David Cameron recently described Jeremy Corbyn’s support for nuclear disarmament as a threat to national security. During his premiership, Gordon Brown argued for sweeping reforms to tackle global challenges such as climate change, poverty and the failing banking system, all in the name of ‘the national interest’. But how should we evaluate such political rhetoric? Adam Humphreys highlights the distinction between reformist and conservative reasoning in deciding what a nation really needs.
When it comes to evaluating claims such as those made by Gordon Brown on new global challenges, a degree of scepticism is initially in order. Politicians are prone to aggrandizing visions. This temptation may have been particularly strong for Brown in the wake of the “election that never was” and the collapse of Northern Rock. Some academics are also sceptical of claims about the national interest, noting that they operate primarily at the level of rhetoric. When a politician claims that a policy is in the national interest, this may just be another way of saying: “Support me!” Worse still, it may be a way of deflecting further scrutiny of the policy.
Certainly, competing for support is the essence of politics in liberal democratic systems. It is natural that politicians will seek to have the mantle of “the national interest” on their side. That is not the end of the story, however. For why is it that some claims about the national interest resonate more than others? Consider how Jeremy Corbyn’s support for unilateral nuclear disarmament enables the government to play the national interest card. Branding Corbyn a threat is rhetoric, of course, but why is it effective? The answer must be that it taps into a widespread, if inchoate, acceptance that Britain’s nuclear deterrent makes a contribution to our security and hence that maintaining it is in the national interest.
David Cameron’s tweet linking the election of Jeremy Corbyn to national security
We therefore need a means of evaluating claims about what is in the national interest. Is David Cameron right that Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to national security? Was Gordon Brown right that global reform had become a core national interest? If not, why not?
The substance of a claim that a policy is in the national interest lies in the idea that it is likely to promote a widely accepted underlying goal. We therefore need to examine not only what goals a policy is intended to advance, but also the means-ends reasoning which links the policy to the fulfilment of those goals.
An account of how policies promote underlying goals can, crudely, start either with policies or goals. Consequently, two basic patterns of reasoning can underpin claims about the national interest. I label these reformist and conservative. Reformist reasoning begins by identifying desirable national goals and asks how they are best promoted under existing or likely future conditions. Conservative reasoning begins with existing national goods and the policies which promote them and infers that, appropriately adapted to changed circumstances, those policies continue to be in the national interest.
Examples of conservative reasoning are to be found in the frequent claims that a policy is in the national interest because it will maintain Britain’s standing in the world. When spelled out, the contention is that (i) Britain’s current levels of prosperity and security are in part due to Britain’s ability to punch above her weight internationally; (ii) the favoured policy, such as renewing Trident, will help Britain to retain that ability; and (iii) the favoured policy is in the national interest. By contrast, Gordon Brown often utilised reformist reasoning. At the 2009 Copenhagen summit, for example, he reasoned that if humanity wished to survive, given the threat of climate change, it must be in the national interest of all states to favour a binding treaty.
It is not necessarily the case that Labour politicians employ reformist reasoning and Conservative politicians employ conservative reasoning. Tony Blair often stressed that he would maintain Britain’s traditional foreign policy strengths. In practice, however, the New Labour years were notable for the emergence of explicit reformist reasoning in official documents. Foreign and Commonwealth Office white papers typically began by identifying the core foreign policy goals from which policy would flow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these goals were both vague and prosaic. After all, who would disagree that security and prosperity are a good thing? Yet whereas the coalition government’s National Security Strategy emphasised the constancy of Britain’s interests, the reformist reasoning employed by New Labour opened the door to a deeper transformation in Britain’s national interest.
Gordon Brown embraced this possibility. The novelty of his foreign policy vision lay not in his global deal-making, but rather in his insistence that all nations need to reform how they think about their interests. Indeed, he demonstrated once and for all that the content of the national interest need not be limited to its traditional focus on national security, narrowly construed.
The question of whether Brown’s pursuit of global reform would have served British security and prosperity better than David Cameron’s emphasis on competing more effectively in a ‘global race’ is ultimately a counterfactual one. Yet one feature of Brown’s foreign policy that has survived better than most is his emphasis on development spending. Here, too, he employed reformist reasoning, arguing that development is a means to global growth and prosperity. This may seem obvious, but the way he presented the argument highlights an important point of political contestation.
Policies pursued in the national interest are often contrasted with policies pursued out of moral obligation. Where a policy is new, as with Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNP on overseas aid, it is unlikely to be encompassed by conservative reasoning about the national interest. It is more likely, instead, to be identified as a moral imperative extending beyond the national interest. The risk, of course, is that such imperatives become a target when austerity bites. Such opposition is harder to generate if such policies are construed as a core national interest. For Brown, the coincidence of ethics and interests in a globalized world was not just a slogan, but had real political consequences.
Note: This article is based on research just published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations and represents the views of the author and not those of the British Politics and Policy blog nor of the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.
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