Wales & The World II: What’s the Welsh National Interest?

(Title Image: Wales Online)

“The National Interest” as a concept means the goals and aims of a sovereign nation state in international affairs. This could be entirely to serve a nation’s self-interest, or it can involve co-operating with other nations in order to serve the interests of all parties.

As the nation state is – even in the age of supra-national organisations like the EU – still the most important manifestation of a people’s sovereignty, the “national interest” is often the main consideration in a government’s actions internationally.

International Relations Schools of Thought

There are three main schools of thought in modern international relations, though the first two are often said to be the most significant.


Key features:

  • Democratic peace (no war between democracies)
  • Rule of law (including international law)
  • Building alliances/multilateralism
  • Mutually-beneficial interests
  • Interventionism (….sometimes)

This is, arguably, the “soft” side of international relations – but that doesn’t mean “weak”. Liberalism is underpinned by a belief that military might isn’t the only source of a nation’s power, as the economy and culture play an important role too. It’s more pluralistic, seeking to use international organisations and multi-party treaties to both solve disputes and generate solutions that are mutually beneficial to all parties.
The great manifestations of liberalism are international organisations like the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organisation (WHO) – perhaps, to a certain extent, even NATO. Concepts related to liberalism include globalisation, free trade, fair trade and liberal interventionism – where the use of military force can be justified for humanitarian reasons, and when backed by an internationally-agreed mandate, an example being NATO and UN involvement in the former Yugoslavia (Part VII).


Key features:

  • Realpolitik (practical considerations chosen over moral/ideological considerations)
  • A belief in the sovereign power of the nation state
  • “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”
  • Unilateralism (acting alone wherever possible)
  • Self-interest

This is the“hard” side of international relations – though not every nation that espouses it is powerful. Realism contends that the most important actors are nation states, which will always – without question – act in their own self-interest. Nations will rise and fall based on their ability to out-last weaker competitors and by cementing their own power.
Moral considerations often take a back seat for practical “realpolitik” reasons in order to pursue the national interest. It’s underpinned by a belief that international organisations only exist at the pleasure of nation states and have no power to force their views on nations.Organisations that could be associated with realism include the Bilderberg Group and G20; while concepts and personalities include the respective foreign policies of the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Iraq War, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Vladimir Putin and, at present, belligerent states like North Korea and Israel’s policy towards its neighbours.


This one’s more difficult to describe. It seeks to sideline the importance of institutions, trade, military power etc. and is focused on how cultures and peoples interact with each other – essentially,“things are the way they are because people want it that way”. For example, of the states that possess nuclear weapons, the United States will have different relations with each of them even though one nuclear weapon is as destructive as the next. They might see the  Russians and Chinese in more adversarial terms, while the UK, French and Israelis are considered allies. Constructivism therefore places more emphasis on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which are socially-constructed and focused on development, changing behaviour and activism. In practice this means governments and people have more control over foreign relations through sheer will instead of falling prey to “random events” or bogged down by “institutions” and politics.Other Schools of Thought:

  • Marxism – Class conflict and exploitation/the creation of dependent nations are the most important factors in international affairs. Largely discredited since the end of the Cold War.
  • Imperialism – A single powerful nation state should dominate and control smaller client states through colonisation or military conquest. Died out in the 20thCentury, but remnants still exist – including, you could argue, the UK itself.
  • Postcolonialism – What followed the end of imperialism. It rejects the idea that cultures which existed before colonisation were “backward” (a counter-belief to the “white men’s burden”of bringing civilisation to “primitive” peoples).
  • Functionalism – The need for state interests to be overridden by common interests and goals, expressed via international co-operation and integration to promote peace and prosperity (i.e. The European Union).
  • Green“Think globally, act locally”. No unified theory, but accepts a problem with collective action that prevents nation states protecting the environment. Any actions should be done via liberal institutions.

It’s worth pointing out that these things aren’t rigid and can change with a government. For example, you could say the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were/are more liberal than the realism of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Closer to home, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were more realist in foreign policy than
Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown, with Tony Blair somewhere in the middle : realist when it came to relations with the United States and the Middle East, liberal/interventionist in Europe.

Meanwhile, with the ongoing threat of climate change, some realist governments now accept a need for co-ordinated international action; while in Europe, countries with a liberal foreign policy are taking a realist stance on immigration – exemplified by some of the hardline responses to the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

It’s hard to tell which school of thought a Welsh foreign policy would subscribe to as it’s dependent on what government we would elect in an independent Wales; but based on what’s been said down the years by Welsh politicians, there are tantalising hints.

