British balance-of-power games

British Foreign Policy

Text of talk given by Brendan Gifford to the Labour Party Conference at Blackpool

It seems to me that foreign policy is the matter on which there is necessarily least difference between parties and between successive governments. There is phenomenal continuity in foreign policy between one government and another. There is continuity in British foreign policy from the Revolution of 1688 until just over a hundred years ago. Basically it consisted of this. You had a ruling aristocracy that considered it was something distinctive in the world, that it had something to do with the world. And in order to give itself scope to make something of the world, it played the balance of power game with Europe. The balance of power basically meant stimulating wars in Europe so that European states would not count as a factor on the world scale. That foreign policy was to be justified by what Britain did with the rest of the world. Whether you liked that or disliked it, it was a coherent foreign policy that was intelligently implemented over a period of two hundred years.

I would say that since 1914 Britain has not had a foreign policy in that sense. Obviously you have got to have some relations with other states, but it has not had a foreign policy for the world that was a realistic conception of things, a realisable conception of what ought to be and the will be make it be. Certainly it had that for a couple of hundred years. When Ernest Bevin was in the Foreign Office – and he is about the only real Foreign Secretary there has been since 1914 – he was fully aware of himself as a continuity, even with the notorious Castlereagh and with Salisbury, people who ought e been ogres to him. But because he was Foreign Secretary, and he understood how the world was made, he saw himself as a continuation of Castlereagh and Salisbury, representing Britain on a world scale. He had nothing like the power they had, but he made the best of it.

The rot set in, it seems to me, with Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign of 1879, when, reaching old age, and as part of his conflict with Disraeli, he set British foreign policy on a moral footing. He transferred it from the sphere of interest to the sphere of morality, and that had an enormous impact on a whole generation. It established millenarianism as the medium of foreign policy, and it made good and evil the test of foreign policy. British Christianity, as it was then, or British Liberalism, as it was becoming, was to be the moral standard against which everything was to be measured and the balance of power policy was felt to be odious. It seems to me that that had a fearfully confusing effect on a generation of the people who were conducting Britain. The sheer personal effect of Gladstone on British political life cannot be overestimated. What seems to me to have been an insane act of foreign policy, the declaration of war in 1914 followed from the effect of Gladstone’s millenarianism on the new generation of Liberals who were becoming Liberal, Imperialists. You had a total mishmash, a mixture of moralising with the more empirical viewpoint which the ruling class had held for two hundred years. Unfortunately, the Labour Party was beginning to become aware of the world, as a political force, in that particular generation, and instead of taking its way of looking at things from the Tory Party of the time, or either the Tory or Whig Parties of earlier times, it took it from Gladstonian Liberalism. You have bad this disabling strain of millenarianism underlying all Labour thinking on foreign policy in my experience. Bevin is the exception. Bevin could take the world as it was and use what power he had to try and make the best of it And there were an awful lot of things to be tolerated that he would not approve of, because it was not the business of the entire world to be approved of by Ernest Bevin. He could let a lot of things be. Now, that habit of mind decayed in British political life in general, and it never really existed in the Labour Party because the Party had its world view formed in the generation following Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign.

We talk about the ‘ruling class’, but I do not think that after 1918 you had a ruling class in Britain in the sense that you had had until the late nineteenth century, a class capable of doing sensible things. Whether they were things that you approved of or not, they were realisable things. Its first project (after 1918) was Northern Ireland, and I think in policy terms, Northern Ireland belongs to the foreign sphere. It made lunatic arrangements in Northern Ireland. Sixteen years ago a group of us set about transferring Northern Ireland from the foreign sphere to the domestic sphere. It is part of the state, but it is excluded from the politics of the state, and people coming from Northern Ireland to lobby the Labour Party were in no doubt that because they were coming from outside the political system, they were engaged in a foreign policy exercise. Six years later we have been remarkably successful, as anybody who attended an enormous meeting held earlier in the evening in a hotel on the front would have seen. We were in no doubt as well, all the way along, that what we were in conflict with was essentially the Foreign Office, the bureaucracy of the Foreign Office, that tried to tum every impression we made on an MP, tried to tum it about. Tam Dalyell was up there this evening explaining how the thing had been done to him in order to tum him about. But nevertheless, and it is probably a sign of the decay in the Foreign Office, on the Northern Ireland issue we are succeeding.

