in various trouble-spots around the world. Although its economy grew more slowly than most of its major competitors, it continued to spend a larger proportion of its GDP on defence than any of its European NATO allies. Its unwavering quest for an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent that it had neither the financial nor infrastructural resources to sustain added to the nation’s stature on the world stage, but only at the expense of forcing it to accept a position of almost total dependence on the United States. Feeling the chill wind of relative economic decline and fearing political marginalisation, it promoted the idea of a European free trade area, at least in part, in an attempt to derail the progress of European integration. When this failed, it reluctantly resigned itself to entry into a European Community it often appeared to mistrust as inimical to national interests, and in consequence it rapidly acquired the reputation of being an ‘awkward partner’. Above all, it doggedly maintained its faith in a supposedly ‘special relationship’ with the United States, although this connection always mattered far more to London than it did in Washington, and which fluctuated greatly over time in both its amity and its balance of costs and benefits to Britain. Given a post-war history characterised by an over-extended foreign policy, an overstretched defence capability and an underperforming economy, it is scarcely surprising that many look back and lament the speed with which Britain has declined from its hegemonic position as the world’s leading nation in the 1880s ‘to its pre-imperial status as an offshore island of a powerful continent’ (Alford 1996: 1).
Robert Self

Chapter 2. British Power and the Burden of History

Abstract
The depressing central theme running through most studies of Britain’s post-war foreign and defence policy is one of remorseless and unremitting decline. As discussed in Chapter 1, this is a highly contested concept but concerns about ‘the decline of Britain’ did not begin in 1945 and nor did the problems that accompanied it. On the contrary, to understand the predicament confronting British foreign policymakers in the post-war era, it is necessary to return to the zenith of British power in the last quarter of the nineteenth century because it was ironically during this period that most of the difficulties and agonising dilemmas confronting British policy after the Second World War were already making themselves evident. Not least among these problems were those posed by what Basil Liddell Hart would later call ‘imperial overstretch’; a phenomenon characterised by the existence of a vast ‘resource gap’ between Britain’s massive imperial and overseas commitments and its ability to mobilise the diplomatic, financial and military resources needed to defend and extend those interests.
Robert Self

Chapter 3. From Empire to Commonwealth

Abstract
During the 1930s, British policymakers were tormented by the fear that another war would destroy the structure of British imperial rule at a time when it was more vulnerable to attack than at any time in its history. The Second World War swiftly vindicated these gloomy apprehensions. There were obvious advantages to be derived from the imperial connection — not least the five million Dominion and colonial troops supporting the British war effort. But, as Bernard Porter reminds us, ‘the empire brought Britain some benefits, but as many liabilities’ (Porter 1987: 308). The damage inflicted on the British Empire by the Second World War was profound and multifaceted. It undoubtedly weakened still further the familial relationship between the ‘Mother Country’ and its white Dominions. Some of these ties were already feeble — particularly with Eire, which declared its neutrality during the war before becoming a Republic outside the Commonwealth in 1949. Similarly, the South African Parliament only narrowly voted to join Britain’s war effort, and thereafter Afrikaner anti-British sentiment increased sharply. The war had a far more corrosive impact upon Britain’s relationship with its other formerly more supportive Dominions. Canada increasingly consolidated its bonds with the United States upon whom it depended for its security after the Ogdensburg Agreement in August 1940, while after the catastrophic fall of Singapore in February 1942 Australia and New Zealand also looked to the United States for defence, their confidence in Britain’s promise of a naval shield shattered forever.
Robert Self

Chapter 4. Britain, the Atlantic Alliance and the ‘Special Relationship’

Abstract
In his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946, Churchill conjured up the captivating vision of a ‘special relationship’ between the British Commonwealth and the United States founded upon the ‘fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples’. Ever since, this beguiling idea has been the subject of such fierce controversy that many argue it can now ‘hardly appear in public unless wrapped in inverted commas and accompanied by a question mark’ (Ashton 2002a: 6). It has survived in spite of much research, which suggests that even at its wartime zenith this was an ‘ambiguous partnership’ (Hathaway 1981) between ‘allies of a kind’ (Thorne 1978) and even greater evidence that in recent years it is ‘special no more’ (Dickie 1994). Yet, notwithstanding the frequency with which the ‘special relationship’ has been consigned to the dustbin of history, the concept continues to display what one recent analysis has described as ‘something of a Lazarus quality’(Marsh and Baylis 2006: 174). We are left, therefore, with an enigmatic concept which has rightly been characterised as ‘natural, and easy, ambiguous, ambivalent, sweet and sour’ (Edmonds 1986: 6).
Robert Self

Chapter 5. Britain and Europe

Abstract
Until the late 1950s, Britain’s globalist priorities ensured that Europe was by far the least important of Churchill’s three ‘interlocking circles’. ‘Our policy should be to assist Europe to recover as far as we can’, an interdepartmental committee concluded in January 1949. ‘But the concept must be one of limited liability. In no circumstances must we assist them beyond the point at which the assistance leaves us too weak to be a worthwhile ally for [the] USA if Europe collapses’ (Reynolds 1991: 193). As a combination of chronic strategic overextension and longterm economic difficulties made it progressively more difficult to maintain Britain’s influence in all three circles, however, foreign policymakers belatedly shifted their attention towards Europe as a means of retaining a significant voice in world affairs. Yet such a reorientation of policy was always belated, hesitant and never wholehearted — with the inevitable consequence that Britain rapidly acquired a reputation for being the ‘reluctant European’ and an ‘awkward partner’ (George 1998: 1).
Robert Self

