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25th February 2006 India Bourke

Correlli Barnett speaks about Imperial Overstretch

It is terrifying how quickly one becomes accustomed to Exeter College.s status as a historical treasure house; the seventeenth century dining hall becoming as much a part of the daily routine as the Kellogg’s Frosties we eat in it. However, the tremendous pool of resources, material and human, that Exeter supplies us with is breathtaking.

This fact was underlined on Wednesday when Correlli Barnett, an ex-Exonian and now prestigious author of English military and economic history, came to speak at the Rector.s lodgings. He gave a fascinating talk on the influence of moral imperative and Christian piety on the decision to enter into armed conflict. The breadth of his historical insight, which spanned over two centuries, was impressive, yet the overall subject of his talk – imperial overstretch – managed to bring the past into a highly provocative dialogue with the present. Barnett argues that Britain is currently facing a severe overstretch of her military resources. The government’s refusal to reduce its commitment in a long list of politically unstable hot-spots from Kosovo and Bosnia to Iraq and Afghanistan is practically un-viable as well as economically damaging. The reason behind what Barnett sees as this irrationality is the personal Christian piety of the Prime Minister combined with the cultural and political hangover of an obsolete Victorian identity.

Barnett traces this motif of moral fervour in government from the early nineteenth century. He points to the drive of Matthew Arnold, the great Victorian headmaster, to build a Christian, intellectual elite that would pursue moral ‘duty’ in international relations. He sees the Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy as an example of this mentality in pre-war Britain. By 1937 Britain faced military and economic overstretch. It faced a list of Imperial commitments, responsibility as a member of the League of Nations and the triple threat of Germany, Italy and Japan. Barnett claims that the “strategic overstretch of Empire led to its strategic collapse” after the war. The subsequent post-war economic weakness of the British economy was partly attributable to the inordinate size of Britain’s defence budget. The justification for this spending was that it fulfilled the “nostalgic delusion” that Britain could maintain its status as a first-class world power in the cold-war period. The same “high minded interference,” Barnett argues, led a post-Imperial Britain into a whole range of new military entanglements in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The only way the military could be saved from overstretch in the contemporary world is through the overturn of a political agenda that places moral and religious responsibility before national economic and strategic interest. This argument raises provocative questions that reach straight to the heart of contemporary issues of the legal legitimacy of war, political power, cultural identity and globalisation. Barnett’s position seems to suggest ideally an insular political system, concerned with economic success rather than principalled intervention abroad. Yet this gives rise to perception of selfish self-interest. There is no straightforward moral position.

Barnett’s insights into this much debated problem were refreshing and powerfully thought-provoking.

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