Pictured: Dr. Robin Niblett CMG, Director, Chatham House
Photo: Chatham House
Harry C. Blaney III
Date Line London
Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) hosted a major meeting June 23rd, led by speaker Dr. Robin Niblett the Director of Chatham House, on the topic “Britain’s Place in the World.” The topic would normally be rather expected and unremarkable, but in the present circumstances it is critical and relevant.
Without a doubt Britain is at odds with itself about the proper place of Britain in world affairs. It is battling between those who want the UK to have a major or prominent place in global and European affairs and those who wish to withdraw from Europe and even the world.
Some even wish to disassociate from America. There are also elements that care not a wit about the rest of the world. They mainly express that view by a hate of immigrants and those that do not look like them. This view is also expressed through voting for mostly the right wing Tories or the far right and racist United Kingdom Independent party known as UKIP. They tend to blame Britain’s problems on the immigrants, on the EU. They sense a decline in influence which this group attributes to anyone but themselves and their bad policies.
This trend was exacerbated by the impact of the recession, austerity policies, and the indifference of the last Tory coalition to the poor. This new Conservative and now even more ideological government is making war on the poor and unemployed in Britain. There is generally a sense of total loss of humanity or caring for those most in need.
Some of this was covered in earlier posts from this series from London. The key words remain: despair, resignation, and a bit of uncertainty in a world still dominated by much conflict and known and unknown risks. The view, backed by polls, is the British public wants Britain to still have a global reach but do not want to pay the price for such a role. This is not surprising in either Britain or in America.
In the presentation and Q&As at Chatham House with Robin Niblett, he made the argument for continued focus on an “inner circle of Europe”, then with a wider circle including the NATO/Atlantic orbit, and the one beyond which would encompass not just the Commonwealth but much of the rest of the world including China. If this sounds like the old British world view, it is. But this is with a bit of a downgrade to connections with the United States which is a growing view here among the far right and the far left and some between.
Niblett’s main aim in this address seemed to be to focus on the need to keep Britain in the EU given the threat of an exit in late 2016. The other aim was to argue the case for Britain being at the center of European decision making, while making money with a priority on global financial and commercial strategy especially with China as the new economic powerhouse.
Part of this is a bow to the economic power of China, but it seems to include overlooking China’s military ambitions and attacks on democracy in Hong Kong. The British government seem to be their old pragmatic selves, capitalist and global financial driven, only even more so now. But it appears they are increasingly indifferent to the global spread of ugliness, cruelty, conflict and real humanitarian action — even as British tourists were being killed in Tunisia.
Niblett observed ironically that America seemed to be “ambivalent” about its role in the world. I am not sure if this was directed towards Obama or the Republican opposition. From my perspective, the right wing GOP is not just “ambivalent” but hostile to real responsible engagement in the world’s challenges and is a destructive force that Obama has to deal with. No mention in this meeting was made of the many points of deep and difficult engagement that America under President Obama and Secretary John Kerry have shown in dealing with Russia under Putin, global warming, trying to find peace in the Middle East, the pivot to Asia, and our effort to address Iran’s nuclear programs. I might sadly add with little real help from London except mostly in words and not resources.
Niblett did little to suggest how Britain could do much more with America to solve the world’s problems other than words. He did hope that these issues could be solved, and pushed for the government to make them the priorities with America or anyone for that matter. He said that America was just one of many bilateral balances and relations for the UK. But many voices here that I heard and talked to are uneasy with this new “small England” stance and I assume even Niblett himself senses a deep unease at the trajectory of Britain and the world.
Here the newspapers are talking about cuts in foreign aid that once was vouched safe from such cuts by the Tories. Niblett and other voices in these meetings deplored the cuts, but few here offered the idea of added taxes on the rich as one solution. The right wing newspapers, which means almost all in the UK, seems more interested in the government’s plans to cut business taxes and those for the very rich, than protecting the nation’s infrastructure, education, or national security or helping in any real sense deal with the world’s ills.
The idea that global strength comes from domestic growth in productivity, R&D investment, and in better education of the citizens was touched on, but more in terms of how much the rich sector of the society contributes than in the cost of inequality and unemployment. Low productivity was mentioned but not in the context of the government putting the average worker of this nation back into good jobs, since they seem in their policies only to punish those that can’t find jobs that actually produce goods, rather help those that slosh money around without benefit to the nation as a whole and slice money just to the very rich in the City.
The key decisions that Britain faces in this critical time is the future of the well being of its less affluent majority and for more engagement in building a safer world. Effective decisions are threatened by the Tories and their allies, of antipathy by many English for integration with Europe, and for that matter, with the world. Except, it seems, by some of the rich who are making money though international financial deals and trade. So strange for the nation that built the greatest global Empire ever known, and lost it in a historical blink of the eye. It now suffers from particularism and fear of the outside which may be its undoing.
God save the Queen, but also God save us from the British Tories, racists, and “Little Engenders.” In a time when more effort is needed from our “most close ally” we will likely be getting much less from looking at the debate here so far.
We welcome your comments!