Foreign Policy in Welsh Politics

Although foreign affairs is strictly non-devolved, the subject has been discussed often in the National Assembly. Naturally, foreign affairs plays a key role in economic development, especially in a net-exporer like Wales. The most recent discussion, however, was more serious and sombre as it dealt with Welsh victims of the terrorist attack in Sousse, Tunisia.

Most of these discussions used to revolve around Wales within the European Union and the benefits (or not) of remaining part of it (Part V). Through 2014 it seemed there was a debate on this every few weeks, we got to “enjoy” that all over again in the run up to the in-out referendum and subsequent vote to leave the EU.

The official Welsh Government position is that the UK (and, by proxy, Wales) should have remained an EU member state – with stronger support from some Labour backbenchers, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems. The Welsh Conservatives, by and large, would’ve preferred a renegotiated membership, with hints of euroscepticism.

So while there used to be clear political support in the present Assembly for remaining within the EU (one way or another), there’s less support for how relations and funding with/from the EU have been managed to date. Also, the EU debate outside the “Cardiff Bay Bubble” was always more polarised, with support for both EU membership or EU withdrawal being inconclusive – the Leavers ultimately winning the argument.

The only party represented in the Assembly which can have an official foreign policy with a straight face is Plaid Cymru because it exists as the same entity in Westminster and the Senedd, with policy decided in Wales.

Their present foreign policy could be described as a pacifist liberalism, which probably has its origins in the Christian nonconformism/chapel culture in rural Wales, not their present day internationalist socialism.

Plaid strongly oppose the UK’s military industrial complex (in pretty much any and all circumstances, not just recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), and would clearly oppose Wales becoming a member of NATO – perhaps with latent anti-Atlanticist undertones. They also support sustained targets for international aid and strongly support Welsh membership of the EU (and further EU enlargement). Recent statements from the party leadership on Syrian refugees indicates support for a more open-border policy on immigration and asylum too.

Plaid’s foreign policy could even be called post-nationalist or functionalist, as there’s often very little discussion of a “Welsh foreign policy”, more Wales being an “ethical voice” in a chorus of international co-operation – (see also : Simon Brooks’ article in the latest edition of Planet magazine).

It’s markedly different from the foreign policies of mainstream British parties, who tend to tow the same line; their belief being that the UK is still a global power that can take action unilaterally (or at the very least a valued sidekick to the United States) – which is more realist than liberal. This manifests itself to varying degrees; British nationalists on the right are generally more jingoistic than those in Labour and the Lib Dems, who are a bit more subtle and wrap it up in “solidarity”; solidarity which usually ends at the North Sea.

This difference isn’t necessarily a good thing. Firstly, there’s the progressive left’s partiality for failed (often populist or totalitarian) Latin American socialist regimes (which genuinely worries me in relation to Plaid). There’s lots of romantic discussion about Fidel and Hugo, but little discussion of the most successful comtemporary left-wing government in Latin America: Uruguay. Presumably this is because there are no posters of José Mujica in military fatigues on student walls, and Uruguayan socialist politicians seem to understand how both economics and personal liberty work and how they’re compatible with social justice.

Secondly, while Israel should always be condemned for its aggressive and disproportionate military actions against civilians, dewy-eyed support for the Palestinians which ignores corruption in the Palestinian Authority and barbaric beliefs and practices of Hamas (ordinary Palestinians are historically as much victims of their own government as they are Israel) verges on naive and would be an eccentric position as an independent state when compared to most of our peers.

So after a hypothetical future independence day, Wales will be embroiled in diplomatic disputes from day one because of decisions AMs have already taken.

For one, there’ve been numerous cross-party statements of opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and usually on the side of the Palestinians. Even Welsh Conservative AMs have expressed concerns about Israeli military policy (MPs less so).

It hints that Welsh foreign policy would lean in the Palestinian’s favour but not without acknowledging Israel’s right to co-exist peacefully with its neighbours – which falls in line with most of mainland Europe, but not the UK and US.

Turkey probably wouldn’t be too happy either, as Wales was one of the first countries in the world to formally recognise the Armenian Genocide – later joined by Scotland and Northern Ireland – to such a extent there’s an official memorial in Cardiff. The UK Government doesn’t consider it a genocide as set out by UN Conventions, while the US is somewhere in between.

Paradoxically, all this hints Wales has more flexibility in foreign policy statements as a devolved country than we would as an independent one. The reaction to Carwyn Jones’ 2014 visit to Uganda, for example, might’ve been more condemnatory had he been acting as Prime Minister of an independent Wales and not a regional premier.