Now, as regards the balance of power in Europe, Europe today is not what it was before 1914. It has learned a lot in the interim period. Within British politics it is no longer possible to think on that sort of scale. It was commonplace before 1914. In foreign policy you have to think in a long time scale, and put things into effect over a very long time scale. I do not think that there is a capacity for doing that any longer within British politics. There is in Europe. The purposefulness that there has been behind the European development since 1945 has its roots in the 1920s, when you had groups of German and French intellectuals, who, having fought one another to no good purpose in a world war stimulated by Britain from 1914 to 1918, began to conceive a determination that it would not be done again. In a particular sense the Second World War is a product of the atrocious settlement made at the end of the First World War. Between France and Germany there has been a continuity from the ‘thirties to the ‘fifties. There is undoubtedly a will there, and the will is to ensure that Britain never again plays balance of power politics with Europe. Balance of power politics is what is ingrained in British politicians in their dealings with Europe. The Cold War put it on hold for a while, because the Cold War took precedence over everything else. But as the Cold War began to give way in the late ‘eighties, Thatcher, at a particular moment tried to play the balance of power game again. And this time Thatcher was the casualty, because there is a purpose in Europe that is no longer evident in Britain. The most hopeful thing is that this purpose does exist in Europe, and that there is a historical awareness in Europe of what Britain had done to it over the centuries. While France and Germany, especially, but I would imagine other states allied with them, have an orientation in the world, I do not think Britain really does have an orientation in the world any more, even though it is the second most powerful military state in the world.

The odd thing that has happened over the last few years is that as its economic position has declined relative to other states, and as its domestic politics has become erratic, to say the least, its military weight in the world has increased by virtue of the fact that the Soviet state is no longer really functional as a military power. The most likely war the Red Army is going to be engaged in is a war between segments of what was the Red Army. It is no longer functional as a world army, so to speak. And the Chinese have retreated into their own affairs. Therefore Britain has suddenly become the second strongest military power in the world. It has not got a foreign policy. It is in economic decline, and, from a European viewpoint (and I am sure the Europeans are aware of this), it is a very important matter to contain Britain. They are quite right in thinking that at this juncture Britain needs to be contained. It is not going to be contained by the Labour Party, and I don’t expect to have as much success on this as we had on Labour Party organisation in Northern Ireland. It is a bigger project. And it can only be done by a power outside that is involving Britain in its affairs that has the capacity to contain it. Fortunately military power is a wasting asset, and the more time elapses the less dangerous the situation is. But there is certainly an element in the Tory Party which sees the disparity between Britain’s economic power and its military weight in the world, and would welcome an opportunity to do what it is best at doing, which is using its army to impress other peoples with its power.

With regard to international law, I think the only large-scale object of a foreign policy, the only universal object of a foreign policy today, is the establishment of international law. It needs an entirely different frame of mind to set about establishing a system of international law, from the millenarian frame of mind that Gladstone introduced to British foreign politics, and that the Labour Party learned all too well from Gladstonian liberalism. The phrase “international law” has been bandied about left right and centre for the past two years. Everybody talks about international law, while acting to ensure that there won’t be a system of international law evolving.

I should say that I supported NATO over the last twenty five years, for certain reasons. And over the last few years people within the Labour Party, who would have regarded me as a right-wing reactionary not many years ago, would now regard me as an ultra-leftist because I don’t follow suit with regard to saying nice things about America, or pretending that we have a system of international law. The people within the Labour Party who do the thinking were so disoriented by the millenarian inheritance, that got mixed up with the Marxist inheritance, which is itself anyhow millenarian, that they have been unable to adjust their minds to the post-Cold War world. And in many ways the post-Cold War world is a much more dangerous world than the world that was contained by the Cold War.

The first thing to say about the United Nations is that it was set up to do that Douglas Hurd now wants it to do. It was set up to be a facade on the three great powers that won the second World War. It followed on from the League of Nations. The League of Nations was established, basically, by Britain. The United Nations was established, basically, by America. Neither was intended to be a framework of international law. Britain made it absolutely clear during the process of setting up the League of Nations that it was not going to be bound by it, and that it was going to hold countries by right of imperial conquest. Lord Curzon made that absolutely clear. Along with the League of Nations and the talk of international law connected with the League of Nations, there was possession by right of imperial conquest. Some of these conquests had only been made in 1918.

