Review of Sean Gabb's Book on Foreign Policy
Saturday, July 03, 2004

Review of Sean Gabb's Book on Foreign Policy

War and the National Interest:
Arguments for a British Foreign Policy
by Sean Gabb
The Hampden Press, London, 2004, 133pp, £10/$20
ISBN: 0-9541032-3-8
Buy from

Reviewed by Daniel P. Mulroney

This is a maddening book, half right, half wrong. It was put together from a set of commentaries on
the War on Terror, but says much else about the nature of war and foreign policy. I don't agree with
its basic premise. But the more I disagree with this, the more I admire the execution, and the more I
want everyone to read it who really cares about winning the War on Terror.

For us Americans, Gabb is the most famous English libertarian writer. He is famous through his
writings on the Internet. He claims 12,000 subscribers to his list. But for years I read him at second
or even third hand on groups that he still doesn't know about. Everything he sends out is like a self-
replicating message in a bottle. I have spoken to people who think he is the only libertarian in
England. This isn't true. There's the rest of the famous Libertarian Alliance, and there are some
pretty good blogs. But for most of us, mention libertarianism abroad, and the name Sean Gabb
crops up. Certainly, mention sustained ideological writing, and Gabb comes pretty near top of the

This isn't to say famous means popular. Last month, he published an article which became an
instant classic of anti-American snobbery. This is reprinted in the book. The most notorious
passage in this most notorious article reads thus:

"It is, I admit, inappropriate to ascribe one state of mind to a nation of more than 250 million people.
But Americans remind me increasingly of someone from the lower classes who has come into
money, and now is sat in the Ritz Hotel, terrified the other diners are laughing at him every time he
looks down at his knives and forks. I suppose it is because so many of them are drawn from second
and even third rate nationalities. The Americans of English and Scotch extraction took their values
and their laws across the Atlantic and spread out over half an immense continent, creating as they
went a great nation. They were then joined by millions of paupers from elsewhere who learnt a
version of the English language and a few facts about their new country, but who never withheld from
their offspring any sense of their own inferiority. The result is a combination of overwhelming power
and the moral insight of a tree frog."(p.100)

This generated a flood of abuse that probably only delighted Gabb. In its inarticulate rage and
defensiveness, much of it also probably just confirmed his opinion of our country. Let's be fair,
though, he did sort of apologize in his next article, saying how he just got carried away by his own
rhetoric. Sadly (or, for Gabb, perhaps not!), this didn't reduce the flow of maddened abuse. But here
is a man who seems to equate success with unpopularity. He has spent the past 20 years making
himself feared and hated in the British Tory Party. Since the opening of the War on Terror, he has
used his considerable skills as a writer to do the same with America.

This is a shame, because his writings skills really are considerable. I have spoken to many people
about Gabb's prose style, and hardly anyone appears to understand what makes it interesting. I
have read more or less conscious imitations of him and once read a parody of him. None of this
worked. Gabb is an old-fashioned writer. But this doesn't mean he goes for uncommon words and
difficult grammar. His is an easy, conversational style, in which the underlying art is carefully
disguised. To see this, I recall a passage written in imitation of Gabb. It began: "I have perused a
missive from your keyboard". This isn't Gabb at all. (His usual response to e-mails goes something
like: "I have just read your message of three months ago, and guilt obliges me to reply"!) He uses
common, usually short words. His sentences are usually short. He creates his effect not by the
nature of his words, but by his use of them. You can see this with the passage quoted above. Read
it aloud, and listen for the patterns of emphasis and pitch, the pauses, the use and avoidance of
hiatus, the way in which consonants are sometimes allowed to clash and sometimes prevented by
the rearrangement of words. What he says is said about as well as it can be. The effect is always
deliberate, but is made to seem accidental.

But style doesn't by itself make a writer good. That also needs something to say that is worth
hearing. Here, Gabb scores. I said he is a libertarian. But he is also a conservative. He isn't the sort
of conservative who hangs round our National Review or The Spectator and The Telegraph in
England. He doesn't get into a sweat about moral values and abortion and all the other issues of our
moral majority types. He worships his country, but isn't an assertive nationalist. His England is
place where modern civilization was born, the place where constitutional government and due
process and freedom of the press and trial by jury were all created and presented as gifts to the rest
of the world. Yes, he ignores what England has done in Ireland (an odd oversight, considering his
Celtic name and probable roots). Yes, he never seems to realize that, while the rest of us have to
value what England has done for us, we also have to remember what she has often done to us. But
Gabb has enough of a point not just to come over as a British eccentric.

For those who come to him with fixed political categories, it must be confusing to see him at work.
One moment, he is defending the English system of weights and measures and the Church of
England and the Monarchy in an almost mystical Tory spirit. The next moment, he is coolly
explaining why drugs should be legalized and why there is nothing bad about gay marriage and
adoption. In his own terms, there is no contradiction. Freedom is an Englishman's birthright, and the
English Constitution is more a set of customs and habits of thought than a set of legal rules.
Libertarianism in England is contained within conservatism. As he might put it, an attack on the
wigs and gowns of the judges is necessarily also an attack on trial by jury and the double jeopardy

It is the same with his economic views. He knows his Austrian analysis, and wrote a short book
about entrepreneurship a few years back. At the same time, he hardly ever argues against some
state intervention on the grounds that it disrupts the smooth working of the market. His real
objection is always that intervention is the act of a state enlarged beyond its proper functions. I
remember he once conceded that the British Government could have successfully intervened in the
19th century to get a more rational railroad system, but was glad it did not intervene, as this would
have given it confidence to intervene elsewhere.

