No, Britain Is Not Retreating from the World

David Cameron has maintained Britain as an international actor when voters are more inward-looking.

British prime minister David Cameron walks with American president Barack Obama across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC, July 20, 2010
British prime minister David Cameron walks with American president Barack Obama across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC, July 20, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

Janan Ganesh makes eminent sense again in his latest Financial Times column. This time he challenges the notion that Britain’s global ambitions have narrowed under David Cameron to the extent that he represents a “Little England” on the world stage.

This is nonsense. The Conservative Party leader “has maintained Britain as an international actor when the fiscal and political forces during his time in government argued for an inward turn,” writes Ganesh.

When people accuse the prime minister of disengaging from the world, they mean he is engaging in a way they do not like.

Cameron’s trade-focused policy toward China, for example, has invited much derision with The Economist, that bastion of internationalism, suggesting Cameron is subordinating his liberal principles “to the lure of China’s gold.”

This website has argued that such criticisms are mostly overblown and that Cameron’s program, both at home and abroad, is more liberal than most liberals give him credit for.

Of particular concern to liberal internationalists is Cameron’s attempt to rewrite Britain’s relationship with the rest of the European Union.

Strangely, the same Economist that earlier warned Britain could emerge “smaller, more inward-looking and with less clout in the world” as a result of Cameron’s renegotiation now claims that the prime minister is asking for things that are “variously symbolic, uncontroversial and already in train.” Which is it?

However significant Cameron’s renegotiation may be (and we believe it is, as it will likely formalize the divide between the continent’s euro insiders and non-euro outsiders), Ganesh argues it is a major and a liberal project. “It envisions a nimbler, entrepreneurial Europe, not just narrow derogations for the British.”

Given the circumstances in which Cameron has governed, he could easily have presided over an isolationist foreign policy, argues Ganesh.

In the last election, nearly four million Britons voted for the United Kingdom Independence Party which advocates a withdrawal from the European Union. The same party took most British seats in the European Parliament in 2014. The specter of the botched invasion of Iraq still haunts British politics, as evidenced a year earlier when a war-weary majority in the House of Commons stopped Cameron from launching airstrikes against Syria.

Yet Britain has continued spending .7 percent of its national income on foreign aid and 2 percent of it on defense, matching United Nations and NATO aspirations, respectively. It is one of few countries in the world to meet both benchmarks.

Last year, Britain also signed an agreement with Bahrain to set up its first permanent military base in the Middle East in four decades.

If this is a retreat from the world, what do Cameron’s critics think engagement should look like?

The prime minister does seek adjustments — but they are relatively mild and can be justified given the fiscal and global realities he faces.

Or, as Ganesh puts it, “It says something about the ossification of foreign policy that such a small break with convention causes such a rumpus among old hands.”