In 1945 it was basically Roosevelt who set up the United Nations, and he was absolutely clear during the setting up of the United Nations that America was not going to be subject to the United Nations. He got Russian agreement to the setting up of the United Nations by persuading Stalin that it was his way of getting an exemption from anything resembling international law. The League of Nations had been used to criticise the Soviet Union in 1940 and to actually expel it from the League. Before Stalin would agree to get involved in the United Nations, he was very concerned to find out that this could not happen again. Churchill explained this to him in crystal -clear terms. And Churchill, whom you can credit, explains this in his war memoirs: he explained to him that, by virtue of the Veto, the three of them were going to be above the international system that was going to be established under the United Nations. China was added because the United States considered China as a client state at the time. France was added because Churchill wanted a make-weight against China. But if you read any of the real documents about the forming of the United Nations you can be under no misunderstanding that it has anything to do with international law. It was an attempt to set up a system of international authority, that would consolidate the military dominance of the three powers that won the second World War- indeed, basically of the two powers, because Britain was very much a secondary military power in those terms.

When the Soviet Union began to use the Veto, which was only its right – everybody understood that it was going to have a veto – the United States made some gestures towards the establishing of a system of international law, because it controlled most of the states in the United Nations at the time, and it got increasingly irritated by the fact that Molotov would say No, and that would be the end of something. So in 1950 it got a resolution adopted by the General Assembly, the Uniting for Peace resolution, that, if followed through, might conceivably have made the United Nations a framework of international Law. According to this, if the Security Council did not, within 24 hours, deal competently with any matter that arose, a two thirds majority in the General Assembly might deal with it, and might, on a voluntary basis, as it was put, apply military sanctions. If that had been followed through it would have made the General Assembly a real power within the United Nations. According to the Constitution the General Assembly has no power at all within the United Nations.

Now, the first time this was applied was against Britain in the Suez escapade. The United States passed its resolution under this Uniting for Peace resolution. Britain would not acknowledge the validity of that procedure. It pulled out because America was using its economic weight against it, but it made it clear that it was not pulling out because it had been indicted under the Uniting for Peace resolution. And that was basically the end of the Uniting for Peace resolution. It was used again once or twice as a moral gesture. But from that point onwards, the United Nations was the Security Council, and the Security Council was five Permanent Members. The others took it in turns to sit on it and do what was expected of them. Usually nothing was expected of them because the five Permanent Members would not agree.

At the outset there were certain people who took the United Nations in earnest as a forum that would establish international law. One of the basic British books of international law was Oppenheim’s International Law. The 1947 or 1948 edition of it took the Nuremburg Trials in earnest Insofar as there are legal texts for international law, Oppenheim’s was one of the most prominent. They began to write the responsibility of the individual in each state to a higher authority than the state into their textbooks of international law. Anybody who followed the Nuremburg Trials would assume that that was going to happen. It did not happen. It was said at Nuremburg that not only are states to be subject to international law, but individuals within states are also to be subject to international law. All of that followed logically from the Nuremburg Trials. But the states that put on the Nuremburg Trials were clear in their own mind from the start that the trials were basically an act of vengeance against the Germans. You might say it was a merited act of vengeance, but it was an act of vengeance that was enacted by debasing the entire concept of international law. The Nuremburg apparatus was dismantled, and made impossible to activate when the Nuremburg Trials had ended.

The American attitude to international law was dealt with some time back in the 1820s, and it was decreed that international law was part of American domestic law. The effective meaning of that is that American domestic law is international law. The United States has been acting quite consistently with that in recent times, when its Supreme Court handed down a judgement recently that it is legal for the United States government, to kidnap people (not only General Noriega) in other countries and bring them to the United States for trial. United States dome sic law is universal in its application. The ending of the Cold War has developed this. America went into the United Nations perfect! y clear in its own mind was not only immune from any decisions of the United Nations, but that its own domestic law could, if necessary, be applied against the United Nations. America is an absolutely sovereign state, and everything else that it is involved in is subordinate to its own law and its own interests. And America, unlike Britain in lots of ways, takes its law in dead earnest. It knows what law is, and therefore it knows perfectly well that the United Nations is not a system of international law.

I thought that the Kuwait business was an abomination. Not because I had much sympathy for Iraq at the outset, but because the concept of international law was invoked from the very first day against Saddam. I knew perfectly well that the way it was being done would not be conducive to the development of a system of international law. Shortly before the bombing began I heard an issue of Any Questions on the Radio. Ann Clwydd was there, representing the Labour Party. I am not sure whether she was on the front bench at the time. The Labour Party National Executive had passed a resolution with some surprising supporters. People whom I had supposed were utterly left wing had raised their hands in support of the bombing campaign against Iraq in the name of international law. It was clear that Ann Clwydd did not like this. She preferred to talk about East Timor.

