Britain’s Loss of Status on the Global Stage is Not Just Yet a Cause for Despair

Flea-bitten, exhausted and broke, the British lion is slinking inexorably off a global stage it once dominated.

That’s the gist of numerous comments from foreign observers aghast at relentless defence cuts and the invisibility of foreign policy in Britain’s election campaign. The latest comes from the New York Times.

There is some truth in what they say. Britain has been absent from negotiations over Ukraine, despite being a signatory to the 1994 agreement guaranteeing its sovereignty. Participation against ISIS in Iraq has been extremely limited.

Embarrassing perhaps, but really why is anyone surprised?

Putin is flying his ‘50s-era scrap around Cornwall but this is sabre rattling for home consumptionBritain, like many other Western countries, remains mired in high levels of debt. Its economy is performing reasonably well, but the fact remains that more cuts are coming. War is the most ruinously expensive pastime a country can undertake, and the British state is under no external military threat to its existence: Putin may be flying his ‘50s-era scrap around Cornwall, but this is sabre rattling for home consumption. (The Tupolev 95 is beautiful, but it’s a museum piece. So are the Sukhoi bombers, which may be leased to Argentina. In reality, the only real dilemma for an RAF Eurofighter pilot would be the choice of weapon to shoot one down.)

That being so, there is an obvious limit to how much the UK can devote to the military. Indeed, London has been remarkably pragmatic, throwing capabilities such as fixed-wing aircraft carriers and anti-submarine aircraft over the side because it finds them  unaffordable. The army is smaller than it’s been since before the Napoleonic wars, too.

The US and especially France which, according to the New York Times, bemoans Britain’s position — are hardly in better fiscal shape. They are in just as tight a spot as the UK and, posturing aside, if you need to cut and can't cut, you're in more trouble than a country that needs to and can.  

As for Ukraine, it’s hardly a traditional sphere of British influence and it may be that there is little to bring to the table. Indeed it’s far from clear that anyone else has much more to offer, which means a solution remains elusive, Britain or no Britain.

But there is more at work here.

After the Neocon years of Bush and Blair, the limits of military power — even American military power — are obvious to see. The British are fiercely supportive of their army but utterly unsure about what, if anything, was achieved with the huge cost of blood and cash expended in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And while no one much weeps for Saddam, Gadaffi or even Mubarak, what has followed them in the Middle East is hardly cause for celebration. 

At some point it is going to have to make a choice to either re-arm or walk awayDid we make the world unsafe for secular strongmen only to see them replaced by ISIS? The debate is beyond this article’s scope but, even on the flimsy grounds that our wars made us safer from extremist Islamic terror, the test has failed. The former chief of MI5 noted a global build-up of trained terrorists who had just upped sticks even before the waters closed over the latest sorry tale of Western involvement in Afghanistan. Despite the herculean effort, we didn’t even make a dent in the country’s impenetrable tribalism.

Bad war is also bad politics. Tony Blair swept to power in 1997 as possibly the most popular and personally powerful politician in the world at the time. His administration and his reputation were both wrecked on the rocks of foreign policy and devotion to American war. Now he’s a joke, a rich joke admittedly, a shadowy ‘advisor’ to shady regimes. 

Small wonder his successors in Downing Street aren’t offering Washington any more blank cheques. But Britain cannot go on cutting its defence budget forever. It’s a leading global democracy and advocate of the rule of law. It’s a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. At some point it is going to have to make a choice to either re-arm or walk away.  We’re not there yet and Britain is nuclear armed and still one of the biggest defence spenders on Earth.

But the UK can retain the global reach it is accused of losing in other, better ways. It’s not all about weapons. Britain has also been in the forefront of other foreign wars such as the fight against Ebola, and this week came news that London was sending medics, high-tech cameras and rescuers to blighted Nepal. There’s more than one kind of global reach and this ought be the role Britain plays in future.

But history and a myriad of commercial and many other interests will weigh heavily on what Britain does. In the end, it will be compelled by the logic of circumstance and re-arm once economic conditions permit.

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