Rosemary Hollis: 'Britain's standing as a defender of international law is dented'

From the inaugural speech of the new Director of Research at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House, London

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Why did the British government take the country to war in Iraq? The answer has more to do with calculations about how best to handle America in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 than a sober appraisal of what caused those outrages, and the pros and cons of military action for Iraq and the Middle East. Yet neither the consequences for the transatlantic relationship nor the fallout in the region were debated in the run-up to war, or since.

Why did the British government take the country to war in Iraq? The answer has more to do with calculations about how best to handle America in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 than a sober appraisal of what caused those outrages, and the pros and cons of military action for Iraq and the Middle East. Yet neither the consequences for the transatlantic relationship nor the fallout in the region were debated in the run-up to war, or since.

Back then, perhaps, the British government simply did not trust parliament and public to agree with its judgements. Certainly there was a fear that an airing of all the issues would have acknowledged the probability that Washington was unstoppable and thereby damaged the British strategy to make the project legal.

In effect, the Government was being too clever by half and the strategy backfired. In the process, Britain's desired reputation as a defender of international law was damaged - and parliamentary democracy and convention of cabinet collective responsibility were undermined. Britain also lost influence in Europe and its standing in the Middle East is now more closely tied to that of America.

Some Americans and many Europeans argue that British reticence might have restrained Washington. That is moot, but what was the trade-off?

So, Britain's standing as a defender of international law has been dented and its influence in Europe is damaged too. However, its reputation as the most trusted ally of the US is secure. In the Middle East, this is a mixed blessing. Arab governments and Iran see Britain as a conduit to, and messenger for, Washington. Yet they are understandably uncertain about the extent of British influence on US policy.

The British government no doubt calculates that any policy not in line with Washington is doomed. But, as in Iraq, this will leave Britain in the shadow of America doing damage limitation when a flawed Washington policy contravenes international law and unleashes developments beyond its capacity to control.

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