Harry C. Blaney III
I had the opportunity to attend an on-the-record “research” meeting at the Chatham House looking at UK defense policy and the presentations and discussions only reinforced the sense of a listlessness and disarray that characterizes much of Prime Minister David Cameron’s international policies and Britain’s role in the world.
Two issues exemplify this. The first is Cameron’s foolish commitment to the right wing Tory MPs to a vote on UK membership in the EU, thus forever forfeiting Britain a role in European policy and decisions. The second, is on the UK defense budget and strategic stance which foresees cuts in funding which will weaken Britain’s ability to act as a major force on security issues in Europe and globally. That means a diminished role in security matters with allies, and not least, to effectively defend British interests in conflicts abroad and in Europe. It will further weaken NATO’s capability as the UK has been the second largest contributor to NATO overall defense resources.
Over the decades I have been witness to many discussions and debates about NATO, UK and American defense issues both within and outside of government. This session was among my most disappointing, not because the speakers were bad, but because they were very frank on the implications and inevitability of long-term decline in UK “hard power” reach.
Further, it was clear that despite many governmental and non-governmental studies some of their thinking was declared by participants to be somewhat limited and often too driven by bureaucratic and ideological and budget forces. They were not always driven by good strategic perspectives. Also one speaker reflected that the influence of the disastrous participation in the Iraq war had also installed among the public and politicians distaste for further military action abroad.
All of this retreat from defense engagement is worrying in the face of a series of uprisings, conflicts, the Arab Spring and its consequences, ISIS, Putin’s aggression, China’s military buildup and South China Sea adventures, and not least, the spread of terrorism and civil and ethnic war.
One commentator said that NATO was looking petty shaky after the UK budget cuts were fairly well known. Clearly Britain’s voice in the halls of EU and NATO defense decisions has been weakened and it was acknowledged that such decisions will diminish UK’s influence in America, noting that France seems now to have the ear of Washington.
This is especially the case since Prime Minister Cameron at the earlier NATO summit in Scotland had criticized other NATO countries for not meeting their 2% NATO commitment to military budgets and is now in danger of missing this benchmark.
One commentator said basically that Britain had resigned as “a great power” while another phrase used was “giving up as a “world power” in foreign policy. Yet conversely the concept of being a world power had not yet been given up by Cameron. The other view was Britain is still playing a “supporting role.” The implication was that Britain could no longer act on its own.
There was very little discussion of Britain’s nuclear force which is being questioned as being useless by some and as a “necessity” by others. Trident’s future still has not been finally decided but some feel this capability is losing its attractiveness.
In my own intervention, I asked why the larger strategic geopolitical assessment had not played a bigger role in either the discussion or in the new government. Clearly it was a case of the “Emperor having no clothes.” Asking these key questions in drawing up the budget would undermine the decision to cut the UK defense budget willy-nilly. Clearly it was overall political budget cuts that ruled. All this was a result of a promised “forever” budget surplus by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr. George Osborne, a strident advocate of austerity and right wing causes and possible future Prime Minister, and not of honest strategic assessments. The political decisions were all that mattered.
The real need for a hard look at the strategy and then shape the budget was urged and priority should be the need for UK military’s to aim for “adaptability.” This approach was argued due to the reality of still unknown risks and opportunities. The point was made to the hard fact of the actually realities at existing “mid-level” strategic situations, not just at uncertain long term theories and projections, which can never be fully known or accurate. In short, keep open your options and prepare for the unexpected.
In the end, it was real flexible capability not just grand strategy that Britain needed to achieve. So the real question is what is Britain’s role in the world? What are its fundamental interests and what are the risks it faces now and in the near future?
A question that I also asked was if there was any thought of not just conflict responses, but looking at playing a larger role in conflict prevention and “soft diplomacy” and peacemaking/peacekeeping which requires an adaptable force, that would help make Britain be again a useful payer on the global stage. Some liked the idea, but there is not much defense industry interest in this more human level capability verses profits of large weapons systems.
As one speaker said we need to ask “what are we?” The answer is sadly diminished, inward looking, greedy for the interests of the rich and damn the poor, and now equally damn national security or our alliances, if we can lower the taxes on the rich and create a surplus and stay in power. The right wing is in the ascendency here for the moment and it is ironic that it is the Tories, that in the past and until now, have claimed the role of guardian of national security and global reach, that now have sold that honor down the river of expediency and concessions to misguided Euro-skepticism and “Little England” isolationists.
We welcome your comments!
Harry C. Blaney III
Opening the European papers these days is a bit like living with a daily taste of defeat, greed, folly, and drift in the face of major challenges. There is even a taste of despair moral fatigue in the air. The EU has a GDP and population larger than the United States, member countries with comparatively higher standard of living than most of the world, and a long history of ‘high” culture. Yet, in the face of multiple challenges, the EU seems adrift.
Europe has a major immigration and humanitarian crisis which Europe has been unable to address the fundamental causes of the crisis or even have an effective humanitarian response. This in not for a lack of good proposals, but rather reluctance to take on added costs and burdens that will save thousands of lives especially those who make dangerous voyages in the Mediterranean Sea largely to Italy but also out of places of conflict in Africa and Asia.
