ON MARCH 20th 2003 Britons woke to footage of fireballs over Baghdad. The first cruise missiles, launched from American ships in the Persian Gulf, had hit the city some five hours before. Tony Blair, the prime minister, addressed the nation:
“The threat to Britain today is not that of my father’s generation. War between the big powers is unlikely. Europe is at peace. The Cold War already a memory. But this new world faces a new threat: of disorder and chaos born either of brutal states like Iraq, armed with weapons of mass destruction, or of extreme terrorist groups. Both hate our way of life, our freedom, our democracy.”
The comments deliberately echoed Mr Blair’s speech in Chicago in 1999 in which the prime minister, flush with success in Kosovo, had outlined his doctrine:
“We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other counties if we want to innovate. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”
The ensuing chaos overshadows the idealism of that 1999-2003 era: thousands of Iraqis dead, 179 British service personnel killed, £9 billion spent. Ten years on, the country is now free—an elegant, circular parliament, designed by London-based architects, will soon rise from the rubble of the al-Muhanna airport—but it remains violent and divided. The number of Iraqis living in Britain has jumped from 32,000 in 2001 to some 250,000 today (according to the British Iraqi Association)—a measure of the mass emigration provoked by the war. Baghdad has decamped to Wood Green, Finsbury Park and Ealing.
The experience has shocked Britons, turning a once gung-ho nation against intervention.According to YouGov, the proportion backing the war has slipped from 53% to 27% since 2003. The new majority is hardening: a recent ICM poll showed that more Britons think that “military interventions solve little, create enemies and generally do more harm than good” than reckon that “through its armed forces, Britain generally acts as a force for good in the world.”
Now, despite the horrors of Syria’s civil war, 66% of Britons oppose military action to overthrow Bashar al-Assad (compared to 39% opposed to intervention in Iraq in 2003). 60% even oppose military deployment purely tasked with protecting civilians. Britons are now distinctly isolationist by comparison with their European neighbours: YouGov shows that 10% fully back intervention in Syria (compared with 27% of Germans, 29% of French people and 30% of Swedes) and 24% completely oppose it (compared with 16% of Germans, 11% of French people and 8% of Swedes).
More than that, the traumas of Iraq have banished foreign policy from the public square. Searching “ British foreign policy ” or “Foreign Office” on the monitor Google Trends shows a steady decline in online references to the terms since the mid-2000s. Today, in 2013, the Foreign Office is discussed roughly half as frequently as it was in 2007 and a quarter as frequently as in 2005. At the foreign secretary’s speech at the 2012 Conservative Party conference—the party’s first since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, no less—your correspondent looked out on a half-empty conference hall. Relative to the early 2000s, few commentators (with notable exceptions, such as Jonathan Freedland, David Clark and Philip Collins) talk much about foreign policy. The economic slowdown has understandably distracted attentions. And, though active on the world stage, David Cameron has a temperamentally Conservative aversion to big ideas, let alone anything so grand as a doctrine.
And yet… Britain remains one of the major democratic military powers. Though coloured by subsequent events in Iraq, Mr Blair’s speech in Chicago is still salient. In a globalising world in which events in “far-away countries of which we know little” can so easily impinge on life at home, a near-silence on foreign policy is inadvisable. Leaders need popular, a priori doctrines in order to stimulate discussion and build principled mandates for action on long-term, unpredictable challenges. Academic debates on failed states, Iranian, Syrian and North Korean belligerence, China’s rise and Britain’s nuclear deterrent all nod to “unknown unknowns”, for example. The Arab Spring in particular exemplifies the sudden geopolitical shudders released by new ideas and technologies.
So it is surely time for a new Chicago speech—one for an age of Arab rebels with YouTube accounts, of drone warfare, of ever-mightier BRICs. David Cameron’s comments on Mali in January—committing British forces to the region in the name of domestic security—were an eloquent first step. Douglas Alexander, the Labour shadow foreign secretary, is also thinking afresh about the country’s place in the world: “while the experience of Iraq should inform our foreign policy, it shouldn’t paralyse it,” he rightly notes.