Skip to content

Cooperation and values at the heart of UK engagement on conflict

Article by Rt Hon. Andrew Mitchell MP

December 6, 2021

Cooperation and values at the heart of UK engagement on conflict

In the aftermath of the Cold War, the future trajectory of the world seemed assured. The political philosopher Francis Fukuyama even wrote an obituary of the past, proclaiming the end of humanity’s ideological evolution and with it, the ‘universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of government.’[1] More than a new beginning, this was the end of history.


This optimism was not unfounded. The West had won. The battle of ideologies produced a teleological triumph for liberal democracy. With the decline of great power rivalries, the prospect of nuclear cataclysm was diminished, while the principle of cooperation among nations espoused by victorious western allies after World War II was vindicated. Institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, NATO, and the European Commission would be free to spread peace and prosperity throughout the world.


Indeed, if 20th century devastation had taught the world anything, it was that countries had more to gain by working together than by languishing in a distrustful state of isolation. Internationalism was the antidote to destructive nationalism.


However, things have not quite turned out as they were supposed to. Nationalism has made a comeback. World power rivalries are on the rise once again, with Washington, Beijing and Moscow jostling for dominance. Public anger at traditional centres of power has resulted in demands for protection from perceived external threats. Internationalism is being discredited as an antagonistic rather than defensive force, while the language of cooperation is being replaced with calls for tribal solidarity.


Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of far-right candidates in Germany and Italy are just a few recent examples of how the international rules-based model that has dominated geopolitical relations for 70 years is being challenged – ironically by some of its own architects. However, while shutting out the world may make popular politics at home, it makes terrible diplomacy. As Professor Paul Miller recently explained, ‘if nationalism worries about bigger fish in the ocean, internationalism worries about the poison in the water’.[2]


We are beginning to witness the toxic consequences of state-centric resurgence. The United States’ chaotic retreat from Afghanistan is not only plunging the country into a renewed reign of terror but threatens to destabilise the wider region. A US action, a manifestation of government foreign policy, being constrained by public uncertainty and anxiety. It was hoped that the election of President Joe Biden would prompt a softening of Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, but his actions in office so far demonstrate that this is easier said than done. That it was executed with little consultation with US allies further confirms the derelict state of multilateralism.


The UK is also retreating from the international platform, invoking the pretext of domestic economic difficulties to justify pulling back our soft power globally, with tragic results. We know that the Chancellor’s decision to cut foreign aid spending from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GNI represents merely one per cent of his COVID borrowing. The cuts will hardly skim the surface of our financial woes but will almost certainly lead to the deaths of 100,000 children and the suffering of millions more.


Soft power, something the UK has excelled at historically, is one of the most powerful tools in any country’s diplomatic arsenal. Aid is a veritable lifeline and a source of hope. It has helped educate millions of women and girls, brought relief to conflict zones and bolstered fragile health systems. However, the decisions on Afghanistan and foreign aid represent much more than a moral failure.


There is a disturbing paradox at play: populist policies may appeal to narrow nationalist sensibilities, but ultimately they may negate the national interest. It is incontrovertible that the leading issues of the day – climate change, security, coronavirus, poverty, trade, and migration – cannot be dealt with in isolation, because the problems they create in one part of the world will eventually land here at home. Their resolution calls for closer international cooperation. General Mattis famously remarked that ‘the more you cut aid, the more I need to spend on ammunition’.[3] General Mattis was right.


There are other problems. Nationalist feelings often assume authoritarian expressions. The post-Cold War aspiration to expand NATO and the EU to its Eastern European neighbours while promoting liberal agendas has not lived up to expectations. Poland and Hungary, once viewed as the hopes for post-Soviet democracy, are appearing increasingly undemocratic, as clampdowns on media and political opponents become more common.


Meanwhile, Xi’s China is using its economic power to consolidate authority at home, has ominously spread its monied influence abroad and demonstrated that economic integration does not produce the desired democratic results. Russia has revived its own territorial ambitions supported by an increasingly belligerent foreign policy.


Derek Shearer, a former American Ambassador during the Clinton era, described this state of play as a return to ‘great power politics’.[4] This is gravely worrying because it increases possibly the biggest threat to international order: a breakdown in communication and dialogue. When leaders stop talking, they not only risk intensifying suspicion and hostility, but the possibility of catastrophic miscalculations.


The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – seen as one of the most tense and threatening moments in the Cold War – is a stark case in point. The stand-off sparked by the American Government’s discovery that the Soviet Union were assembling nuclear missiles in Cuba brought President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev eyeball to eyeball – both leaders apparently ready to risk World War III.


The crisis ended when the Soviets accepted a pledge not to invade Cuba in return for the withdrawal of their missiles. On the surface this was an unequal deal with the result that President Kennedy has been hailed the hero of the confrontation. However, Kennedy’s real success lay not in his public displays of power, his real strength was that he maintained communication with his Soviet counterparts despite the immense pressures to go to war. We now know that in the end it was quiet, behind the scenes negotiation and continuing communication which secured the safety of the world.


The important lesson here is that security depended first and foremost on the commitment of two very different leaders to keep talking. The famous hotline established between Washington and Moscow on the heels of the crisis epitomised the importance of this very simple idea that keeping open a line of communication could mean the difference between life and death. In present day terms, the UK has considerable experience at the United Nations and other international institutions, as well as in regional and national fora. Talking to people is always the right thing to do and the UK is well placed to negotiate and assist with conflict resolution and mitigation, with the aim of bringing order to chaos.


