State of the Nation: Britain’s role in the world just keeps shrinking

I used to rule the world… Stefan Rousseau/PA

Welcome to our State of the Nation series, which looks at the coalition government’s progress over the past five years, across a range of vital policy areas. Maxine David looks at Britain’s diminishing role in world affairs.

The coalition’s five years in power have included a few real foreign policy triumphs, most recently with the Iran nuclear deal framework and the British contribution to efforts against Ebola but also in the early days with David Cameron’s triumphant 2011 visit to Tripoli.

Seen in the round though, there is little to inspire confidence – unless a reduced role for Britain in the world is our preferred direction of travel. The UK’s retreat from leadership in world affairs has only hastened these last five years, and there’s no sign the country will change course any time soon.

Island mentality

The coalition’s austerity politics have undoubtedly affected its foreign and defence policies, as the 2010 Defence Spending Review demonstrated. But the diminishing role of Britain abroad is also a consequence of other pressures, especially past failures such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which have greatly reduced the British appetite for military adventures abroad.

The shadow of recent military campaigns has also made itself felt at home in a rising nationalist rhetoric and rejections of multiculturalism.

The coalition has responded to these pressures by focusing on domestic politics, and re-orienting Britain’s foreign policy towards trade and cultural relations.

It was to be expected that the focus on cutting the deficit would impact on the full range of policy areas and certainly spending on foreign and defence policies becomes harder when vital services at home are being cut.

That is particularly so in the UK, where the tabloids are powerful influencers of public opinion and largely opposed to government spending abroad, which they generally decry for coming at the expense of British citizens. Accordingly, development assistance, foreign aid, and military interventions have all been under harsh scrutiny in the last five years, with the government all too often reacting to rather than leading the charge.

This was not the case in the early days of the coalition, where developments in both foreign and defence policies reflected a definite vision of what Britain’s role in the world would be.

In an early interview as foreign secretary, William Hague signalled that Britain would turn its foreign policy attentions to developing trade, educational and cultural ties by capitalising on past relations with states such as India while forging new links to previously neglected countries like Brazil. The idea was to finally get Britain out from under the yoke of US foreign policy, and to reduce its dependence on European markets by forging stronger bonds beyond the continent.

But five years later, the US and Europe still account for the lion’s share of Britain’s trade, and while there is some speculation that the “special relationship” is no more, it hinges more on the dynamics of the Obama-Cameron relationship than any actual policy pivot away from Washington.

Not-so-special relationship. Stefan Rousseau/PA

Some attention-grabbing new ventures on the African continent have been launched, most famously at the William Hague-Angelina Jolie summit on sexual violence in conflict. But real strategic objectives there are unclear, and the comprehensive and sustained concentration of efforts and attention required to be able to claim the UK is a major player in even small pockets of Africa have not been in evidence.

On the way out

As foreign policy became trade policy, swingeing cuts hit the defence budget and the numbers of British military personnel and Ministry of Defence civilian personnel through the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. It has been calculated that, as a result, conventional military combat capability has decreased by 20-30% and that defence spending will shortly fall below the NATO benchmark of 2% GDP.

A new spending review is expected after May 7, but no-one knows what the results will be. What is clear is that Britain’s capacity to project force abroad has already been drastically reduced. This is already colouring Downing Street’s relationship with the White House.

The UK has traditionally been the principal amplifier of America’s voice in Europe, and has reliably kept up its share of defence spending, usually exceeding the 2% benchmark. But given the extent of Britain’s fiscal retrenchment, the US is justifiably concerned that in the longer term it will have to look elsewhere. And as if to prove it right, Britain has done little to assert leadership in Europe, or in any of the multilateral organisations to which it belongs.

The crisis in Ukraine was a big opportunity to tackle the increasingly aggressive behaviour of Russia, which Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said had “the potential to pose the single greatest threat to our security”. But even as Europe, not the US, took the diplomatic lead on the crisis, it was French and German diplomacy that led the charge.

The government was left to fend off criticism from its own that it has become “a foreign policy irrelevance”.

Over Ukraine, therefore, Britain missed a valuable opportunity to work more closely with its European neighbours and to provide the EU with the strength and clarity that many, Britain among them, accuse it of lacking.

This belies the coalition’s commitment to reforming the EU from within, and it also suggests that there was never a well-thought out strategy for coping with the negative effects of the SDSR.

The government could have responded to the need for deep cuts to the defence budget by refocusing foreign and defence policy firmly on co-operation with other EU and NATO member states; instead, it has remained strangely committed to taking a stand with diminished resources.

From triumph to humiliation

This rather despondent and feeble atmosphere is a far cry from the exuberant interventionism of 2011, when Cameron and the Nicolas Sarkozy jostled for credit over who was the first to support actions to oust Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi.

In a February 2011 statement to the House of Commons, Cameron spoke of Britain taking the lead in supporting those seeking democratic change in the Middle East, and boasted of London’s close working relationship with its allies and the UN. The UK described in that speech understood it had a vital role to play in global affairs, and a moral duty to do so. It was a speech that stood in stark contrast to that of Hague in June 2010. It was a speech also that would come back to haunt Cameron.

In 2011 itself, the NATO action enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was hailed as a major success. In September of the same year, Cameron and Sarkozy were feted as heroes when they visited Tripoli.

Heroes – but just for a day. EPA/Philippe Wojazer

But the picture had changed dramatically by 2013, with Libya in disarray and the region unstable. The intractable conflict in Syria deteriorated spectacularly, and there seemed to be the clearest evidence possible that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people.

David Cameron stood with the US in a determination to take action against Assad. In August 2013, however, the government’s motion to assist the US and intervene in Syria suffered a humiliating defeat as 285 MPs voted against it, expressing Britain’s reluctance to engage in further military interventions.

The vote a year later to join in the US-led air strikes on Iraq and Syria, intended in Obama’s words to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, signed Britain back up for a major foreign intervention – but confined to the air and with a relatively small British involvement among a partner force of 60 states.

Bent out of shape

The coalition’s foreign policy has been badly distorted by pressures at home. The rise of UKIP has forced the Conservatives in particular to think local rather than global, forcing them into promising a referendum on UK membership of the EU. This may be enough to rescue some votes from UKIP, but it makes for a terrible international image.

Combined with Cameron’s futile opposition to the appointment of Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president, this has left Britain more isolated in Europe than ever.

British anti-immigration rhetoric has taken on an ever more xenophobic tone, but the coalition has apparently failed to understand how this connects to foreign policy. Some of the worst effects of this bigoted talk could be alleviated through a robust and responsible foreign policy strategy – but we just do not have one.

And it doesn’t seem like one is on the horizon either. In the party leaders’ pre-election debate on April 2 2015, not a single direct question about foreign or defence policy was asked, and the closest the debate came to these issues was immigration and Britain’s membership of the EU.

Few voters would be able to tell you what any of the parties intends to deliver in terms of future foreign or defence policies. Given what these policy areas say about what Britain is and what it stands for in the world, this is worrying – and more than a little dangerous.