Britain Rethinking Relations with the Rest of the World

Having watched UK politics and especially foreign policy for more than 40 years, especially the twists and turns of relations with the European Union and its precursors, my recent trip to Britain seemed sadly “deja vu all over again.” Beginning with the debates about membership in the European Community in the 60s and 70s, moving to the Blair/Brown off-and-on dance on joining the Euro, as well as the current problems of finding a “more perfect union”, there is a sense that we are moving towards a defining moment not only for the EU but also for Britain’s role in the world.

At the same time, the debate on Britain’s center core of foreign policy direction, goals, and leverage has evolved. This evolution inherently includes the nature and meaning of the so-called “special relationship” with the United States.  A key part of Britain’s genetic makeup has been its inherence of its Empire/ Commonwealth and trading relationships, which give it a global perspective unlike that of few of its European partners.

But this matrix may be in for a shaking up if current trends in this debate, which started well before the new government took office, continue.  The debate is now moving towards a defining moment of decision within the ToryLibDem coalition government.

The key questions that are now being asked among the foreign policy cognoscenti focus on the apparent given of the perceived macro trends in the global landscape: the seemly reduced status of Britain, the impact of the current recession, and the rise of other larger powers.  The question arises: can Britain still play a central and a significant role in world affairs and in particular “punch above its weight”? It is this question that is at the core of the reexamination. This public debate is now fixed on the on-going government Defense Review, which will likely come out this fall. This document is similar to America’s National Security Strategy affairs document.


While I was in Britain the new UK government announced its proposed budget cuts and various key funding issues which included long-term defense funding, a reassessment of the Trident program renewal, and especially the role of the air force and navy capital costs. The election had little in the way of deep debate about foreign policy but much about the economy, the government deficit, and immigration.

William Hague, former Tory leader, was given the foreign affairs portfolio as a known quantity.  However, the profound differences between the coalition partners over relations with Europe and defense policy, especially including Britain’s role in Afghanistan, makes for a conflicted coalition. Undoubtedly, the question of Britain’s view of NATO’s out of area activities and their costs will be a likely item for examination given the timing of any draw down of forces in Afghanistan.

One of the first acts by the new government was the establishment of a new British “National Security Council” which is theoretically designed to give greater coherence to decision making and coordination in this area. However, it is still not clear how this will work in practice. In the past this function resided in the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defense and a myriad of committees.


At the same time, the economic realities of Britain and Europe are having a disproportionate influence on any decisions regarding the complex realities of the dangers and challenges of the current international environment.  These decisions are being increasingly driven by economic and budget driven considerations.

There is a hue and cry of popular feeling that with the imbecilities of the Iraq war and the costs to the country in blood and resources in Afghanistan, that Britain should retreat from exerting as large a leadership role as it had before. The odd political reality is that this view is shared by some sectors on the right and the left. The “Little Islanders”, as this perspective was once called, are now at least partly in the ascendency.


In the end, the issues on the table go beyond whether to keep the “independent” nuclear capacity, whether to join the Euro and support a stronger and expanded EU, or whether America is a reliable partner. It is about a citizenry’s own perspective about their concerns, hopes and interests and whether that concern extends beyond their own borders.

In the past ignoring external forces has been costly beyond measure in two world wars. It is clear that economic downturns force people to look even more to their immediate needs. A nation may, given history, respond by taking up mankind’s worst instincts or at least make questionable judgment calls about their real interests. In Britain’s case, and that of Europe, the question is: will the narrow choices adapted by much of the European governments, including the ToryLibDem government of pursuing a radical deflationary economic policy lead to a major retrenchment in global engagement and in dealing with serious foreign policy challenges and realistic strategic risks?

Yes the jury is still out. There are powerful forces in Britain who want to continue to “punch above their weight” but many would like to see this done in a way that uses “smart power”, and avoids the mistakes of the past like the Iraq war, yet recognizes that withdrawal from multilateral action to deal with the growing dangerous international landscape is the more dangerous course and should and can’t be ignored.


So does the old model of Britain’s role as being transatlantic, European, and global still have relevance? The odd thing is that probably it is still a better model than any of the others. Britain being a purely integrated and third wheel in an inward turning Europe seems on its face to be even more irrelevant in the 21st century than the “old” model. The prime reliance on America after the imbroglio of the Bush II years seems an uncomfortable fit. For Britain, playing a key global role alone seems equally a bridge too far given an even more diminished economy under the existing government. What then?

Part of the answer must be on how future events will form the harsh reality of Britain’s place on the world stage. If they ignore climate change, global poverty, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and growth of global conflict and instability, the price paid will be high. If they ignore developments in Europe or play a role that only exacerbates the internal European troubles and rising nationalistic particularism, that will also prove a disaster. The EU itself is in the same position and at this moment does not have a constructive strategy either for its economy or for its global strategic role. America needs to lead in this precarious global situation.  However, the question remains whether the divided British government or an equally divided EU has the resources or the vision to help lead also? It is likely that by the end of the year we will have some of the answers.

By: Harry C. Blaney III

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