International shield

If Britain disappeared from the world stage, would anyone notice? The half-reassuring answer is yes.

Thanks to such developments as Parliament’s refusal to bomb Syria, cuts to defence spending and the possibility of our exit from the EU, there are those beyond our shores who believe that Britain is withdrawing into itself.

One such is Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post:

“…spending a few days recently in Britain, I was struck by just how parochial it has become. After an extraordinary 300-year run, Britain has essentially resigned as a global power.”

In providing evidence for this claim, his focus is on defence spending:

“Over the next few years, Britain’s army will shrink to about 80,000. A report from the Royal United Services Institute predicts that the number could get as low as 50,000, which, the Daily Telegraph points out, would be smaller than at any point since the 1770s — and, as David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy magazine notes, about the same size as the New York Police Department…

“NATO members are supposed to maintain defense spending at 2 percent of their gross domestic product. Britain is hovering around that mark and has refused to commit to maintaining budgets at that level…”

He also mentions the very low profile of foreign and defence issues in the election campaign and finds that this country is “suspicious of a robust foreign policy of any kind.”

The world stage will be poorer for our absence, he concludes:

“Britain is… a country with the talent, history and capacity to shape the international order. Which is why the inward turn of the United Kingdom is a tragedy not just for it but for all of us.”

It’s nice of him to say so, but for a dose of cold hard reality we need to turn to Daniel Larison of the American Conservative.

To start with, the financial reality:

“There are undoubtedly interventionists in the U.S. and Britain that think Britain should continue to be as hyperactive in overseas meddling as it was during the Blair years, but there is no popular support for that kind of foreign policy. Besides, Britain doesn’t have the resources to fritter away on such adventurism even if there were support for it.”

The financial crisis exposed a massive gap between the level of government spending we’d got used to and our ability to pay for it. We’re still adjusting and will be for years to come. Going broke has consequences.

Larison also questions the strange equation that some people make between Britain’s engagement with the world and our willingness to bomb it:

“It is a reflection of how warped our debates have been by the militarization of foreign policy in both the U.S. and Britain over the last fifteen years that anyone seriously thinks that a refusal to embark on an illegal war in Syria, for example, represents a withdrawal from the international stage. Properly understood, refusing to attack another country illegally should be considered an affirmation of internationalism rather than its negation.”

It’s all very well to look at the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and insist that something must be done, but we did do something before and it didn’t exactly usher in a new age of peace and harmony. The advocates of more bombing take a similar line to the advocates of more borrowing – if a course of action ends in disaster, then sort it out with more of the same.

As I’ve argued before, it’s not that this country isn’t interested in foreign policy, it’s that we’re out of viable foreign policy options. Until a new way forward becomes apparent, the current holding position makes a lot more sense than repeating old mistakes.

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