How National is the National Interest?


When Anthony Cary first joined the Diplomatic Service there were no job objectives as such; management consultants had yet to take over Whitehall.  Lord Salisbury famously likened a sound foreign policy to “floating lazily downstream occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions”.

Later, of course, objectives were all the rage.  The overall FCO mission statement was “to work for UK interests in a safe, just and prosperous world”. This was required to be on every screen as the system booted.  That is fair enough as an objective, but it has a tension at the heart of it. What if a ‘safe, just and prosperous world’ requires sacrifice of interest in pursuit of a greater good? What, in other words, of enlightened self-interest?  The slogan was meant to galvanise staff to focus on the over-arching task. But Anthony never found it much of a guide to policy.  In any case, what is “the national interest”?

What was it in 1642 when Charles raised his standard at Nottingham? What was it in 1688? What was it, more pertinently, in 2016?

The essential issues Anthony wished to explore are so well illustrated by the Brexit psychodrama that he wanted to look at them through that lens. He admitted it was a a partisan lens, noting that on most issues he found himself on middle ground, but that on Brexit, he found it very hard to see good arguments on the other side.  He never doubted for a moment that leaving the EU would be a huge strategic blunder for this country, as he feels it is indeed proving.

Initially he was less concerned by the economic implications, though creating new obstacles to trade with the UK’s largest market and discouraging foreign investment seemed a counter-intuitive strategy. One way or another he thought the economy could muddle through. In the event, we have been harder hit than he expected, because we chose such a hard form of Brexit, indulging almost in what might be called ‘performative divergence’.

He had been much more worried by the political implications of Brexit, which seemed bound to diminish our influence and reputation. Ironically, in view of the famous Leave slogan, he thought we would lose control, understood as our ability to shape the world around us. He thought our great forebears would be appalled that we were choosing to abandon the leadership of our continent to our traditional rivals. The whole project, in short, seemed to him to be against the national interest.

By Tim Reckmann from Hamm, Deutschland – EU-Austritt, CC BY 2.0,

Part of the problem was that people confused the national interest with symbols and slogans of nationhood. Many were persuaded that to be a “proper Brit” you should be wrapping yourself in the flag, resisting foreigners abroad and condemning contemptible quislings at home for their assault on British traditions and British identity. Up Yours Delors! Bawl at Gaul! (as famous Sun headlines had it).The issue was framed not as an economic and political cost/benefit analysis, but as a contest between:

  • On the one hand: those willing to sacrifice national autonomy (and by implication the national interest) to an incipient European Superstate, and;
  • On the other: self-proclaimed patriots who were determined to resist this erosion of our national sovereignty.

The appeal was not to reason, but to emotion. On one side: citizens of nowhere, a metropolitan elite which had lost touch with ordinary people, traitors and fifth columnists who were ashamed of their country. On the other: the poor put-upon people who had been condescended to and ignored, but now had their chance to stop the rot: to tell the supercilious so-called experts where they could get off.

Later, the charge-sheet against those on the Remain side of the argument was extended. They were undemocratic: seeking to frustrate the “will of the people”, and so on.

Partly, all this reflects the politics/psychology of a referendum (which Julian Critchley once called “the form of plebiscitary democracy favoured by Hitler and Mussolini.”) The whole process encourages “othering”, which has now spread beyond the European issue to wider culture wars. But at root the tragedy stems from two essential misunderstandings. The first is about the concept of sovereignty.  And the second is about the nature of the European Union.

The Concept of Sovereignty

Before our Civil War, sovereignty was exercised in the name of God by Kings claiming divine right.  After Charles lost his head, it was Parliament that asserted its supremacy. But whose interests did Parliament represent? The nation’s. It was after the 30 Years War that the concept of national sovereignty really took shape in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Europe was organised around nation states, and raw pursuit of the national interest was accepted as the sole and self-evident purpose of foreign policy.  This could work. But it required balance of power politics which was inherently unstable, as nations jockeyed for supremacy. The system needed statesmen, but was too open to demagogues. Raw pursuit of national interest easily drifts into ‘my country right or wrong’, with everyone claiming God on their side, as Bob Dylan had it.

In the same way, “patriotism”, as a concept quickly drifts from pride in your nation to jingo-ism: a disparagement of other nations and a determination to best them. Horace Walpole wrote that a good patriot made a bad citizen. He said that a visit to Paris in 1769 had “revived in me a passion for my country’s glory. I must put it out: it is a wicked passion and breathes war.”

Peace under the Westphalian system depended on Alliances – so the notion that we should seek untrammelled sovereignty without obligations was always a fiction. What of NATO and its Article 5 obligations? But systems of interlocking alliances proved unstable, as the First World War demonstrated at unimaginable cost.

19th Century coloured engraving after a water colour by Jean-Baptiste Isabey of the Vienna Congress. Creator:Jean-Baptiste Isabey

The nations did power-brokering, land-grabbing deals, especially after wars – most famously at the Congress of Vienna – but  gradually they came to look for more effective mechanisms for managing their relations.

The League of Nations was the first really ambitious attempt to create international structures to secure peace on the basis of principles rather than simple power. It failed, not least because the USA, having driven the project under President Wilson, never ratified it. In a revisionist history of the League of Nations.  The Guardian’s Susan Pedersen argues that it was nevertheless a big step forward for two reasons. It de-legitimised Empires and could be seen as a test-bed for the more ambitious and enduring liberal international rules-based order that emerged after the Second World War – including what became the European Union.

The Nature of the EU

The great innovation of the post-war European project is that it was conceived – after centuries of rivalry that had drenched the continent in blood; not as a new alliance of nations, but as an effort to secure partnership at a deeper level, by defining and defending common interests and common values, including democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. The real novelty was not just to articulate such objectives but to establish common institutions with real powers to entrench and defend them.   The UK always approached the project as a question of trade and economics. But the purpose was primarily political. From the outset it was conceived as a contribution to the security of the continent.  In The Sleepwalkers, his brilliant account of the slide into the First World War, Christopher Clark suggests that the biggest difference between then and now is that in 1914 “the powerful supranational institutions that today provide a framework for defining tasks, mediating conflicts and identifying remedies were conspicuously absent“.

The tragedy of the 2016 referendum has been the way in which people were successfully convinced  that they were required to make a choice between:

  • national sovereignty – almost national self-respect – (characterised as “taking back control”); or
  • ignominious subservience to a corrupt, incompetent Them, with a capital T, paradoxically represented either as a doomed pipedream of utopians (bound to fail and to break up) or contrariwise, an incipient Superstate (bound to dominate us).

That binary choice is false. Rather the EU is a hybrid federal/confederal system which seeks – or from the UK point of view, sought – to maintain what is best about the nation states (their separate governments, identities, traditions, languages, and proud histories) while overcoming what is worst (mutually destructive trade policies; national protectionism; competitive devaluations; xenophobia and ultimately a tendency to go to war with one another). It confronted the dangers of extreme nationalism by creating democratic institutions that would seek to represent common interests. Indeed, it is the most advanced experiment in collaborative democracy ever attempted.

As a member, we were not capitulating to Them, but extending Us. The project can be understood as a pooling of sovereignty in defined areas. This shocks some nationalists: David Frost talks about how we have now “regained our independence” as if we had forfeited it by accepting that it was to our benefit that some decisions should be reached within a wider polity: that it made sense to minimise regulatory divergence with our neighbours.

The truth is that the EU has been an effective mechanism for achieving national goals far more often than it has been a constraint on effective independence. It was a multiplier of our national potential. If you doubt this, consider Ireland. No-one could seriously argue that Ireland is a diminished state which has lost control of its destiny as a consequence of its EU membership. On the contrary, it is far more confident of itself and of its Irish identity; more able to represent its interests; better able, too, to hold its own in disputes with its larger neighbour, Britain.  In Britain, we are beginning to understand how much less we now weigh in the balance of international affairs (to the US, for a start); and how far we have reduced our capacity to shape the world in which we must make our way.

It is true that, especially in the immediate post-War period, there were Europeans who believed that the nations would inevitably retreat, as an organising principle, before a supranational restructuring of the continent, and perhaps even the globe. There are still some dreamers. But they can dream on. The nation is a hugely powerful idea. Nationalism, especially ethno-nationalism, is a dangerous thing. But national identities are deeply rooted. They need to be celebrated, accommodated, and managed rather than being denied.

Brexitists talk up the threat of an EU Superstate. But that is a Boojum – like the dragon in Coriolanus, that is “feared and talked of more than seen.”  Break-up, dilution or re-structuring is far more likely than a centralised tyranny.

National strength within a strong union

Strong, self-confident and independent nations are consistent with a strong and successful EU, as they are consistent with a strong and effective UN.  Indeed, in the modern world, national interests can only be defined and pursued in a wider international context. Insistence on unfettered national sovereignty is a not a badge of patriotic pride, but an indication of weakness; of a national identity that fears contagion; of a country that has lost confidence in itself (which perhaps explains why the dominant and dismal characteristic of Brexit over the last seven years has been victimhood).

