The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been renowned for its expertise on foreign climes and cultures so it really is mysterious why British foreign policy seems currently to be focused on destabilising areas where its interests require stability. Perhaps the more pertinent question is why American foreign policy is all about making the world more uncertain, when its interests seem to depend on a certain world. That must be the more pertinent question because to a large extent British foreign policy is a shadowing of American policy.
Indeed the foreign policy of “Old Europe” when independent from the United States, can be best represented by the Congress of Vienna, where British statesman, Lord Castlereagh, was instrumental in ensuring an agreement that secured the existing political establishment and prevented a major European war for a century. This was an anti-revolutionary and anti-nationalist treaty, which worked in its goal of achieving peace.
Today the United States take the lead in Western foreign policy and have adopted policies in recent years that have destabilised the Middle East (particularly through the invasion of Iraq) and thereby allowed Islamist extremism to gain a foothold in the region and also given Iran the opportunity to fill the new vacuum. It was apparent to the most naïve of foreign-policy observers that remove the strongman Saddam Hussein (hideous as he was) and a factional and internecine power struggle between religious groups would result.
Despite the example of that consequent bloody civil-war, the United States have recently abandoned their ally Hosni Mubarak to a revolution. This has sent two messages to the world – that the West does not object to revolution as a means of seizing political power and secondly, that it will not stand by those who take the political risk of allying themselves to the West.
This is not to defend the two dictators, Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak; rather, it is to point out that being rid of brutal strongmen at all costs, even bloody revolution and civil war, is not always right or justifiable. In Iraq and Egypt, not only were there all the usual risks of revolution – bloody civil war, persecution of minorities, a far worse dictator arising – but, there was also the looming threat of political Islam just waiting for an opportunity, with all its hostility to our interests.
The latest manifestation of the failure of the West to speak out against revolution was the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine. No doubt the deposed government was especially corrupt and toadied to Russia, but it was elected for a term and there was a mechanism of a general election, when voters would have had the opportunity to throw out the crooks. Even when there was a possibility of political compromise, the West seemed to pull the rug from under the negotiations. On the face of it, supporting the Pro-Western revolutionaries seemed more coherent than Middle Eastern policy, but the unintended outcome – a more dominant Russia in the region – shows again that supporting destabilisation is always the high-risk strategy.
This strange foreign policy emanates from the United States and the only explanation (given Western interests have been harmed so much in the Middle East as a result) is a romantic attachment to the idea of revolution. It is here argued that through a misunderstanding of its own history, perhaps even the “Hollywoodisation” of its own history, in the eyes of a section of America, the revolutionary’s cause is always just. Well, one only needs to look at real history to see that real revolutions are bloody and destroy custom and morals. They mean a nation state suffers a sort of ontological violence, because its genesis as a revolutionary state was through violence. The French Revolution led to the Terror and then to Bonaparte. The Russian Revolution led to the Bolsheviks and then the terror of Stalinism. Revolution is rarely the way to achieve stable government.
Dominant American thought imagines their own creation as a state and concludes that throwing aside of custom, law and convention leads to a sort of secular freedom. Well, there was not an “American Revolution”, there was only an American War of Independence. That is why the United States emerged as stable and democratic. The American, slave-owning establishment broke away from the rule of an island across an ocean, but it took with it a political and legal heritage – representative democracy (as opposed to direct democracy) and the common law. It continued as a functioning state after a war of independence. There was no one to terrorise as the remote oppressors were the other side of the ocean. The American establishment continued with the reins of power, but independent of that remote, previous rule.
Indeed where American politics breaks down, such as in the gridlock between President and Congress, is down to those elements of the constitution based upon abstract, French theory of separation of powers, rather than reliance on inherited precedent.
Where the United States are weak is not through their relative newness as a state, but through the fact that they came into existence at just the time when Europe was smashing its table of values. It therefore took on board the new enlightenment secularism, writing a constitution that set in stone a valueless or neutral society. Perhaps it is these origins that explain why the United States continue with an apparently overly-optimistic and simplistic view of other cultures, despite the experience of their own bloody civil war.
This is not to suggest American people (as opposed to the Washington establishment) are in any way naïve. Many on the American Right recognise the danger of existing under a secular or neutral constitution. That is why there are campaigns for the Ten Commandments to be placed in schools, despite the historic exclusion of religion from the public square. Meanwhile in Europe, with our heritage of values that have shaped our own constitutions, we are far more complacent and arrogant than many Americans about the encroaching of secularism.
It was an American, T S Eliot who warned of the dangers of a neutral society and made the positive case for a Christian society. It is American Catholics today who are campaigning for one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest Christian apologists, G K Chesterton, to be canonised.
It is of course difficult to fully understand the history of another state, but it is easier for us as British to understand the United States because they were once legally connected with this polity and they adapted this nation’s institutions and laws to a new continent. If it is accepted that the United States have misunderstood their own genesis, this would explain its seemingly irrational belief that revolution will lead to pro-Western democracies, as opposed to extremist states bent on hostility to its and our interests. One can only hope American schools start to teach their children about the War of Independence instead of the American Revolution and that we will see a different, more historically aware foreign policy from a future generation.