The Henry Jackson Society (HJS) is a British organisation that wants to spread “liberal democracy” across the world through an interventionist policy. It posits that the United States and the European Union – under British leadership – must “shape the world more actively” and, to this end, “[maintain] a strong military with global expeditionary reach.” The HJS Principles are supported by eminent British journalists, intellectuals, politicians and military men, such as Gerard Baker, assistant editor of The Times, Prof. Vernon Bogdanor of Oxford University, Colonel Tim Collins, the commander of the First Battalion Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq in 2003, Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, Jamie Shea, NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for External Relations, Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, Michael Gove MP, the Shadow Minister for Housing, David Willetts MP, the Shadow Education Secretary, and others.
The HJS manifesto “The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century,” written by a group of eight young academics based at Cambridge University, has just been published by the London think tank The Social Affairs Unit (SAU). The authors argue that it is time for Britain to “reclaim the noble tradition of liberal interventionism.”
Credit is due to the Social Affairs Unit for enabling the publication and dissemination of controversial opinions, so necessary to the broader political debate. The British Moment makes a determined and eloquent case for not less but more British involvement in world affairs. While this argument may be a little more popular than polls would suggest, it is certainly not mainstream. It is the stuff of hardened policy wonks, not of politicians reliant on their constituents’ votes. And it is remarkably refreshing for it.
The HJS is named after Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson (1912-1983), the American isolationist-turned-interventionist, and they maintain his absolute conviction that democracy is morally superior to the alternative forms of government. This not only provides an ideological homeland for those on the political right, but also – as Oliver Kamm, argued forcefully in Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy (also published by the SAU) – for leftists who have found themselves abandoned by their comrades (historically the real proponents of the spread of global democracy and real freedom).
The HJS are noble and highly optimistic. They believe Britain still can and should be Great, with a major role to play in uniting the strong democracies behind the one cause (specifically reconciling the US and the EU). They remind us that principled political action is ingrained in British foreign policy, citing the intervention against slave-trading as a prime example. And – to set minds at rest – while advocating military intervention where necessary, they want Iraq to be the last large-scale military intervention in the Middle East, not the beginning of a chain.
“We are not Jacobins,” they cry. But methinks the young academics do protest too much. The HJS are hardliners, “liberal interventionism” in common parlance being a direct translation for “willingness to invade.” And they are talking about going to war to free their oppressed brethren, in a very (French) revolutionary way.
Unlike modern Tories, they maintain, theirs is not a “realist” foreign policy: Jackson’s fundamental moral principles, to which they adhere, make it clear that there is no moral parity between democratic nations and undemocratic ones. There should be no deals with dictators. The UN, therefore, is by implication deeply flawed in treating all states as equals. But The British Moment insists that this is not simply a “utopian” or “evangelical” stance; rather it is overturning strategically and idealistically ineffectual realist trends – the sort of trends which got us into so much difficulty in the Gulf, the Balkans and elsewhere in the last two decades.
They argue that we in the West have gone too far, demanding moral standards of ourselves that we do not of the Saddams, Osamas and Mugabes of this world. This is certainly not hard to find – the media are rightly criticised for fuelling this bad habit – but it begs the troubling question: if we object to all “evil” nations, why in fact do we tackle so few, and who decides the pecking order?
The British Moment tries to pre-empt argument over the very grey areas, such as how one makes sense of armed intervention if one does not then impose democracy on people. The unconvincing assumption (a la Fukuyama) is that democracy – even a “locally and culturally specific” democracy – will inevitably take root as the preferred system of government of all free(d) peoples. As Rory Stewart’s recent Occupational Hazards makes plain, this mistaken assumption is by no means the exclusive preserve of pro-democracy zealots. That people want freedom from tyranny (to quote Tony Blair) is undeniable; but that they all see this “freedom” manifesting itself in liberal democracy is not so clear.
Unsurprisingly, the HJS find themselves forced to accept certain levels of realism: “sometimes we have to compromise.” And they criticise, for example, hardliners who would risk civil liberties in the name of security. But if all their themes are followed to their logical conclusions, they seem to be suggesting that we disregard our alliance with the US (“rendition,” for example, being totally unjust) while arguing for the inclusion of Turkey in the EU, on the grounds of cultural strategy. And only on paper can you cut – as they suggest – EU trade deals with China in order to enforce a blockade of Iran without turning a blind eye to the issue of human rights.
For all the difficulties of turning any theory into practice, the moral core of this book is compelling, and it is well worth reading carefully (the chapter on Britain’s role in Africa is particularly good), regardless of personal politics. With the very real prospect of a Conservative government on the electoral horizon, anyone with an interest in foreign policy would do well to acquaint themselves with the views of the Henry Jackson Society and its various eminent signatories.
The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century – A Manifesto of The Henry Jackson Society
The Social Affairs Unit (SAU), London, 2006, £13.99
ISBN 1 904863 15 9