FR promotes writing that challenges the narrative of UK decline, champions NATO and the Anglo-American Special Relationship, recognises the enduring primacy of the sovereign nation-state in world politics, engages with first-order questions of military power, and explores the opportunities (not just the risks) presented by Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency – both from a Western and non-Western angle.
We believe that, on balance, the basic principles and structures of the post-war international system co-created by the United States and Britain have served the West well – but reform is needed. The systemic realities of global power and the cultural-political outlook of society (particularly in the West) have changed so much over the past two generations that they are now out of kilter with current grand-strategic assumptions and operating concepts.
But we do not believe that radical change or revolutionary approaches in foreign and defence policy are likely to lead to enduring solutions to current strategic challenges. FR would rather focus, in a conservative fashion, on preserving what works and prudently adapting the rest to what is required today. This includes recovering some of the clarity of analysis and robust pragmatism that used to be part of Western statecraft but have fallen into disuse or disgrace in our highly ideological age.
The starting point for this project is the recognition that the West’s post-Cold War strategic record is very poor. It consists of a long list of naïve illusions, ideological delusions, hubristic mistakes and sheer incompetence. From the “end of history”, through the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles, to the “surprising” resurgence of Russia or the self-defeating mantra of “more Europe”, establishment thinking has consistently failed on all key questions of strategy over the past thirty years. A rich and strong West has long been able to absorb such failures with negligible impact on its collective prosperity and security. Now that cushion has worn out, and strategic errors are becoming unaffordable.
Will the same political and expert elites who brought us here deliver a markedly different performance over the next thirty years? They must do – and Foreign Relations hopes to assist in that task by joining other next-generation discussion forums in re-booting transatlantic strategic thinking. There is an urgent need to root out untested assumptions and to recover some of the hard-nosed competitive instincts and modes of (especially Anglo-American) statecraft that have worked well in the past.
We are concerned that too much of the Western foreign policy and defence conversation is disconnected from the hard realities of relative power balances in the 21st century, focusing on form over substance and taking an elite Davos view of global affairs. This creates space for confusion, especially when paired with an incomplete or incorrect reading of history. Globalism is therefore often mistaken for internationalism, appeasement for détente, risks for threats, values for principles, adversaries for competitors, and even war for peace.
More worrying still, in the words of Henry Kissinger, is the failure “to establish coherence between our foreign policy and our domestic situation.” This requires shared values but, if anything, the view of establishment elites is increasingly out of touch with that of ordinary voters. Nothing illustrates this better than the official report of the 2018 Munich Security Conference (the “Davos” of the foreign policy community), which denounced the “illiberal understanding of Western civilisation, based on history, culture, and religion instead of liberal values and democratic achievements.” Such radical new re-definitions of the very meaning of Western civilisation are not part of a separate “culture war” taking place elsewhere in society and thus able to be safely ignored in strategic debates. On the contrary, they set the terms for top-level assessments of Western interests and go to the very heart of foreign policy-making. Finding a way to bridge the cultural gap between elite thinking and the wider national feeling and principles is one of the great challenges facing the foreign policy community today.
In their turn, many contemporary critics of Davos Man are all too often willing to embrace some of the more extreme and unprincipled versions of realpolitik which run counter to the wiser and nobler traditions of Western statecraft. They scoff at notions such as human rights, responsibility to protect, and “liberal values” in general, failing to see how championing them serves the national interest. Such foreign policy revolutionaries are unafraid of chaos. They put so little stock in the current political and strategic architecture of the West – with its alliances, assumptions, principles and policies – that they would even welcome its collapse. And they would certainly be willing to upend it in pursuit of their favourite radical “realist” projects, whether isolationism or, on the contrary, rushed and enthusiastic engagement with old, implacable foes. Such visions of grand, sudden solutions to complex, long-running problems betray a kind of magical thinking that is the very opposite of realism.
The best path forward, which Foreign Relations looks to travel, is that which navigates between liberal conceit and radical disruption while keeping the shore of reality in firm view.