Chapter 6. The Problems of Conventional Defence

Abstract
Much of the debate about defence policy since 1945 has been dominated by a well-established orthodoxy which emphasises the increasing gulf between Britain’s overseas obligations and its defensive capabilities. As Lawrence Freedman puts it:
the history of British defence policy is of an attempt to reconcile the mismatch between resources and commitments. The reconciliation is often achieved temporarily but it never seems to last. The inexorable rise in equipment costs pushes up the price of defence while the economy refuses to generate the extra funds necessary to keep pace. (Freedman 1983: 62)
Robert Self

Chapter 7. Britain and the Bomb: The Quest for a Nuclear Deterrent

Abstract
The history of Britain’s pursuit of an independent nuclear deterrent provides an illuminating insight into both the vigour of its commitment to continued great power status and the reasons why it has increasingly struggled to defend that position. It also says much about the centrality of the Anglo-American relationship to British external policy — not least because after 1958 what British policymakers liked to call their ‘independent deterrent’ was almost entirely dependent upon the goodwill of the United States for the increasingly complex missile delivery systems capable of launching warheads constructed in Britain but closely following US designs. Although this defence linkage might be more accurately presented as simple dependency rather than a partnership, it has permitted a medium-sized state with an overextended foreign and defence policy to maintain a greatpower-by-proxy status on the cheap. On this basis, John Dumbrell rightly argues that since 1958 Britain’s privileged access to US technology combined with the intimate intermeshing of intelligence services under the UKUSA Agreement of 1947 has ‘formed the essence and beating heart of the Cold War “special relationship” in that it was different in kind from that of the United States relationship with other states’ (Dumbrell 2001: 124).
Robert Self

Chapter 8. New Labour, the ‘Ethical Dimension’ and ‘Liberal Intervention’

Abstract
The broad outlines of the Labour government’s external policy since 1997 have reflected a high degree of continuity with its predecessors in many key respects. The Anglo-American alliance remained pivotal throughout its period in office despite the need to deal with three US administrations of very different political persuasions. Like its predecessors, the Blair and Brown governments sought to evade the issue of whether Britain inclined principally towards a European or an Atlanticist orientation by denying the existence of any inherent conflict between these two identities. On the contrary, as the 2001 election manifesto noted, ‘if Britain is stronger in Europe, it will be stronger in the rest of the world. We reject the view of those who say we must choose between Europe and the USA’ (Labour Party 2001: 38). Within the EU, Britain employed a far more communautaire style of language than its predecessors but the record has not been fundamentally different from that of John Major’s ‘pick and mix’ approach that embraced only those parts of the European project which promoted British interests and did not conflict with its primary attachment to Washington. Continuity was also the order of the day in the defence and security sphere.
Robert Self

Chapter 9. Making Foreign and Defence Policy in a Changing World

Abstract
Over 20 years ago, a distinguished authority on British external policy argued that ‘none of the major books that have been written on the policy process over the last 25 years are actually out of date’ because ‘to characterise the process accurately, we should recognize that British foreign policy-making is a combination of unchanging realities and evolutionary developments in response to certain demands and pressures’ (Clarke 1988: 72). There is still much truth in this judgement, as demonstrated by the continued validity of works written 45 years ago, such as Donald Watt’s classic discussion of the ‘foreign policy-making elite’ in Britain and David Vital’s distinction between the elite ‘central core’ operating largely unconstrained by a wider public and the ‘surrounding mantle’ of ministries sporadically involved in foreign policy (Watt 1965: 1; Vital 1968: 49–50). Yet, in parallel with the evidence of continuity on the fundamentals, powerful forces have precipitated significant changes in nuance, interaction and relationships within a once-established institutional framework. For example, Sir John Coles, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the FCO until 1997, argues the policy process is
often both complex and messy because the nature of foreign policy today is more complex than it was, because the pace of international events is quicker and the need for response more urgent, because the quantity and diversity of information available to policy makers have greatly increased and because the process is operated by people. (Coles 2000: 83–4)
Robert Self

Chapter 10. Conclusion: The Challenge of an Uncertain Future

Abstract
In reviewing the history of British foreign and defence policy since the end of the Second World War, it is impossible to avoid one particularly striking paradox. On one hand, there has been a remarkable degree of continuity in policy and priorities since Anthony Eden and Ernest Bevin laid the foundations for a post-war foreign policy consensus in the 1940s. On the other hand, the international environment within which this bipartisan policy has been applied has changed out of all recognition. During a period of only 65 years, the world has witnessed the collapse of the wartime Allied alliance; the consolidation of Soviet control over much of Eastern Europe; the outbreak of the Cold War; periodic threats that this would turn into a ‘Hot War’ over Korea, Berlin and Cuba; a period of marked East-West détente; the outbreak of a ‘Second Cold War’; the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev’s dramatic reform programme in the mid-1980s; the even more spectacular collapse of communism in Eastern Europe; the formal end of the Cold War; the end of the Warsaw Pact as an aggressive alliance and the final dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving the United States as a single superpower in an increasingly multi-polar world.
Robert Self
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