Is Britain losing interest in foreign affairs?

The UK’s new golden relationship with China has been met with a mixture of bafflement and contempt by its allies. The FT reports:

[T]he regular encrypted cables sent back to European and North American capitals over recent weeks have been filled with snide remarks and criticisms of the UK’s kowtowing.

But, although there has been some criticism here of the government’s deferential tone towards China, it has been muted and there was almost no discussion of the geopolitical implications before this week. As the Economist remarked:

That this shift is so little discussed in Britain is remarkable. It could transform the country’s role in the world. The Foreign Office is already diverting resources from Europe to China; from political desks to trade ones. Britain’s growing friendship with Beijing appears to be losing it pals in Washington. Its new commercial links hardwire its economy into that of a vast partner whose stockmarket has fallen by almost 40% in the past three months. Mr Osborne points out that Britain is bound to the EU, too. But it is about to have a year-long debate, followed by a referendum, about that relationship. Where are the parliamentary wrangles over China? The prominent sinologists in Britain’s public life? The headlines about the intrusions on British sovereignty by the economic giant to which Britain is, for better or worse, tethering itself?

I wonder, though, if this is a symptom of a wider change in Britain. We seem to be losing interest in foreign affairs. The 2015 election was the first I can remember in which foreign policy was barely discussed. I wasn’t the only one to notice this. It was just as well for David Cameron because his performance over the last five years has been lacklustre, to say the least. After his Billy no-mates G20 summit in 2012, one former US government official commented:

What’s really striking to me is the extent to which Cameron seems to be taking the UK out of the game. London’s relevance on the world stage seems to have declined since he became prime minister.

A scathing piece in the Economist just before the election, entitled Little Britain,  suggested that things hadn’t improved since.

Margaret Thatcher saw herself, and was seen, as an essential partner of two American presidents. She stoutly defended nuclear deterrence when she thought her friend and ideological soulmate, Ronald Reagan, was getting carried away in talks with the Russians. Tony Blair pushed NATO and Bill Clinton into military action in Kosovo. Ill-fated though the later invasion of Iraq proved, Mr Blair was never an American poodle. He believed that Britain should be in the first rank of countries prepared to counter the threat of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Even the maligned Gordon Brown co-ordinated the international response to the financial crash of 2008.

But under David Cameron:

Britain has run down its armed forces: its defence budget has slipped from being the world’s fourth- biggest to its sixth (see chart).

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Britain has become ever more unwilling to deploy the diplomatic and military resources it does possess. For a country that has long been respected for the skills of its diplomats, the professionalism and dash of its armed forces, the global outlook of its political leaders and its ability to punch above its weight, the decline has been unmistakable.

The Foreign Office’s puny annual spending of about £1.6 billion (a cut of 16% in real terms since 2010, nearer 30% if the money that used to fund the BBC World Service is included) compares with the largesse showered on the Department for International Development (DfID), which will enjoy a budget of over £11 billion, and rising, this year. While refusing to commit Britain to the 2% target for defence spending, the government was nonetheless happy last month to confirm that, regardless of circumstances, DfID would receive each year 0.7% of GDP. Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, a leading academic strategist, reports “a striking decline in interest in international affairs at the senior levels of politics. It was surprising to see the parties tie their hands in this way. DfID doesn’t do foreign policy.”

From Little Britain to Littler England in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Historically, the United Kingdom has been an active player in world politics. After the loss of its empire, the country was a founding and engaged member of the institutions of the postwar Western order. British governments have led the way in pressing for, and undertaking, humanitarian interventions from Sierra Leone to Kosovo. And the United Kingdom’s relationship with the United States has been a great asset to both sides since World War II.

Recently, however, factors including fatigue following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a recession, and a prime minister with little apparent interest in foreign affairs have conspired to render the British increasingly insular. The British diplomatic corps and military have seen their capabilities slashed amid harsh austerity measures. In its limited contribution to the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), in its mercantilist approach to China, and in its inability to formulate a real strategy to respond to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the United Kingdom has prioritized narrow economic interests to the detriment of broader considerations of international security.