I wish to emphasise the word ‘order’ as opposed to ‘peace’ in relation to internationalist pursuits. One of the reasons liberal internationalism is being discredited is a belief that it represents a utopian purpose which cannot be served. World affairs is full of hypocrisy and double standards which none of the existing systems have been able to square. Failed military interventions, notably in Iraq, have convinced many that the best action is inaction. This of course is untrue. One of the tragedies of the hasty exodus from Afghanistan is that our efforts there were working. For all the difficulties the country still faced, Afghanistan of 2021 was unrecognisable from Afghanistan in 2001. Sinews of state and civil society were burgeoning. Public services were being delivered. There was more education, better healthcare and improved financial management. Gender equality, once regarded an elusive dream, became an attainable aspiration. Alas, much of the progress was overlooked. The shadow of past misjudgements continued to loom large in people’s minds, their faith in the international system’s ability to deliver peace and fairness all but lost. However, just as intervention can in hindsight be judged a mistake, so too can non-intervention. The world needs a new strategy.


In the introduction to A World Restored, the eminent Washington strategist Henry Kissinger argued that preoccupations with peacemaking, though noble, were counterproductive since ‘the fear of war becomes a weapon in the hands of the most ruthless’.[5] In Kissinger’s view, peacemaking was a gradual process that required time and the strategic patience to cultivate the right global conditions. The relative stability and state of non-war between Israel and Egypt post 1973 – which eventually led to the Camp David peace agreement – was attributed to this very strategy. Perhaps what the world should be aspiring to, first and foremost, is not universal reconciliation, but global stability.


Kissinger was controversial, but his template could help lift internationalism out of its present malaise. Global leaders need to articulate simple objectives to rebuild the trust on which cooperation depends. They need to make a fresh case for internationalism based not on lofty ideals but on pragmatism, setting out the importance, but also the limits of, positive engagement. The public will come on board if they feel their interests are being defended. The goal should be to build a consensus which would make a pluralistic world creative rather than destructive.


The good news is that we have the structures in place. The UN may not seem as formidable as it once was, but unlike the League of Nations, it is still going. And if it did not exist, we would need to invent it. Countries cannot afford to disengage. Conflict, for example, is in essence development in reverse. Tackling the drivers of conflict through aid and investment will not only help improve the lives of the people directly affected, but help create a safer world. The Cold War may be dead, but the nuclear spectre is far from buried. Fragile states are blighted by war and disease. Extremist forces prey on the most vulnerable. Poverty and inequality abound. These are complex and interconnected challenges which, left unchecked, will eventually lay themselves at our door. All countries, but particularly the UK and the US, must lead the charge for a recalibrated internationalist strategy to address them.


It is important to remember that the tug of war between internationalism and nationalism is not new, but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In 1926, the Chinese Professor David Yui argued that to love one’s own country was right and natural. Nationalism need not be negative – so long as it does not come at the expense of others. The context he was writing in referred primarily to the link between nationalism and war. But it could also be applied to the questions of how, why and to what extent we should engage today. Yui would no doubt argue that abandoning people in their hour of need on the premise of national self-interest is destructive. Instead, leaders should capitalise ‘on our differing national interests for the common good’.[6]


Similarly the ‘idealist’ Professor Alfred Zimmern reminded audiences in 1923 that the purpose of foreign policy was principally to serve the national interest. If internationalism failed, it was because states ‘followed the least line of effort’.[7] To put it bluntly, it is lazy politics.


The world has changed. The UK has changed. Countries and people are brought ever closer through evolving technologies and the sprint towards globalisation. But if our progress is shared, so are the challenges we all face. That’s why it’s vital we protect the international structures and systems we have worked so hard to establish. For our part, Britain sits at many of the world’s political and cultural crossroads: the UN, Commonwealth, NATO, and the English language. Our influence and experience should not be understated and we should use it to help these institutions reclaim their founding principles, because working together is the only way forward. Internationalism is not a choice between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is the difference between chaos and order, between evolution and regression. We know where narrow nationalism leads. We must not allow it to be tested to destruction before internationalism is legitimised once more.


Andrew Mitchell was Secretary of State for International Development from May 2010 until he became Government Chief Whip in September 2012. He was appointed to the Privy Council in 2010. Prior to joining the cabinet, he held numerous junior positions in Government (1992-1997) and in opposition (2003-2010). He has been the Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield since 2001. Previously he was Member of Parliament for Gedling. A graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge, he is a fellow at Cambridge University; a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University; and an Honorary Professor in the School of Social Sciences for the University of Birmingham. He is a member of the Strategy Advisory Committee at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.


[1] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History?, The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18, Center for the National Interest,

[2] Paul D. Miller, The rebirth of internationalism?, Atlantic Council, October 2019,

[3] Mattis’ remarks came in 2013 in response to a question on foreign aid by Senator Roger Wicker. They were often cited during the Trump administration, when Mattis served as Secretary of Defense, when attempts were made to cut the aid budget. Dan Lamothe, Retired generals cite past comments from Mattis while opposing Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts, The Washington Post, February 2017,

[4] Peter S. Goodman, The Post-World War II Order Is Under Assault From the Powers That Built It, The New York Times, March 2018,

[5] Henry Kissinger, 1923-. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

[6] David TZ Yui, Nationalism and internationalism (an address before the Rotary Club of Shanghai, November 26, 1926), Digital repository, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut,

[7] Alfred Zimmern, Are Nationalism and Internationalism compatible?, Foreign Affairs, June 1923,

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre