Brexit, the Blob, and Global Britain

By Niles A. Webb

Defending Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq, historian Andrew Roberts invoked the man who told Britain to fear Hitler but was scorned until events vindicated him. ‘For Churchill, this apotheosis came in 1940 [when Hitler invaded France]; for Tony Blair, it will come when … hundreds of weapons of mass destruction are unearthed’ in Iraq. [1] Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Apotheosis never came.

Analogies between Nazi Germany and Saddam’s dictatorship were frequently drawn by advocates of the Iraq War. This argumentative strategy was not unusual. Politicians frequently rely on highly moralistic narratives of history to legitimise foreign policies. But when those narratives collapse, so too does the legitimacy of the policies and their architects – as Blair would learn. This lesson should be heeded by the Conservatives seeking to redefine London’s post-Brexit world role under the banner of ‘Global Britain’, whose moralistic gloss on Britain’s contemporary history is being undermined from an unlikely quarter: public historians taking aim at ‘the Blob’.

The term was first coined in 2016 by Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor and refers to the government officials, think tankers and academics who shape American foreign policy. For Rhodes, the disastrous Iraq War exemplified the Blob’s handiwork. [2] The term has become shorthand for experts who regurgitate the same failed strategies to transform the world into a liberal utopia through excessive reliance on military force whilst failing to serve American interests. Political scientist Stephen Walt has extensively anatomised this ‘foreign policy elite’ in a 2018 book which names and shames countless individuals and think tanks complicit in America’s ‘dismal record’ on foreign policy. [3]

Public historians have weighed in on this challenge to the Blob. Andrew Bacevich, for instance, identifies ‘incompetence at the highest levels, compounded by hubris, negligence, and an inability to learn’. [4] Deeply critical of the Blob’s reliance on force, Bacevich is president of the recently founded Quincy Institute which calls for a ‘less militarized and more cooperative foreign policy’. [5]

Stephen Wertheim, a Quincy Institute founding member, demonstrates how historical research itself can challenge American foreign policy. In his recent book, Wertheim shows how during the Second World War, the Council on Foreign Relations –  which still publishes strategic reports and the popular journal Foreign Affairs, and is criticised by Walt as elitist and undemocratic – helped the State Department plan for a post-war order rooted in an American preponderance of military power. [6] Critics of this strategy were branded as parochial ‘isolationists’ even if they advocated extensive non-military involvement in the world. [7]

The book challenges the notion that America transcended power politics in creating a ‘rules-based order’ grounded in institutions like the United Nations which at once provided justice and stability. For Wertheim, the UN was only created as the acceptable public face of American military dominance. A leading proponent of the American-led order is quoted in the introduction stating that ‘Americans are less interested in ruling the world than they are in a world of rules’.[8] Wertheim argues that such utterances are deceptive smokescreens for an elite-engineered project of global domination.

Such histories primarily challenge American leaders, but they are also bad news for the legitimacy of Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy. In a paean to relations with Washington, at the June G7 summit Boris Johnson declared that ‘we believe in human rights, we believe in the rules-based international order, we believe in the transatlantic alliance’. [9] Johnson’s government has taken tangible steps to translate these sentiments into policy. For instance, in July 2020 Dominic Raab announced the Magnitsky Act which emulates the US human rights act of the same name.[10] Moreover, without American support Britain cannot pursue its declared Indo-Pacific strategic tilt, a dependence illustrated by the recent announcement of the AUKUS security pact. [11] Allegiance to the American-led rules-based order is a mainstay of British foreign policy.

That rules-based order is the world created by institutions like the Council of Foreign Relations. In their promotion of ‘Global Britain’, British policymakers have demonstrated an awareness of the Blob’s centrality to this order. Raab appeared at an event organised by the Atlantic Council, another think tank criticised by Walt, to emphasise the compatibility of Global Britain with the American-led world order. [12] London also has the Blob’s approval. An October 2021 Atlantic Council report gave Britain a ‘B’ grade for post-Brexit foreign policy, and B+ on US-UK relations, largely for coordination in the Indo-Pacific. [13] After leaving the EU, Britain is aligning with foreign policies shaped by an elite whose authority is increasingly being challenged by public historians like Wertheim.

The pro-Brexit narrative of contemporary British history looks troubled from this perspective. Brexiteers like Raab saw themselves as protecting British democracy from an unaccountable technocracy: after taking back control from the elites, Britain could unlock its potential to become a serious global actor. Yet Britain has left one group of technocrats only to become dependent on another. Public history can legitimise foreign policies. But its revision can expose their ironies and contradictions.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/feb/19/iraq.artsandhumanities

[2] https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/ben-rhodes-and-the-crisis-of-liberal-foreign-policy/

[3] Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (New York: Picador, 2018), p. 21.

[4] Andrew Bacevich, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021), p. xiv.

[5] https://quincyinst.org/about/

[6] Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions, pp. 98, 105-9, 111, 134.

[7] Stephen Wertheim, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).

[8] G. J. Ikenberry in Wertheim, Tomorrow, the World, p. 14.

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/11/boris-johnson-hails-uk-indestructible-relationship-with-us

[10] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-53303100

[11] Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (March 2021), pp. 66-8; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-58564837

[12] https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/acfp-a-conversation-with-foreign-secretary-dominic-raab; Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions, pp. 115-6.

[13] https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Global-Britain-An-American-Review.pdf

Image Credit:

“President Joe Biden and Prime Minster Boris Johnson” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:President_Joe_Biden_and_Prime_Minister_Boris_Johnson.jpg

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