How Multiculturalism can save UK Grand Strategy

British power is in decline. If the UK is to regain relevance in the coming Asian century, it must embrace and utilise its greatest political asset: multiculturalism.

By Dr Tarak Barkawi for

Britain the Insurgent

This article is about strategy and multiculturalism, and how we might think about the two together. As ever, I begin with Clausewitz. But not the Clausewitz who is read in the staff colleges of major Western states, flush with histories of world-bestriding power and martial glory. We want instead to think about a young officer in a defeated army in an antiquated kingdom.

Clausewitz's thought, his piercing insight into the politics and realities of war, arise from a position of weakness, not strength. The Kingdom of Prussia had resisted change, blinded by its own past glories, by out of date images of its own power and military prowess. Clausewitz was one of a group of reform minded offices trying to save his country and his service by changing them.

One of the features of defeat is that you gain significant clarity about everything you lack, what you don't have or should have done beforehand. The experience of defeat is that of a lack of everything, from firepower to economic, technological and political modernity.

Revolutionary France had translated popular participation in politics into mass and manoeuvre on the battlefield. History had left Prussia behind. It would now have to catch up.

What thinking from a position of weakness is particularly good at revealing are the interconnections between politics, society, and military power. It is these interconnections which lie at the core of Clausewitz's schema of war.

It is useful to place Clausewitz in a different tradition of strategic thought than that marked out by, say, Mahan and Colin Gray and other theorists of Western power. I'm thinking of Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, Frantz Fanon, and so on. Insurgent leaders are faced with the seemingly insurmountable problem of generating strength from weakness, of military power from social context.

They can't simply dial up GHQ in Washington, London or Paris and ask for a few more divisions or another carrier battlegroup. They have to think about how military power and strategic effect are generated from a social and political context.

We do violence to Clausewitz when we appropriate him to the winning side, to the strong. This is where you get the Staff College 101 Clausewitz where government sets policy and militaries carry it out. Clausewitz is in fact about the interaction between war and society, politics and military power.

It may be time for Britain to start thinking of itself as the insurgent, to think of creative ways to generate strength from weakness.

The Staff College 101 Clausewitz is intimately associated with the idea of political-military autonomy, that of an independent military power whose fate is in its own hands, and which consequently can chart its own strategic course. Such autonomy is always relative but it has been in short supply in Europe since 1945. Powers that can't put planes on flattops or defeat ramshackle desert kingdoms on their own certainly do not have it. Instead, since 1989, the UK has been caught between a faltering Europe, on the one hand, and a declining US-centred world order on the other.

So there now may be some value in recovering this Clausewitz of the lack, the defeated Clausewitz, in thinking through our situation. Lately, the UK has been imagining itself as a Counter-insurgent, a state builder in far off lands, and a key player in the Anglo-American core of the West. Put misty eyed accounts of the Allies in World War II together with mythologies of Britain's imperial past, and you get a brew at least as heady as the Frederickian legacy that Clausewitz struggled against. Honestly, how many of us here today, even among the most cynical and clear-sighted, spend more of our time fondly recalling the military events of the past rather than the harsh realities of the present and future of British and Western power?

It may be time for Britain to start thinking of itself as the insurgent, to think of creative ways to generate strength from weakness.

We will now consider an example of what comes up when we make this move, and use it to segue into multiculturalism. What we have in mind is the pervasive distinction,  - existing in the discourse of policy makers - between hard and soft power.

With apologies to Joseph Nye, who was originally trying to make a very valid point within a US debate, as a framework for thinking about what we might call the ideological side of strategy and war, hard and soft power has a fundamental flaw. It separates that which is unified in practice. Every commander knows the moral component of his unit's fighting power cannot be handily separated out from material factors, or safely left in the hands of some separate department of state. Yet the distinction between hard and soft leads to the presumption the one belongs to the Ministry of Defence and the other to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, supposedly to be joined up by the National Security Council.

The strategic tradition of insurgency does not make this mistake. The battle of ideas is the field upon which strength grows. Stage-ist accounts of insurgency, like Mao's, always begin with building up one's forces through discussion, propaganda, cooperative activities and so on. Later, similar principles inform every facet of so called 'military' operations, which are designed to continue to grow political strength. Ideas, society and military power interact in volatile ways, which one seeks to crystallise to one's advantage.

Britain's Political Advantages

Lost in the fog of the distinction between hard and soft power, and among different departments of state, is the fact that, right now, Britain is at profound risk of suffering a grievous, self-inflicted strategic defeat; one that can devastate its global position. Worse, this is a defeat snatched from the jaws of strategic opportunity, the loss of a chance for strength to be birthed out of social and political context on a global scale.

I am speaking of the BBC World Service, a central component of British world power, of the proposed cuts to its services-in Russian and Arabic unbelievably-rather to invest in it; and of the decision to fund it out of the same pot as EastEnders.

I don't need a department of strategic finance to tell me the World Service is bang for buck.

But what might be done with the World Service? Whatever the historical realties, it effectively embodies a global legacy of an imperial Camelot, a time of plain speaking and a worldwide community that stands up for what was right. But the era in which this particular kind of nostalgia is effective is passing. Adaptation and change is what is needed as well as investment.

One of the most fundamental transformations in world politics that has occurred recently is in the information order. Western sources of information used to dominate globally, especially but not only after the collapse of the East Bloc. Now we are drowning in global satellite networks, and it is Al-Jazeera which has become the staple source of information-the supplier of those facts which are taken to be reality-in the world outside the West, and even for many in it.

