Vote Leave, Take Ukraine: Boris, Vladimir Putin, and Britain’s vision for the world.
Why does Boris Johnson love Vladimir Putin? This question is important to the vote you cast today. For prominent Outers, Russia’s leader practices what they preach for a post-Brexit Britain.
The Leave campaign is often accused of not explaining what our future would be like if we left the EU, but as far as foreign policy is concerned, you can work out its view. If we want to successfully pursue our national interests, then we need to shed nuisance international obligations and increase our potential room for manoeuvre. With the referendum, we have an opportunity to get rid of a big obstacle to this goal: the rules that we created with our European friends to underwrite democracy, fairness, and the rule of law across the continent. In his weekly Telegraph column, Mr. Johnson regularly argues that these allies conspire to frustrate British interests. Both the historian Andrew Roberts and the MP Penny Mordaunt have gone so far as to compare them to Napoleon and the Nazis respectively. Clearly, it’s time for us to escape these chains — even if it means isolating ourselves. ‘True leadership does sometimes feel isolating’, Ms. Mordaunt has admitted, yet Britain ‘has never suffered for it.’ In Mr. Johnson’s view, we need to start ruthlessly pursuing our interests alone, not ‘refer all decisions to someone else.’ This is the starting point of our free future — and luckily, Vladimir Putin has shown us the way.
Like the ideal prince, Mr. Putin pursues his country’s interests with no regard for rules. Unlike the ‘ineffective’ West (to use Mr. Johnson’s word), Russia has few obligations and therefore total room for manoeuvre. In his landmark biography of the great 19th Century statesman Otto von Bismarck, the historian Otto Pflanze wrote that his skill was ‘attaining and preserving freedom of choice’, then using it to frustrate others’ interests and promoting his own. Mr. Putin has a similar talent, it is claimed, and this is what Leave loves. In 2014, when asked which world leader he most admired, Mr. Farage replied: ‘As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin. The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant.’ Similarly, in a column the other month, Mr. Johnson applauded him for his ‘ruthless clarity’ in backing the al-Assad regime. The fact that this Russian prince has violently redrew Europe’s borders for the first time since Adolf Hitler is excused — regrettably, of course, but excused all the same.
Putin’s example is one that Leave’s leaders want to follow in order to make us great again. It’s been said that both Britain and Russia regard each other as discredited Great Powers in terminal decline. Given that a populist strongman ruthlessly pursuing its interests has seemed to work for the latter, maybe something similar will work here? Unfortunately, such an approach would end decades of traditional British foreign policy — one that has already made us pretty great. In their recent report about the referendum, authors Sunder Katwala and Steve Ballinger claimed that Remain has ‘almost nothing to say’ about England and English identity. Hopefully introducing the English School into the debate begins to correct this error…
Since the 1950s, this school of thought has tried to carve a ‘rational’ space in between realism and liberal internationalism. Whereas realists talk of an anarchic world made up of nation-states that are only concerned with their own success, rationalists argue that there is an international society in which countries accept certain rules of the game. Some rules are expressed through institutions like the UN and the International Court of Justice; others are concepts like diplomacy, sovereignty, and treaties. Therefore, whereas realists believe in ruthless pursuit of the national interest (raison d’état), the English School contends that it pays to make the rules work (raison de système). Unlike liberals, however, rationalists argue that a society of states is different from the sort of world government underpinning dreams of a European superstate. One scholar has described rationalism as ‘the law and order and keep your word men’; another as ‘British realism’. The latter is especially apt.
We have a long rationalist tradition, the justification for which has been brought to the fore by this referendum. In the late 19th Century, one prominent German nationalist complained that Britain had shaped maritime law into ‘a system of privileged piracy.’ From the League of Nations to the UN and NATO, British diplomats have tried to create institutions to boost our influence — especially as our imperial power declined. In his first big speech as Foreign Secretary, William Hague argued that the Coalition would reinvigorate our involvement in the EU and other multilateral organisations in order to overcome the challenges posed by emerging economies. And when he first made the case for Remain, David Cameron framed it as making the EU’s rules pay for Britain. By staying in, we will help ‘make the decisions on trade and security that determine our future.’
If you want to imagine the rationalism of the English School, picture the British ship of state slowly building up a great convoy of vessels to travel the world and dropping anchor in the best ports. Although we don’t always choose the destinations, we often chart the course. Yet Leave want us to break away from both this convoy and our rationalist heritage.
Today, you have an opportunity to choose two visions of Britain’s foreign policy. If you vote to stay in the EU, you will endorse what we have done for at least a hundred years: furthering our interests by creating a rules-based international order and making the rules pay. Alternatively, you can pick Johnson and Farage’s (ironically European) realism. They are both legitimate approaches to the world, but there is something truly British — indeed, English — about our traditional policy and I feel we would regret losing it.
So if you haven’t voted already, please vote Remain.