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Britain and World Power since 1945

Constructing a Nation's Role in International Politics


David M. McCourt


Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014

Paperback. xvi+253 p. ISBN 978-0472052219. $35.00


Reviewed by Phil Morgan and Helen Parr

University of Keele



A recurring feature of David McCourt's work has been to explain the continuity in British foreign policy since 1945. The special relationship, nuclear weapons, and above all a role in international affairs that would appear incommensurate with the realities of Britain's material decline present academics with a puzzle. In this book, McCourt seeks to address this puzzle, developing a novel variant of constructivism. Shifting the emphasis of research away from norms and identity, McCourt's 'micro-interactionist constructivism' treats international politics as fundamentally role-based.


McCourt draws on the work of George Herbert Mead to outline an ideal-typical conceptual vocabulary to analyse the 'discursive space' within which foreign policy decision-making takes place. The major empirical claim of the book is that Britain's foreign policy since 1945 can be understood in reference to the perpetuation of a particular role for Britain, a role McCourt labels the 'residual great power role'. His theoretical framework allows him to map the contours of this role by focusing on its emergence in the context of four specific interactions: the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1962 Skybolt-Polaris affair, the second EEC application in 1967 and the 1982 Falklands War.


McCourt argues that existing constructivist approaches, which focus on identity and norms, suffer from an 'endogeneity problem' [10]. The concept of identity, as it is currently used by constructivists, tends to excessively privilege endogenous factors because they explain state identity in reference to an innate sense of self. In addition, most constructivist approaches tend to avoid a conceptual distinction between identity and roles, treating the two as synonymous. McCourt's solution is to make a distinction between the two and to emphasise roles in favour of identity. He defines role as a cluster of expectations shared by the occupant of the role and by significant others. Interactions between the role-holder and significant others define the more precise contours of that role. While role-based analyses are not entirely new, McCourt’s micro-interactionist approach focuses heavily on this process of interaction and the ‘discursive space’ it creates for action. His approach therefore departs from previous theoretical treatment of roles, such as that developed by Alexander Wendt, which treat roles as existing prior to interaction.


Drawing on the work of George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer in particular, McCourt develops a parsimonious conceptual framework to analyse British foreign policy. This framework centres around three key concepts. First, the primary concept is that of 'role-taking'. This refers to the process whereby an actor learns of the expectations and assumptions attached to the role he or she occupies by imagining themselves from the perspective of others. This can be significant others, for example the United States and France in the case of British foreign policy, or a 'generalized other'. This concept, which originates with Mead, is central to McCourt's explanation of Britain's foreign policy because role taking is assumed to define the space of possible action within which foreign policy decision-making takes place [32, 51]. The second concept, 'role-making', refers to how states attempt to construct for themselves a role appropriate to a given situation [32-33]. Finally, there is the concept of 'alter-casting', whereby states seek to cast others into roles that complement their own [33]. McCourt’s framework, he argues, facilitates context-specific analyses which allow for the understanding of how a role emerges and is shaped in a given historical moment. He then applies this framework to the four key historical episodes mentioned above.


In Chapter Two, McCourt argues that Britain opted to send troops into Egypt in response to President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal because ‘a space opened up within which such action was thinkable and doable’ [58]. This space was the result of interactions between Britain, France and the United States. Britain’s use of force should not be explained by the damage to Britain’s prestige caused by Nasser’s actions, and the calling of a ceasefire should not be explained by the eclipse of Britain’s great-power status. Rather, Britain and France co-constituted their roles as residual great powers and tried, but failed, to ‘altercast’ the United States into an alliance leadership role that would view Nasser’s actions as a major threat to American and European interests in the Middle East. Britain’s Prime Minister Anthony Eden almost deliberately misunderstood Washington’s perception of Britain, choosing to believe that the United States would condone Britain’s use of force. Once it was clear that international and domestic opinion opposed British military action, the British sought to withdraw while keeping the role of the ‘residual great power’ intact [83-84].


The Skybolt crisis, the subject of Chapter Three, broke in December 1962 when the United States cancelled the development of the air-launched Skybolt nuclear missile. Shortly afterwards, at Nassau, President Kennedy agreed to sell the submarine-launched Polaris missile, thus ensuring the continuation of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, independent at the point of use. McCourt is not the first to argue that the possession of an independent nuclear deterrent was vital in the continuation of Britain’s posture as a residual great power, and that Britain’s claim to that role would be lost if it could not replace Skybolt. He suggests, however, that identity-based explanations do not go far enough, because identity does not explain action. ‘Europeanists’ in the American State Department were wary of Britain’s possession of an independent deterrent, preferring a European Multi-Lateral Force to be held by NATO. However, the White House shifted strategy. To play a role as an ‘alliance leader’, America had to permit Britain and France to hold independent deterrents. The losers at Nassau, McCourt suggests, were therefore the West Germans, whose potential for influence over nuclear weaponry was eroded by the eclipse of the State Department ‘Europeanists’ [103].