After years of legal and illegal immigration and tens of thousands of migrant deaths on the seas, the Europeans still have no good answers. Europeans are now trying to apportion immigrants between the 28 member countries – an effort that likely will not be carried out or permitted in some countries. Some 103,000 illegal immigrants have arrived on European shores since the start of the year. Today, 450 immigrants arrived in Sicily and the Italian government has threatened to give illegal immigrants visas so they can travel to other EU countries unless the other countries take their share of new arrivals.
Further East is an aggressive Russia run by an authoritarian Putin who continues to cause conflict and brutality in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has already annexed a part of Ukraine Crimea by force of arms. Due to the disarray among European nations to agree to strong sanctions, we are now seeing new agreements and large investments by European (UK included) oil companies with Russia despite continued Russian aggression. Weak EU sanctions are proof Europe will try to accommodate whatever brutality Putin will undertake thus possibly encouraging further aggression. All of this undermines the concept of unified support for the security of EU nations. One needs to ask what this means for overall NATO credibility for the security in Europe?
The other challenge to European unity and progress is the undercurrent of inequality, racism, and dominance of the very rich and hyper conservative forces over political power in many EU states.
In the UK, the gap between those that live or work in the “City” as it is called, which is the banking and financial firms in London, verses those in the North of England and in Scotland that have been neglected by the Tory government and that clearly cares nothing for the very poor in their nation by their now public budget cuts.
There is a clear marginalized immigrant and also an angry native poor population in the UK and in many European nations. This has caused a tear in the fabric of society and has imperiled a key cohesiveness needed in any country to advance progress, productivity, and provide a sense of fairness and upward mobility and integration.
What are the results of some of these conditions and other forces of alienation within the European landscape?
One result has been the inability of many European countries to effectively address their major problems both internal and external.
The other revelation is the disinterest and poverty overall of European leadership to show any willingness to truly solve the hard problems. Indeed most of the recent decisions have been aimed at destroying the social fabric, and the social compact within society, and by whole national governments and in the EU. One result has been the growth in unpopularity of the EU and of the whole “European Project.” The sad growth of nasty, narrow nationalistic right wing parties like the National Front in France and the UK Independent party in Britain are also a result.
If there is an example of the disunity and myopia of Europe, it is the current Greek crisis. The European Central Bank, is essentially run by and for the very rich EU countries mostly Germany. The ECB together with the IMF and World Bank are demanding now added austerity on Greece, which past requirements of austerity has already impoverish in that country. These demands for austerity are creating a humanitarian crisis creating among the highest unemployment and poverty levels in the EU ever seen in recent times.
These institutions and countries want the burden to fall on the poor and on the old via further cuts in pensions beyond those already taken. Major economists have stated time and time again that these demands have only created hardships and the bet here today is that these actions will force a default and an exit from the euro. I hope not! There is room for compromise on both sides, but only a major reduction in Greek debt will solve the problem.
Germany, above all, has lost its way as the leader of European unity and cooperation. This reinforces the reality that in these times of crisis the whole of European political leadership are tied to the worst trends in their countries and have the narrowest agendas.
The most important likely result of this outcome is furthering the future of the euro, undermining the EU, and most important the core elements of a united cooperative and effective Europe. For America these outcomes, along with their fundamental causes, weakens Europe’s capacity to solve region wide and global problems or to act effectively on a global basis. This means that the U.S.’s key partner in trying to solve critical global problems is becoming an undependable shadow of what it can and should be. While we have a desirable “pivot” to Asia. it seems we need again to do a deep rethink about strengthening Europe and working hard for a more outward looking enlightened Europe before it is too late.
More on these European issues in another post!
We welcome your comments!
By Harry C. Blaney III
Dateline London, September 19th
The Scottish referendum on independence results are in: “NO” vote at 55% and “Yes” vote at 45%. The difference was larger than some predicted but still an outcome that showed a serious disaffected group. The vote and the hot debate which divided the population, families, students, the old and the young seems to be settled at last, but now the promises of new powers to Scotland need to be enacted. The real impact of this separatist movement was significant impact on global cooperation and greater international unity that looks outward and not focused on inner divisions that are corrosive to solving real problems.
By Harry C. Blaney III
Dateline London, September 16th
No matter what the outcome of Thursday’s Scottish referendum, the result is likely to be almost evenly divided, whether it is a disunity “Yes” vote or a continued unity “No” vote. In this case the assumption will be that the outcome may be tentative and the future more uncertain.
By Harry C. Blaney III
President Obama’s speech to the American people on Wednesday, September 10th finally outlined for the American people, as he did with Congressional leaders on Tuesday, the key elements in the complex and difficult task of “degrading and destroying” ISIS. Much is at stake, not least is the future of the Islamic world, now at the point of a sectarian conflict between Sunni and the Shiite populations, as well as the Kurds. The Middle East is undergoing not only a large scale conflict, but also a fundamental struggle for the future of the entire Middle East and beyond. Obama is right that it is now self-evident that it is America who will lead, but at the same time work with others in this struggle, not least the nations and people of the region itself.