British Right's main problem is our role in the world

Foreign interventionism is out of fashion. But what becomes of the British Right if it emulates the politically correct relativism of the Left and does exactly what Reagan and Thatcher refused to do: bow down to or ignore tyranny?

A Royal Marine Commando in Afghanistan
Elliot Burns
On 5 January 2014 23:16

The greatest problem that faces the British Right is not an issue such as EU integration, nor is it immigration. It is the role Britain should play in the world. The libertarian isolationist movement has joined the pragmatist majority with sore memories of Iraq, and the effect has been a deep suspicion of humanitarian intervention.

As 2014 begins, it's fair to ask: is Britain's time over as a global force for good (in both senses of "for good")? If the increasing popularity of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) is to be believed, then yes. For the British people are tired of unwinnable wars.

George McGovern famously remarked, 'I am fed up with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in', and his adage sums up the feeling of many British people. A decade of bad news from Iraq and Afghanistan has fundamentally undermined our belief that we can help spread democracy and peace abroad, though we are forced to ask: what has changed since 2011?

Because in 2011 it seemed as though Britain was where it always has been: standing in the face of oppression to fight against Gaddafi's forces in Libya. There was widespread support for the intervention, and it eased through Parliament and the UN.

Fast forward to 2013, and Prime Minister David Cameron loses a vote in the Commons to end the massacre of children in Syria. Why did the British mentality towards intervention suddenly change so much?

The answer is simple: Libya has been no long term victory. Christians and non-Muslims there are frequently harassed. There is political instability, and the threat of extremism is as high as ever.

In short, many of us are beginning to doubt whether the Middle East and democracy are compatible. This was, for many years, American foreign policy: a friendly dictator is better than a volatile democracy. Henry Kissinger explained this by saying, 'better the son of a bitch we know than the sons of bitches we don't'. 

So, even though many of us believe that foreign intervention is frequently justified and morally right, there is no longer the guarantee that intervention will be beneficial to British national security.

In fact, quite the opposite: the botching of the Iraq invasion has spread hatred of the west around much of the Middle East. And if there's one thing many on the Right are beginning to believe, it is that risking British lives is not sustainable if the net effect is that more people despise Britain.

The Right also have a fundamental question to answer: how does 'hawkish' foreign policy tie in to sensible, limited government?

It is the curse of Washington D.C. especially: Republicans pushing tighter and tighter budgets whilst leaving military spending, the elephant in the room, untouched.

As the libertarian influence on the Right becomes ever stronger, military spending is becoming a political hot potato, and with a spiralling national debt at home, the cost effectiveness of military intervention is for the first time becoming a barrier to any potential action.

This libertarian influence may well tear apart the Right here as it has done in the US with the Tea Party, causing infighting that leads to serious electoral damage. The effect of disunity among the Right will be that calls for intervention will weaken, not strengthen.

This is the issue with trying to compete with a relatively united Left, a rare occurrence in Britain but one that seems to have come at a time when disaffection amongst the Right is as high as ever.

Disunity among the Right means conservatives will increasingly have to pander to a populist foreign policy agenda -- and, in the aftermath of the Syria vote, there is no doubt that that will tend to be isolationist.

The movement away from support for foreign intervention also represents an inherent identity crisis within the Right.

The belief that humanitarian intervention is justified is predicated on the assumption that British culture is civilising and that citizens in other countries deserve to live under the principles that we enjoy.

This is where the moral obligation to intervene comes from. Without this resolute belief, Conservatism is a very hollow ideology. Conservatism does not bow to the politically correct belief that other cultures, those that abuse and oppress women for example, deserve to be treated equally to ours.

In this, the Right provides blessed relief from the agenda pursued by the liberal left media. If even Conservatives are forced to submit to this agenda, then a fatal split in the British Right will have emerged from which it would be difficult to recover, and the principle of humanitarian intervention will all but die out.

Imagine if Reagan and Thatcher had been dissuaded from taking a strong foreign policy stance in the 80s. Would the Soviet Union have crumbled so easily? Would it have crumbled at all?

It is possible that the threat of military action, mainly via aggressive deterrence, saved millions of lives; and it is certain that it freed millions of people from the evil grip of communism.

Even if intervention does not materialise, it is clear the very threat of it is vital for keeping evil regimes in check. It will be a sad day when it is no longer part of the political agenda, and Conservatives must strive to avoid that day.

Elliot Burns is a freelance writer for The Commentator and others. He is also the Director of Political Policy at The Institute for Policy Design

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