We may laugh at the hipster Third Worldism and faux revolutionary sensibility of Al-Jazeera journalists-whose network is the household property of an absolute monarchy after all-but the joke is on us. Al-Jazeera has started helping real revolutions along.

Have you noticed, however, that the global Al-Jazeera speaks in English? Indeed, its journalists, brown or white, often do so in British accents. Many carry UK passports or were educated in the UK or hail from Commonwealth countries. A crucial and initial source of professionalism for the network consisted of BBC journalists who had been made redundant in the 1990s. So much so that at Al-Jazeera they make fun of the line 'that's how we used to do it in the BBC'.

This is a kind of cultural power the Chinese can only fantasise about. But unlike the distinction between hard and soft power implies, and this is a second fatal flaw, the power of ideas is not an instrument to be used like a battalion of tanks or a squadron of strike aircraft. You cannot just deploy it for this or that end. You have to develop it, and in so doing you change the social and political context in which you operate, craft it to your advantage. No amount of investment in a global TV network will give China the credibility, that sentiment of belonging to an ordered and enlightened global community, which still surrounds the British place in the world.

That China thinks you can buy cultural power is the kind of flawed thinking you find among the strategically strong.  

How multiculturalism is Britain's strength

The social context one seeks to change in the battle of ideas-as Clausewitz and his reform movement realised-is as much at home as it is abroad. And it is here that we come to multiculturalism.

There is a confusion at the heart of this term. It refers to the multiplicity of cultural differences across the communities that make up UK society; and it refers to various governmental programmes to manage this cultural difference.

As a problem for government, multiculturalism is associated with poverty and crime among Britain's immigrant communities, the racism those communities suffer, and most recently of course the problem of radicalisation among British Muslims.

In this latter respect, of multiculturalism as policy, the UK has veered between two kinds of responses. One draws on the colonial past, imagining the minority communities were like natives who had their own leaders. One need only mediate with the chiefs. But as in the colonies, the chiefs and their communities were created partly through state recognition and resources, empowered by the fact that the state saw them as the legitimate representatives of their 'people'.

The result was the funding of Muslim 'community leaders' who turned out to be sectarian and conservative, and who in their own ways have helped radicalise young Muslims, who felt that neither did they belong to, nor were they fully accepted, by the Anglo world or by that of their fathers and their traditions. Jihad with a Yorkshire accent is one response to such a predicament.

The other response, perhaps more catastrophic, was that embraced by the Prime Minster in his speech on multiculturalism in February 2011. This is the idea that there is some specific, identifiable 'British' identity to which all must integrate. But integrate with what? Other than patronising platitudes of the 'tolerance and fair play' variety, what does it mean to be British?

The answer, I fear, is the kind of nostalgia for a white Britain that never was, for an Anglo-American centred world order that is on its last legs, that is, the very kind of vision that still imagines it is strong, and cannot properly see either its own weakness, or is own potential powers.

What if one were instead to imagine a Brown Britain. I do not by that mean Brown's Britain-as in the former Prime Minister. Nor do I mean the country should be run only by brown and black people. What I mean is a country that imagines itself as what it is, a hybrid country between East and West, a country whose communities embrace a variety of experiences of empire, who all eat curry and follow the only truly global sport, who travel and work around the world with roots everywhere, bridges for influence and commerce, links to the Asian economies that will be growing in the next decades, not just the declining Western core.

As an example of the switch in mindset I have in mind, we are used to thinking of India or Pakistan as having diasporas in the UK. We should be thinking of a UK which has diasporas around the world. In respect of almost any global issue or hotspot you care to name, there are deep and profound links between people who live and work in the UK and the relevant parts of the world.

What if, instead of a governmental multiculturalism that lets the local natives keep their traditions, we imagined the experiences of all those who live in the UK as equally central to a brown Britain, a Britain that embraced a past simultaneously on the ruling and the receiving end of empire. This would be to see Britain as a country that reflected and included in microcosm those forces which have shaped the world we live in-the whole world. This kind of imagined Britain provides some resources by which the World Service and much else can be rethought, with a little bit of the spirit of Al-Jazeera, which after all as I said, can be conceived as a British institution - Qatar a place in a shared past which conjoins the UK with the world.

Imagine a fully inclusive ideal of citizenship that embraces the UK's so-called minorities and THEIR diasporas, and harnesses them to UK foreign, economic and strategic policy, adding and mixing with the white Commonwealth and the more well-trodden North Atlantic paths many of us are more comfortable with.

I will leave off here and let you digest Brown Britain, and how multiculturalism is strategic opportunity not vulnerability. But let me offer one final thought.

My implied comparison between a Prussia c. 1800 basking in past glories about to be steamrollered by Napoleon and the UK today is meant to be harsh, as a spur to thought. There has been a strong emphasis in recent years, both in government and in the armed forces, on the idea of thinking strategically in a joined up way. Yet I did not see any, much less every, official and officer concerned with strategy out there ritually disembowelling themselves under Nelson's column in the wake of the announced cuts to the World Service. The aircraft carriers-symbols of past glories-evoked far more feeling.

I am not at all sure if folks have been facing up to just how harsh, how serious and fundamental, thinking strategically really is. It is not a game of tennis that leaves the country just as it was. Are you prepared to re-imagine Britain in ways that will make up the lack of modernity with which the UK faces the coming Asian century?

Dr Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer in the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.


This article is based on a speech delivered by the author to RUSI's Airpower Conference. The author thanks Dr Shane Brighton, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex for assistance in developing the ideas presented here.


The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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