In the United States foreign policy is made by elite consensus, but in Britain, as in China, it is made in conclave. The nexus of think-tanks, government institutions and lobbyists that shapes American strategy has much to be said against it (there is nothing democratic about ‘the blob’) but at least its depredations are out in the open. Corporate bids for influence are visible, for the most part.
The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence is chaired by the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and its other members include representatives from Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Oracle. WestExec Advisors, a company founded by Anthony Blinken and other veterans of the Obama administration, has grown in influence during his tenure as Biden’s secretary of state.
In Britain, by contrast, important decisions, such as sending an aircraft carrier to loiter in the South China Sea, or increasing the nuclear weapons stockpile, appear fully formed without public discussion. It is often unclear even where decisions are being made.
In 2010, David Cameron’s government set up the National Security Council, in what appeared to be a formalisation of the conclave (as well as a snub to the Foreign Office). The council would be attended by senior cabinet ministers. It would have its own staff, the national security secretariat, which would be larger than the Foreign Office policy unit. The national security adviser would serve as the prime minister’s Kongming on international matters. The current incumbent is Stephen Lovegrove, a former banker and the first non-Foreign Office veteran to get the job.
In practice, the role of the NSC has been less clear. The principle of public exclusion has certainly held, to the extent that Theresa May sacked Gavin Williamson as minister of defence in 2019 for allegedly informing the Sunday Times about an NSC decision to allow Huawei to participate in building Britain’s 5G infrastructure.
Over the past few months, parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has been engaged in an inquiry into ‘the national security machinery’. Cameron, May and Michael Gove were all called to give evidence, along with former national security advisers, foreign policy grandees and a former US national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster.
Peter Ricketts, the chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee under Tony Blair and Cameron’s first national security adviser, noted that the NSC had correctly identified pandemic outbreak as a serious risk, but there had been reluctance ‘to spend serious money on redundant capacity that would be useful if an emerging threat happened’. Philip Hammond, the former defence secretary, foreign secretary and chancellor, said it was a ‘huge mistake to sacrifice security for transparency’.
The most interesting contributions came from a former permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Simon McDonald. Now retired, McDonald had some fun at the expense of empty civil service ‘doctrines’, argued against superior private sector competence, and made some valid criticisms of the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published earlier this year. He also noted that Britain used to believe it had ‘synthesised’ prosperity and security in its China policy, but has since been disabused of that notion.
The inquiry’s final report was a testament to how far management speak has penetrated the British establishment. The language of communications, ‘robust risk management processes’ and ‘cross government working’ reigned. The conclusions were evasive: the committee was concerned by the absence of the secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy from the NSC, but said very little about the way strategy is made in ‘Global Britain’.
The national security inquiry was conducted during the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The British establishment has shown great willingness to decry the Taliban takeover, which was beyond its control, but given little consideration to the original invasion and occupation, which it could have avoided entirely. This is in keeping with the tendency to avoid examining the effects of Britain’s relationship with the US.
As a result, questions that ought to be asked of British foreign policy go unarticulated. Why did the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ (to use the Cabinet Office’s preferred term) become a British priority? Why is the Royal Navy sailing ships through the Taiwan Strait? Why is Britain conducting military training programmes in the Persian Gulf and ten countries from Gambia to Somalia? Why did the UK become so heavily involved in the atrocities committed in Yemen?
Earlier this year, the Economist noted that the outline of Britain’s ‘post-Brexit foreign policy’ appeared set: ‘defence spending up, aid outlays down’. It is not a flattering picture. But talk of Britain as a ‘nimble power’ – or a ‘global power’, in Lovegrove’s words – persists. It elides the fact that the impetus for so many decisions about British foreign policy come from a desire to maintain lieutenant rank with the US.
‘I think there were moments,’ Cameron bragged in his evidence to the inquiry, when President Obama ‘actually thought’ the UK and US national security advisers ‘were one person’. That is the dream of the contemporary British leader.