Let me turn now to this present book. In its particulars, his argument is correct. We went to war in
Iraq without any clear strategy, and the result has been a military and political embarrassment.
Saving the Iraqi armed forces ran away from us as fast as they could drop their guns, all that Gabb
predicted has come about.

But this doesn't mean I think his basic premise is correct. Gabb believes in a world of nation states
all following narrow and predictable interests. He doesn't believe in wars fought for other than these
narrow and predictable interests. He is particularly opposed to fighting against abstractions. He

"In general, I think the world would be a less violent place if it mainly consisted of nation states,
each acting to preserve its own borders and other narrowly defined interests. This would give a
predictability to international relations of the sort that existed in Europe between 1648 and 1914—a
period in which, with the arguable exception of those against the French Revolution, hugely
destructive wars were avoided. The problem with moralistic crusades for democracy or human
rights, or whatever, is that they involve unpredictable actions in support of often unachievable ends.
The natural result is unlimited national or ideological hatreds that lead to permanent instability."

This is a good point. Gabb's problem is that he doesn't see how the modern world is different than
the old one. I lunched with him the last time I visited London. He asked me in a jeering tone if I
really thought history had begun with the first version of MSDOS. Of course I don't. There are people
who do seem to think this, and I think that is why we messed up in Iraq. No one in Washington
guessed that people who dress and talk like characters from a costume drama could be highly
sophisticated politicians able to make us dance to their tune without us even knowing it. We aren't
dealing with children, and we've got some growing up to do ourselves.

At the same time, Gabb is wrong when he says that the modern world is just like the past but with
better plumbing and nice shiny electronic toys to divert us. Modern technology has totally changed
the world. A country can't just ignore the rest of the world as he wants England to do. In this, he's
like someone shutting their apartment door on a fire in the lobby outside. Modern communications
have turned us from a world of detached nation states into one of civilizational blocs.

Gabb is kind of right when he says the 911 bombings were a response to American intervention in
the Middle East. He is flat wrong when he says they were no business of England. We no longer
live in a world where it takes half a year to sail from London to Calcutta. There is no buffer space left
between civilizations. The other is no distant from us than Kew is from Westminster in Gabb's
mental world. Civilizations can no longer go their separate ways, but are in constant touch, and
increasingly in constant competition for mastery. By the 22nd century, either the Islamic world will
be westernized or the West will be overwhelmed by Islam. Gabb focuses on the specifics of 911
just as he might once have focussed on the specifics of the Sarajevo shootings. Yes, this was a
specific event, but it was also a precipitating event. It didn't begin a clash of civilizations. It was just
the accident that started what circumstances had already made inevitable. And yes, the war with
Iraq was badly planned and executed. That doesn't mean we should just give up and walk away.

Perhaps the most hurtful thing anyone can say to Gabb is that his England is dead. You can get
the country out of the European Union. You can cut taxes and regulations. You can smash the
"Enemy Class". But there will be no return to his dream of Little England. It's gone. Whatever
happens next will be a new start. This will be some kind of English Union. He and I are part of the
same civilization. Our countries are part of an Anglosphere that includes all the English-speaking
countries and a few European satellites. 911 raised the curtain on a new world, in which there is no
room for Britain as an independent actor, and none even for America. Does he think the Muslim
clerics raising jihad make or even see any distinction between British and American? Outsiders see
us as all the same. If we are to survive, let alone prosper, in this world, we must learn to regard
ourselves as outsiders regard us. We stand together or hang separately.

Let me put this in terms that Gabb might appreciate. With his rhetorical skills, he is the closest the
British conservative movement has to a Demosthenes. But Demosthenes knew something Gabb
doesn't. By the middle of the fourth century before the Common Era, the closed world of the Greek
city states had been made obsolete by the rise of Macedon. It was no longer safe for Thebes and
Sparta and Athens to look on each other as foreigners and score little points off each other. Every
city state was now faced by an enemy that wanted to conquer them all. Either the Greeks would
drop their particularism and join together in a more than occasional alliance, or they would lose
everything. It is the same with us. It is worse for us. At least the Macedonians were kind of Greek,
and then there were the Romans, who loved the Greeks. The enemy facing us is not us by any
definition, and does not love us. We shouldn't have fought the war in Iraq as we did. But if we are all
to survive, American and British servicepeople will be serving together in many other places before
this century is out. The trick is not to denounce this, but to help make it work better than it just has.

In closing, I will make this appeal to Gabb: "Sean, you got it half right. Yes, our side was ignorant of
history and drunk on technology. Some of us did think we could overthrow an evil dictator and watch
his people rise up by themselves to make their country into a more picturesque Wisconsin. The
Islamic mind set is a bigger mess than we gave it credit, and the Islamic mind is more
sophisticated than we stupidly imagined it. We messed up in this war. But you were also half
wrong. Islam is a threat to us all. Have your little triumph against us. But then come and join us. If
you really think we are no better than tree frogs, come and tell us how not to be. We are all at war,
and we need people like you on side to help us win it."

In final closing, buy this book. Learn from it, and write to Gabb yourself to get him to see that even
his country can't be an island in our new world of the Internet and cheap airplane travel. 911
happened in my city. It might have been in his. Next time, it might be.

Daniel P. Mulroney teaches English Literature at a high school in New York.


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