Again, the shrinkage of the defence and Foreign Office budgets:

Budget cuts are the most visible sign of the United Kingdom’s retreat. The budget of the Foreign Office has been cut by 20 percent since 2010, and the ministry has been told to prepare for further reductions of 25 to 40 percent. The armed forces have also been downsized, with the army alone expected to shrink from 102,000 soldiers in 2010 to 82,000 by 2020. The former head of the Royal Navy has spoken of “uncomfortable similarities” between the United Kingdom’s defenses now and those in the early 1930s.

So much have British capabilities declined that during NATO’s 2011 mission in Libya, the United Kingdom was painfully dependent on U.S. support to fight a third-rate military. In the current campaign against the Islamic State, a shortage of already antiquated Tornado ground attack jets has kept the British contribution to the air strikes limited, with only eight aircraft being deployed. And the United Kingdom’s decision to scrap its Nimrod maritime surveillance aircraft in 2010 has left the country vulnerable to the incursion of Russian submarines in the Irish Sea.

And the pursuit of short-term commercial interests:

As British policymakers have lost interest in engaging with the outside world, they have embraced a shortsighted conception of economic interests. The Foreign Office has had its ambitions lowered, with its main role now to promote trade as part of the government’s so-called prosperity agenda.

This narrow focus can be seen most clearly in China, where the British government has pursued political appeasement for economic gain. In July, the United Kingdom initially refused to grant a visa to the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, which many saw as an attempt to curry favor with Chinese President Xi Jinping before his visit to London in October. Although most parts of the Foreign Office have faced severe cuts in staff, the British embassy in Beijing has become bloated with commercial employees.

Observers could be forgiven for thinking that the notion that China may pose a geopolitical challenge has not occurred to the British foreign policy establishment. On his recent trip to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, Cameron said next to nothing about the security concerns troubling that region, but he did oversee the signing of several trade deals.

The term Little England is well used in this context. In recent years, Little Englander has become a term of abuse used against those who want to withdraw from the EU. It’s original use, though, was a jibe by High Tory imperialists against those who put commercial interests before empire. The term originates in the mid-nineteenth century when it was used to describe Liberal businessmen who did not want to pay taxes to defend Canada and to anti-imperialist free market radicals like Richard Cobden and John Bright. If, as some have argued, the Thatcherite Conservative Party is the reincarnation of the nineteenth century Liberal Party, the move towards a purely commercial view of foreign affairs may be the logical conclusion of this ideological shift.

The trouble is, all this is happening with hardly any political scrutiny and debate. It is left to generals and admirals to bemoan “the lack of strategic understanding by our leaders”. Britain seems to be sleepwalking away from its historic global role and into a strategic partnership with a country our traditional allies regard as an opponent. As the Economist says, this could transform our role in the world but there was nothing about it in the government’s manifesto or in the political debates during the election.

There are historical precedents for countries withdrawing from the game. Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands all, at one time, had imperial ambitions. Nowadays they are quirky though prosperous monarchies on the fringe of northern Europe. Perhaps that is the future of Britain and people are happy with that. In his fascinating book about the British and their empire, Jeremy Paxman suggests that public indifference was one of the things that finally did for the empire. People simply lost interest in it. Even by the 1930s the crowds weren’t coming out to wave flags like they did in the 1880s. Perhaps we are seeing the final phase of that indifference to Britain’s world role. Maybe the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have put people off the whole idea. I wonder, now, if there would be as much public support for a mission to defend the Falklands as there was in the 1980s. Or, indeed, if our military would be capable of mounting such an operation. It could be that this drift away from Britain’s global role is simply a reflection of a change in British attitudes to world affairs.

Recent studies suggest otherwise though. A Chatham House report earlier this year found that the majority of voters and opinion formers still think the UK should be a world power.

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It concluded:

The Chatham House–YouGov survey shows that the narrative that the United Kingdom is becoming more insular, or even more isolationist, in its foreign policy outlook is not borne out in the data in a consistent way. More than in previous editions of the survey, majorities of the public and opinion-formers aspire
for the country to be a great power. The public says the UK should play a leadership role in international security and the fight against climate change. More support a rise in the defence budget than a cut.

The British public, then, is not yet ready to see the country step back from its global role. In which case, if it is not reflecting a long-term shift in the zeitgeist, the drift in foreign affairs must simply be down to lack of strategy and direction. It’s not that the British are losing interest in foreign policy, it’s just that their leaders are not very good at it.

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4 Responses to Is Britain losing interest in foreign affairs?

