By Cpl. James L. Yarboro, U.S. Marine Corps, via Wikimedia Commons

By Cpl. James L. Yarboro, U.S. Marine Corps, via Wikimedia Commons

The future seems as uncertain as ever. Just as the academic discipline of International Relations largely failed to predict the end of the Cold War, it failed to predict the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Contemporary international politics entails the oft-cited phenomena of globalisation, realpolitik, cooperative alliances, trade, diplomacy and conflict among a plethora of other norms. But new trends are now also evident on the ever-changing global scene, such as the prominent rise of anti-establishment popularism, fake-news and the post-truth society where ‘experts’ are disparaged.

Within international politics, domains of defence (and security) and development (including poverty alleviation) have immutably been linked to some degree. But they haven’t always been treated as such, as is evident in some ivory towers lecturing in ‘war studies’ and others in ‘development studies’ as arguably distinct perspectives on imagining world order.

Nonetheless, if the spotlight falls on the individual, rather than the state, ‘human security’ finds access to fresh drinking-water and opportunity for work as immediate a concern as any foreign army. If thinking on security in broad terms, under-development impinges perceptions of security, and uneven-development may give rise to grievances. On the other hand, insecurity may impede perceptions of development and opportunities thereof. Conflict has been observed to be ‘development in reverse’.

Unfortunately, it is in many ways a small world. Insecurity, under-development, uneven-development and conflict abroad have the tedious potential to spill-over and hurt us at home. It is difficult to qualitatively pin-down the actual extent of this argument. But 9/11 is the domineering example of how grievances afar may come to haunt us here; potential post-‘Brexit’ border-posts with the Republic of Ireland would risk rekindling grievances unnervingly closer to home.

Perhaps of most concern for some is the urge to stick one’s head in the warm and comforting, if blinding, sand – as with the ostrich. This is the urge of isolationism where the agoraphobic, or the state, disengages from the world. Within the historiography of international politics this is not an unusual idea; the Chinese, British, Americans and a multitude of other nations have at times pursued it. Whether it was a good idea at the time may be perceived to be dependent upon the then historical context – what was then occurring(?). Today, in the 21st Century era of hyper-globalisation, fake-news and political conflict, the idea becomes highly untenable.

The UK as a state is dependent upon international engagement for the economy, trade and international finance (we are not self-sufficient); our collective security (through NATO, but also European and bi-lateral links), and indeed our very peoples – the UK of today is a state of multiple nations and cultures.

The UK is not necessarily dependent upon European political union. But, along with the US and China, today’s European Union is certainly one of the ‘big three’ world powers, and with great power comes great prospects for trade negotiations, collective security and indeed stimulating cultural breadth.

The Brexit Series Interview – James Flint

James Flint, Associate Lecturer in International Relations, highlights the significance of Brexit on the UK's international intervention and development policies as well as its own security and defence.

Find out more about James Flint

The plebiscite which led us towards Brexit was an anti-status quo, anti-establishment, act of popularist direct democracy. On the one hand it may be seen as the tyranny of the majority, out of sorts with the UK’s tradition of constitutional monarchy and representative democracy, where the elected few make difficult decisions on behalf of the many. On the other hand, it may be viewed as a triumph of popular patriotism, independent thinking and the re-establishment of sovereignty, albeit an undeniably relative form of sovereignty. The Supreme Court mandated parliamentary debate and likely subsequent act of parliament will in any case institutionalise Brexit into officialdom.

Brexit is an act of disengagement. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, pursuing a robust stance, without emphasising the UK remaining in the European common market, may be seen as pursuant of the colloquial ‘hard Brexit’ option. How hard it will be we cannot yet know. But, on the other side of the Atlantic, with Donald Trump inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States also pursuing a somewhat isolationist stance, the risks seem great as the uncertainty of change grows.

In our increasingly small-feeling and uncertain world, recent adventurism into Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya has become popularly viewed as resulting in a quagmire where the watchword is never-again, and ‘boots on the ground’ is perceived the policy folly of the foolish, or a forlorn hope. But significant lessons have been identified where it comes to building stability overseas, entailing both hard and soft means of influence.

Some of these lessons identified over the last dozen years have borne rapid institutional change. Arguably the most important of these are seen in the genesis of the Stabilisation Unit, formerly the Post Conflict Reconstruction Unit, as an inter-departmental body coordinating between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development. Subordinate to the National Security Council, the Stabilisation Unit has agency over the Conflict Security and Stabilisation Fund, as well as a substantial pool of experts from a broad variety of backgrounds.

Working towards a more stable global system, for the betterment of home and abroad, now may be seen to entail both soft means of altruism in fitting with the Sustainable Development Goals and hard-nosed pragmatism. The focus, and this cannot be over-emphasised, is the gravity of assisting popular perceptions of fair political-settlements from the grassroots upwards. However, the aforementioned isolationist trends risk jeopardizing such endeavours.

The UK must remain outward looking and pursue the initiative in what may sometimes be proactive liberal interventionism by a variety of means to assist stability overseas; possibly assisting foreign sovereign states, or possibly through forcefully intervening in their affairs. But to turn our collective backs on the world, in the face of human rights abuses, inequality, poverty and insecurity is a tough policy stance to defend.

The iSPER Brexit Series

Since the British public voted to leave the European Union, there has been widespread conjecture as governments across Europe and beyond try to assess the political and social ramifications of the result. 

As such, policy makers face a number of challenges in light of the increased responsibility placed on them – as areas of legislation previously under EU competence will soon be decided nationally.

In this project led by the Institute for Social, Policy and Enterprise Research (iSPER) leading academics across a range of fields attempt to shed light on how the referendum result might affect their areas of expertise.

United Kingdom and European Union flags combined. Courtesy of Shutterstock