The question of how Britain defines its ‘national interest’ is one which needs to be answered by every generation.
Rapid shifts of economic and political power are currently re-shaping the world, particularly in regard to the rise of China and India. This presents profound challenges to the question of how we should understand the concept of Britain’s national interest at the end of the first decade of the twenty first century.
Britain’s ‘national interest’ can no longer be defined in the hierarchical terms which drove the great power politics of the last century. While Britain’s relationship with the U.S. on the one hand and Europe on the other will remain important to the country’s foreign policy, it cannot be defined by the terms of these relationships. Britain’s national interest needs to be defined in a much wider context.
Our national interest needs to be defined by the realities of Britain’s economic interests in this world where economic power is shifting from west to east. We need to ensure that we develop deep and reciprocal relationships with countries which are emerging as the key players in the future. Both economic and political ties must be strengthened with countries like Brazil, Nigeria, China and India and others.
Our view of the world needs to be characterised less by a conception of it as a hierarchy of nations with the U.S. at the apex; but more as network of peer relationships where Britain negotiates and influences at many different levels simultaneously. This will allow us to use our strengths, capabilities and influence to maximise our relationships in a world which will look very different from that which was the case even a decade ago.
Britain’s traditions, history and language make us well placed to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise in this peer to peer world. We must not lose sight of these great strengths; but all the time we need to be taking the longer term approach.