Toby Melville / reuters The Houses of Parliament in London, November 2015.

Realism in British Foreign Policy

Looking back at the foreign policies of Britain and the United States since 1800 one sees two strands woven closely together-the strands of idealism and realism. In both countries, governments, parliaments and peoples have been happiest when these two elements have been brought together in apparent harmony. Take for example two quotations from nineteenth-century England:

We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. . . . With every British Minister the interests of England ought to be the shibboleth of his policy.

And then again:

I hold that the real policy of England is to be the champion of justice and right: pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks justice is, and whenever she thinks that wrong has been done.

The point of interest in these quotations is that they were spoken by the same man in the same speech without any sense of contradiction. They were the words of Palmerston in the House of Commons in 1848; but I am sure that both quotations could be matched by almost any Foreign Secretary or Secretary of State between that time and now.

Over much of this period it has in fact been possible for idealism and realism to run fairly well together. For example, in Palmerston's time the interests of England, as well as its liberal conscience, dictated that England should support those liberal and national movements which created the nation-states of Europe as we see them today. At the turn of the century, for a comparatively brief period, idealistic belief in Britain's mission overseas combined with a keen sense of political and commercial opportunity to create a positive imperial policy. After the Second World War a different brand of idealism combined with a realistic sense of the change in Britain's power to produce the peaceful transfer from a colonial empire

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