Chapter Four deals with Britain's second application to join the European Economic Community (EEC). McCourt draws on recent historiography to argue that Harold Wilson’s application was a ‘successful failure’ because it exposed French opposition to British membership and paved the way for Britain’s entry in 1973. Contrary to the declinist thesis, which sees Britain's turn to Europe as a relegation in status, McCourt, following this historiography, emphasises how policy-makers viewed entry into the Community as the best available means for the continuing pursuit of international influence and a 'world role'. It was the expectations British Foreign Office officials attached to the residual great power role that guided this approach, and dwindling alternatives created a bipartisan consensus in favour of membership. The Americans, McCourt argues, wanted Britain to join the EEC, at least in part to counter-balance France’s withdrawal from the integrated military structures of NATO, to guard against the potential of a ‘rudderless Germany at the heart of Europe’ and to encourage an ‘outward’ rather than an ‘inward’ looking Europe [122-123].


The final empirical chapter analyses the 1982 Falklands War. Argentina occupied East Falkland on 2 April 1982, and, as diplomatic efforts failed to find an acceptable solution, Britain retook the territory using military force. The expectations of the United Nations, the United States and the EEC of the roles Britain and Argentina might take were significant in determining what it was possible for either to do. Argentina sought to make for herself the role of victim, casting Britain in the role of colonial power. Britain, in contrast, sought to make for herself the role of residual great power, whilst presenting Argentina in the role of aggressor. The key to understanding Britain’s actions, McCourt contends, was the challenge to perceptions of Britain’s great-power role caused by the ‘violation of the principles of international conduct committed by Argentina through its invasion and the risk that this action would set a precedent in international affairs’ [150]. In addition, in this episode, McCourt notes the 'importance of role playing in identity affirmation', demonstrating how the British 'self' aligned with the residual great power role [156-159]. Finally, the United States, once more the most significant other in these interactions, provided the space for Britain successfully to make the role of residual great power by initially remaining neutral before decisively 'tilting' in Britain's favour once the intransigence of the junta in Buenos Aires made a diplomatic solution impossible to achieve.


The conclusion and epilogue succinctly restate the main points of the argument, and situate the contribution within the broader constructivist challenge to mainstream IR theory, which continues to rely on the anarchy problematic. In addition, McCourt makes the case for the continuing relevance of the puzzle of continuity in British foreign policy, and the importance of roles in accounting for this continuity. From this reading, the changes that took place under New Labour are more style than substance. Post-Cold War, British foreign policy has not made a ‘gestalt switch’ away from a residual great power role [168]. Keen to distance himself from a deterministic structuralism, McCourt addresses the possibility of change in the epilogue, demonstrating the relevance of his thesis for those who make British foreign policy. A role-based social ontology does not determine continuity in British foreign policy, because different alternatives and strategies were available to policy-makers, and will continue to emerge. However, McCourt also invites academics to look beyond London in assessing the likelihood of change in British foreign policy, restating the book's commitment to analysing the importance of others in shaping the expectations attached to roles.


McCourt’s book is cogently argued, useful and will have to be taken seriously by anyone looking for a general explanation of continuity in Britain’s foreign policy since 1945. It forces historians and theorists to think more systematically about the idea of ‘role’ and it provides a thorough conceptual analysis of how we might look at ‘role’. It is a challenge to constructivists to explain how prior or stable identities can translate into foreign policy action.


The book, however, did raise some questions. It would be interesting to hear McCourt say more about how the concept of role translates from episode to episode. Is it simply coincidence that the idea of a ‘residual great power’ reasserted itself in each of the four examples discussed in his book? Or are there deeper structural explanations – national defence in the Cold War, or political economy, for example – for the perpetuation of this particular role? Or, as McCourt hints [26-27], can roles become second nature through routines and habitual practice; and therefore, might a concept such as ‘role-inheritance’ – or even memory, or identity – be necessary, at least sometimes, in order to explain the continual re-emergence of Britain in a residual great power role? In addition, why might ‘others’ come to view Britain’s role differently, and if they did, would this be a sufficient condition for Britain’s foreign policy trajectory to change?


Furthermore, as a historical interpretation, the privileging of ‘role’ distils the evidence McCourt discusses too much at times. He presents many interesting divisions and subtleties of opinion within the United States and within Britain, but the meaning and importance of these can be lost when all emphasis is placed upon role. The effect of boiling down Britain’s foreign policy to a set of interactions is to gloss over internal divisions, and to regard the foreign policy making process as decided upon by a small number of policy makers who are seeking primarily to understand what powers outside of Britain think of them.


This seems a curiously limited vision of the British state, in which, if it is taken to logical extremes, policy happens on its outer edges, and policy makers mechanically think alike. McCourt’s book in the details is much subtler than that, but the effect of foregrounding role as an explanatory framework overall is to edge out – for example – transatlantic communities of nuclear experts who often helped to circumscribe what was possible; or the increasingly transnational workings of British officials with the EEC, without whose knowledge Britain’s second application might not have become such a successful failure.


The priority given to role in this way can also squeeze domestic politics out of view. McCourt could say more as to why and how the idea of Britain’s residual great power role came to prevail over other possibilities within Britain. Was it always simply just inevitable that it would? Or were there other considerations of domestic economic management, political survival, or political economy? What were the implications when not everybody agreed with the idea that Britain should play a role as a residual great power, or if domestic politicians and officials differed as to the course of action Britain should take?


Thus, the book’s strongest claim is to expand our understanding of Britain’s post-1945 foreign orientation by bringing in the concept of role, not to jettison other explanations in favour of an interpretation based singularly upon role.


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