Since the “winds of change” swept Britain’s colonies scattered all about the globe, this sceptred isle on Europe’s northwestern flank has, as Harry Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson once put in, lost an empire and not yet found a role.
For the past half century or so, the United Kingdom enjoyed a position in the world quite disproportionate to its economic weight. Recent prime minister as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair consciously pursued a strategy aimed at maintaining that position. With the force of personality and sheer determination, they managed to elevate Britain into an international player above its natural station. But the next few years “are set to prove a watershed for a nation that has grown used to punching above its weight in foreign policy,” warns Philip Stephens, writing for the Financial Times.
The history of modern British foreign policy began in the early 1960s when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan realized that the sun was finally setting on the empire. He gathered the brightest minds of Whitehall to anticipate the inevitable transition and they proposed that while Britain’s power would certainly decline, “it does not follow that our status need necessarily do the same.” They understood that the country’s prestige could be amplified by its alliances and by shrewd diplomacy.
During the decades that followed, British policymakers worked to ensure that a “special relationship” came in effect with the United States. Militarily, the United Kingdom would always be NATO’s number two, a nuclear power and, up to this very day, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
The decline could not be stopped however. Economic turmoil in the late 1960s forced Harold Wilson’s Labour government to give up all remaining outposts in Asia and the Gulf, effectively abandoning an imperial presence east of Suez. More recently, Britain’s performance in Afghanistan and Iraq has raised doubts in Washington about their ally’s military potential. “Your ambitions run ahead of what you can do,” is what one Obama Administration official reportedly determined.
Unlike his predecessor, Gordon Brown self consciously eschewed assertive internationalism and the Afghan War notwithstanding, was reluctant to commit forces as a pillar of British foreign policy. His possible successor as leader of the Labour Party, David Miliband, now foreign secretary, decries the “declinism” of those who imagine Britain accepting a passive place in world affairs however. He argues that the country’s national interest lies in engaging actively with European and NATO allies and maintaining a sizable defense budget.
Between the lines, David Cameron acknowledges the shift. “We do have a position of authority that greatly exceeds our size,” he told the Royal United Services Institute before expressing skepticism of “grand utopian schemes to remake the world.”
The new Conservative government faces further problems, notes Stephens. With Cameron pledged to loosen Britain’s place in the European Union, as prime minister, he will instinctively reach across the Atlantic to compensate for any dependency on Europe. “But the choice between the Channel and the Atlantic has long been something of an illusion” with President Barack Obama all the less unsentimental about the alliance than those who who went before him, no matter Vice President Biden’s assurances before the European Parliament last week. The special relationship belongs to another era.
What may be required is an assessment akin to that conducted by Macmillan fifty years ago. This may well turn out to be a jarring, bruising experience — “a reckoning that will force Britain to admit a much smaller place in world affairs.”
On the other hand, the Foreign Office wins the admiration of many of its counterparts abroad for its skill in amplifying Britain’s voice in the corridors of international power. What’s more, in spite of bombast claims to influence, many of the world’s rising powers are as of yet reluctant to shoulder the international burdens still carried by the West.
Logic may determine that as its global ambitions fade away, Britain should look to Europe but for the time being, it prefers to think of itself as something of an outsider on its own continent. Consider, for instance, the weariness of all major parties except the Liberal Democrats for giving up the pound in favor of the euro. Just a few years ago, Britons were hardly willing to exchange their blue passports for European reds!
Nonetheless, with the “special relationship” not so special anymore and Britain’s armed forces probably forced to endure further budget cuts in the near future, the country has little alternative but to become more of an integral member of the European Union unless it intends to be reduced to the second band of world powers. A Britain more committed to the EU would surely improve the potential of European might moreover. It will be a painful transition for Britain. But so was losing an empire.