  1. roGER says:

    This withdrawal is an excellent development.

    The nation emerged bankrupt and exhausted at the end of World War II. It took about 25 years to dismantle the empire and pull back various forces from “East of Suez” as was the expression of the time.

    Then in 1982 Margaret Thatcher fought the Falklands War with the remnants of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet (the flagship, Hermes was laid down in the 1940s) and the last parachute and commando brigades. The war changed her government from being the most unpopular on record to one of the most popular. Aspiring politicians like Antony Charles Lynton Blair took note.

    Thatcher’s successor John Major fought a successful war with the Americans and others to liberate Kuwait. It was part of the reason he won an ‘unwinnable’ election in 1992. His failure to fight in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s contributed to his devastating defeat in 1997. Aspiring leaders like Antony Charles Lynton Blair took note.

    Finally it was Antony Charles Lynton Blair’s turn. Starting small and successful with wars (called “interventions”) Kosovo and Sierra Leone he graduated to much larger wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never popular, the war in Iraq brought over 1,000,000 protesters to the streets of London and quickly turned into a disaster. Aspiring leaders like David Cameron took note.

    And finally. Finally we have a sensible foreign policy appropriate to a medium sized economy based on an island and based on world trade. To quote President Obama “Don’t do stupid shit.” Stay out of wars. Make money. Excellent policy.

    • David says:

      Quite right .
      Anyone who regularly travels to and around the immensity that is China (as I do) cannot fail to be impressed (almost overwhelmed) by a command economy on full throttle . One can ‘gnat bite’ at many of its methods and systems in achieving record numbers of people out of poverty but you will merely be brushed aside . The Chinese have always considered themselves superior (‘middle kingdom’) and a glance at such things as their historical GDP , for instance , goes some way in supporting this . The people are warm , welcoming , deeply interested in us , proud of their country , have no illusions about their government and will tolerate it just so long as it comes up with the goods .
      The Party’s first and overwhelming priority is to remain in power . Start from there and one begins to see the sense in our governments manoeuvring a little eastwards . That is , after all , the way the world is tilting . I have no illusions about the one sidedness of the ‘relationship’ or about the CCP (I probably know a good deal more than many here) but for whatever reason (Gordon Brown , The Financial fiasco , whatever) we thrive by trade and to do that we need communication , so let’s do what’s necessary to achieve that . To my arts degree friends that sounds an awful sell out but the NHS and all our other cosy benefits have to be paid for somehow .
      The US is alarmed , dismayed , puzzled ? I recall Mr Nixon leading the way 43 years ago when the Chinese government was far less savoury than today .
      The British have a long trading history with China and , amazingly , are well respected and admired . Back in the 18th and 19th century’s it was lopsided in our favour , now there’s a new reality . Get over it and get on with it .

  2. metatone says:

    I’m not entirely in favour of isolation – but it is inevitable after all the “crying wolf” about “we haven’t got any money” & “we can’t afford nice things like civilisation” from the government…

  3. rogerh says:

    Don’t take too much notice of those surveys – a YouGov sponsored study is hardly likely to say anything else. Look instead at the Realpolitik, foreign military influence is (was) one way of keeping trade coming your way. But two forces seem to be working against that model, there are other bigger players and the rise of industrial power overseas.

    No one realistically expects Britain to protect them against any but the most trivial enemy, we do what the bigger players allow us to do. We might call upon American or European actors to help us but past experience is not encouraging.

    More important is the rise of industrial power elsewhere, Britain is no longer the workshop of the world. Specialist markets are still open but a move from making to servicing has exposed a fundamental and unaddressed (and possibly unaddressable) problem. The problem is making the economy run such that it productively employs large numbers. Without a buoyant economy there arises a feeling of dissatisfaction – things were better before – why don’t we have any influence any more. But that game is over, our problem is to find a new role.

    But there is no pool of willing companies out there desperate to put British workers to work. Even if the Brits would build offices and factories there are dozens of other equally good places such companies could go, all desperate to attract business. Worse still there are not that many such companies – the big ones are currently American and they are not likely to hand over their best technologies – they face much the same problems.

    So what to do. We could roll our own new industries – not easy or quick, we could get into bed with the newly powerful – China etc – but become effectively their servant (without making it too obvious). Or we could dust off Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal and rework it for modern times.

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