Now, nothing could be more relevant than East Timor to the operation in Kuwait and Iraq. It was a small state of pretty well the same size as Kuwait, but not wealthy like Kuwait, that had been conquered by Indonesia about 15 earlier. It had been invaded by Indonesia. It was about to become a state after the Portuguese decolonisation., There was a will there to make it a state,. and its potential status as a state had been recognised by the Security Council. Indonesia invades. The Security council adopts resolutions very similar to the first resolutions against Iraq in Kuwait, and then did not do anything about them. That was standard practise. You adopt Security Council resolutions as moral gestures, and do not do anything about them. The United States did not like the government that would have come into being in East Timor, and the Australian Government was very enthusiastic for the Indonesian invasion. But in legal terms it was pretty well an exact parallel of what had happened in Kuwait. And the process of conquest was still going on. The process of conquest in Kuwait took about 24 hours. The process of conquest in East Timor was still going on 15 years later. And there is just no comparison as regards the number of people killed. The Kuwaiti Army wasn’t there to have any of them killed, but the East Timorese were still fighting.

When Ann Clwydd preferred to talk about East Timor than to talk about the resolutions she had supported for a war against Iraq over Kuwait, the Chairman of Any Questions asked her, did she in that case advocate that Indonesia should be dealt with in the same way that Iraq was being dealt with. She said No.

She was the only Labour front bench spokesman who had addressed the question at all, that I could see. If the Labour Party had said at that juncture that we are supporting the operation against Iraq in Kuwait, on the grounds that it is an international law enforcement operation, but in order to make certain that it actually is an international law enforcement operation, we are also demanding that the Security Council resolutions on East Timor should be put into effect, I assume that the Labour Party could not only have made that a British talking point, but an international talking point. If they had done so, I am quite certain that lots of people in Germany or in France or other places would follow the lead. If they had done that the issue of international law would have been put on the agenda in a very striking way. And if, in reality, the Security Council resolution against Indonesia had been put into effect in the way that the Iraqi one had been put into effect there might have been a development towards international law. A system of international law is not a simple thing to establish. The establishment of any system of law at all is a very painful process, even domestically. And a system of international law is likely to be a very painful process for the first state that is actually subjected to the sanctions of international law. But the fact is, that in the Kuwait operation, when international law was on everybody’s lips, international law was reduced to an utter farce. Far from there being a will on the part of the Security Council to use the Kuwaiti incident to make some small step towards the establishment of a system of international law, they were all crystal clear in their own minds that what they were doing was establishing the Security Council as a system of mere authority which would not brook any infringement of its authoritarian rights by having the curbs of law applied to it They were not going to have the curbs of law applied without their authority to themselves. And they were not going to allow anybody to appeal for the process of law to be applied even against minor states. The whole thing was an exercise in authority. One of the French ministers I heard discussing it on the BBC, to his credit, did not talk about law at all. He said that the object was to establish the authority of the Security Council in not that you would want to support it, but at least he is not debasing the concept of law. He wants to support authority because France will be one of the great powers in the world if the Security Council is made into an authoritarian centre of the world that will apply its authority here, there and everywhere. It is France’s opportunity to be a great power in the world. It is Britain’s opportunity to be a great power in the world.

I don’t know what more I could say about that. · It was the exercise that made it clear that the development of international law has not even begun. The word was made absolutely general and was deprived of content at the same time. It was just a shibboleth that was waved about. In the real world that is not going to work. Either you are going to have a real system of international law that every state is a subject of, that every state can appeal to and that is going to have some kind of executive power that can put the judgements of its courts into operation, or you have got nothing at all, because states are not going to put up with systems of authority being applied to them. Iraq would not do it despite the great disparity of forces. States just will not behave like that.

The other thing is that the very term ‘united nations’ is a misnomer. A ‘nation’ in United Nations terminology means ‘the citizens of a state’. And that is why the United Nations is completely incapable of dealing with anything that is a national conflict in real terms. It can deal with Yugoslavia not by taking nations as subjects but by taking the component parts of a federal state as subjects. The reason they cannot take nations as subjects is because, by all their own precedents, the only definition of a nation is the membership of a state. So there is a logic to what they are doing with Yugoslavia then, taking the internal boundaries of the old state to be states and declaring those boundaries sacrosanct It cannot deal with national movements proper, only with states. Therefore the United Nations is going to be a system of states operated by five states for their own benefit, and that development towards the establishment of a system of international law begins further back than it was three years ago.



This article appeared in January 1993, in Issue 33 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and