People undoubtedly feel threatened by the concept of an international society to which they are not attracted either by sentiment or tradition. Mrs May spoke disparagingly of ‘citizens of the world’ and Mrs Thatcher worried about pressures of homogenisation. But insofar as we should fear homogenisation, Anthony argued that it was not so much as a consequence of EU integration as the US cultural juggernaut now weaponised by the internet.

Churchill is sometimes cited by nationalists as a champion of British exceptionalism. It is true that in the 1930s he favoured European unity, but thought that Britain had a separate destiny. In a remarkable essay for the Saturday Evening Post in 1930 he wrote that:

“The conception of a United States of Europe is right. Every step taken to that end which appeases the obsolete hatred and vanished oppression, which makes easier the traffic and reciprocal services of Europe, which encourages its nations to lay aside their precautionary panoply, is good in itself –  good for them and good for all…..But we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.”

But Churchill wrote that in 1930, in the context of  Empire. Later he hoped that the Commonwealth could play a post-imperial political role.  Yet Churchill was actually very far-sighted about the limits of sovereignty, and the need to accept obligations in order to secure wider benefits (just as we sacrifice individual freedom when we marry, or accept the legal and conventional restrictions required to maintain a civilised society).

In 1948, at the Congress of Europe, he observed that although closer political unity would involve ‘some sacrifice or merger of national sovereignty’, such a sacrifice might be viewed as “the gradual assumption by all the nations concerned of that larger sovereignty which alone can protect their diverse and distinctive customs and characteristics of their national traditions.” 

In 1950 Robert Schuman proposed some pooling of French and German coal and steel production under a supranational authority. This was the first step towards what became the EEC. In the Commons debate that followed Churchill said: “We are asked in a challenging way: ‘are you prepared to part with any degree of national sovereignty in any circumstances for the sake of a larger synthesis?’ The Conservative and Liberal Parties say without hesitation that we are prepared to consider, and if convinced to accept, the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and safeguards…[We] declare that national sovereignty may be resolutely diminished for the sake of all men in all the lands finding their way home together”.

In other words, Churchill advocated both the integrity of the nation state and the need to share sovereignty – the better to protect the state and to promote its interests.

By the time of his death, when Churchill had come to understand the manifest limitations of the Commonwealth as a substitute for Empire, he had come round to the EEC, and supported the British application.

The tragedy is that so few British politicians really understood the European project – or, if they did, succeeded in conveying it to the British people. Our Parliament, in particular, never really committed. Britain played a full (indeed a particularly influential) role in determining European legislation – but this was successfully portrayed by Brexitists as regulation imposed upon Britain: as Gulliver gradually being incapacitated by Lilliputian tethers.

To be fair to UK politicians, they had a hard job securing popular support for the European project. Unlike most of its European counterparts, the UK was not escaping the ghosts of its recent past. Britain had an international pre-eminence, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, that it could not hope to sustain. There was bound to be relative decline, which poses a difficult problem for politicians. That may help to explain, but it does not excuse the damage we are now doing not just to ourselves but to the international liberal rules-based order to which this country made such a remarkable contribution.

In an interconnected world, nationalism and multilateral engagement do not stand in opposition to one another. They must work in harness. Sovereignty will be exercised at different levels, with delegation sometimes downwards to regional and local authorities, and sometimes upwards to regional groupings, or even global ones. Growing interdependence, that unlovely, and now unloved word ‘globalisation’, drives growth, but it has also generated new problems and resentments; for example trafficking in drugs, arms and people; migratory pressures; environmental degradation; nuclear proliferation and the growing power of placeless trans-national capital.

It is in the interest of every nation that the whole community of nations should address such problems more effectively, and continue to develop structures of law and practice that encourage co-operative national strategies.

Anthony concluded that he has been fortunate to live his life in the context of the international order that was created by the victorious powers after World War 2. It was rooted in confident assumptions about the desirability, universal applicability and gradual ascendancy of democracy; respect for human rights; open, rules-based relations between states; and free trade.  He regretted that Britain’s reversion to a spavined, backward-looking focus on sovereignty and national exceptionalism was eroding that legacy. One of our greatest challenges, perhaps, is to develop a more outward-looking, inclusive understanding of the concept of national interest in an interconnected world


Anthony Cary, was a diplomat who served as chef de cabinet to Chris Patten in the European Commission, and later as British Ambassador to Sweden and High Commissioner to Canada. He is Chairman of the Canada-UK Council. He was a Harkness Fellow from 1980 to 82.