In January 2015, the row over the lowering of flags on the Assembly estate to mark the death of the Saudi absolute monarch, King Abdullah, prompted criticism from Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) – another foreign policy matter which might’ve been different if Wales wasn’t following Whitehall’s lead, though it led to a review. It is worth pointing out though that Saudi Arabia is one of the top 30 export destinations for Wales (Part I).

There’s little point mentioning every single time foreign policy has been discussed in the Assembly, but despite examples above underlining that Wales “has a voice”, there’s one example underlining the bind Welsh politicians find themselves in on matters of foreign policy within the UK.

In 2006, the unpopularity of the Iraq War was beginning to peak as it became clear that the “mandate”, of lack of, that the UK, US and other allies had to invade and occupy Iraq – namely that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction – was built on a bed of lies (Part VII).

The then First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, was asked during a debate on BBC’s Question Time whether he supported the war or not. He declined to give an answer, because neither foreign or defence policy are devolved and it was a matter decided by MPs in Westminster. Technically-speaking he was correct not to say anything, even if he was subsequently accused on being“mealy-mouthed”.

In 2007, during the run up to the elections to the Third Assembly, Rhodri Morgan pleaded with voters not to punish his government for Iraq; though he said that if he had a vote, he probably would’ve voted against military action as his MP wife (and future AM) Julie Morgan did. He also criticised British strategy.

Although this hasn’t stopped other members of the Welsh Government from expressing opinions on non-devolved matters (like the Trident system – Rust in Peace….Trident?), this one incident is significant. It means that, hypothetically, an independent Wales wouldn’t have been part of the coalition which invaded Iraq – because of a lack of political support – and the 14 Welsh troops who were killed in the war, and all those who suffered permanent injury, would not have done so.

The Iraq War was clearly not in the Welsh national interest. Foreign policy can, in very stark terms, be a matter of life or death for Welsh people – especially those in the British armed forces (Should the military recruit in Welsh schools?); yet it remains an area of policy we have little if any direct influence over, even as devolved services are often left to pick up the pieces.

It makes you wonder what other foreign policy decisions would’ve been different too, and all things point to the Welsh political class’ views on foreign policy perhaps being more liberal and functionalist than the UK mainstream.

The Welsh National Interest

As indicated in Part I and today, Welsh foreign policy is heavily-focused on the economic side of things, while individual (and groups of) AMs have raised matters of conscience. With independence, it would need to have more depth to it and requires careful consideration. There are a few things that could be accepted as in the Welsh national interest and set as permanent features of Welsh foreign policy.

Excellent relations with the former UK and Republic of Ireland – England would be our largest market and largest neighbour, while cross-Irish Sea ties would need to be close for our own benefit as Wales is the gateway to Ireland over land. Ireland was the second largest export destination for Welsh goods in 2014 (see the diagram in Part I).

Economic and political stability in Europe – This includes membership of the EU. Similarly to the relationship with the former UK and Ireland, a healthy relationship with the major players on the mainland will be beneficial in economic terms (as mainland Europe is a key export market) and social terms too in areas like higher education and culture. The only way to do that if through stable borders, stable governments and a stable economy.

Other matters if national interest include:

  • Free and fair trade for Welsh exports in particular, whilst expanding markets for exports beyond Europe.
  • Promoting Wales for inward investment, high-end research and tourism.
  • Promoting democracy worldwide and condemning curbs on political and individual freedoms.

The ability to make internal policy decisions free from outside influence and, likewise, not interfering in the internal affairs of other nations unless invited – The essence of sovereignty. This is something Wales will have to get used to as we’re used to following England’s lead. We probably still would in many areas, but in others, where it’s in our interest to do things our own way, we would need to have the confidence (courage, even) to see those decisions through.

Multilateralism – Many major global issues require close co-operation, and in such an environment the views of smaller nations are now just as valid or valuable as the world’s great powers. No single nation has a right to force its views on other nations or try and reinvent the wheel in its own image. When things have to be said at an international level, they should be done collectively through the international community and regional groups – a major difference between British nationalism and Celtic civic nationalism. The only way Welsh voices will be heard at a global level is independence and full membership of the international community, otherwise Dame Wales will always be walking two paces behind John Bull and Colonel Blimp.

Addressing postcolonial angst within Wales – Like it or not, there is a post-colonial feature, or inferiority complex, that would need to be addressed in Welsh foreign policy, known as a “cultural cringe”, which also exists in former British colonies like Australia, the Republic of Ireland and even in Scotland.

Part III looks at what the Welsh state would need to enact foreign policy.