Britain is no longer a world power

Britain faces a turning point in its foreign policy; it is no longer capable of delivering the 'interventions' its leaders crave, while its much vaunted 'soft power' seems so soft as to barely make an impact at all. A change of mindset is needed.

Ben Waite
28 July 2014

Flickr/isafmedia. Some rights reserved.

Recent crises across the world have created a renewed focus on international relations, power and war. In Syria, Ukraine and now in Iraq, serious conflagrations have emerged which have demanded the attention of the world. Into this fold, a plethora of voices have offered their opinions on how best to deal with the crises from the British or Western approach. Most prominently, there has been significant support for intervention, militarism and aggression, despite the emergence of a new and vastly different shape to the international arena in the twenty-first century. In such a changing world, the shape of our foreign policy is at a crucial juncture and that is precisely what makes such opinions so dangerous.

The ongoing Syrian civil war has seen brutal violence committed on a scale that has shocked the world. The single-minded determination of Bashar al Assad to cling to power even at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives of his own citizens has created an appalling disaster. Graphic scenes have been viewed around the world which have roused anger and sparked calls for action. Early on in the conflict, there were calls from significant figures in academia and politics for armed intervention.

The loudest of these calls came from those who sought an armed response for humanitarian means. An unsuccessful vote for just such action in the UK parliament in 2013 turned cabinet member Michael Gove apoplectic. The government had sought to undertake intervention that was ‘focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria's chemical weapons’  Such faith in the humanitarian benefits of military action are a cornerstone of Gove’s philosophy, he later admitted to feeling ‘incredibly emotional’ about the failure to sanction such a course.

The historian John Bew took a different tack, lamenting the failure to intervene in Syria in a New Statesman article as a ‘grave blow to Britain’s prestige in the world’. Bew’s concern for the people of Syria is almost entirely absent from his analysis, instead he fears how non-intervention may be perceived as weakness in Washington, Beijing, Tehran and other capitals. His inference was clear: that without an armed response to such flagrant defiance of the West in alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime, Britain could no longer be expected to be heard at the high table of international politics. Elsewhere, Bew has taken a more nuanced look at Western options for approaching the crisis, yet remains eager for interventionism.

As events have advanced, focus has shifted to the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, whose border with Syria raises the possibility of region-wide combustion. Tony Blair has leant his unerring voice to the interventionists with regards to both Iraq and Syria. In an article on his website, Blair claims that Western non-intervention in Syria was a direct cause of the destabilisation of Iraq, thoughts echoed recently by the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Blair goes on to state boldly that extremists everywhere have to be ‘countered hard, with force’. He sees the challenge with Islamism as a Manichean death struggle in which ‘every time we put off action, the action we will be forced to take will ultimately be greater’.

Away from the Middle East, crisis emerged in Eastern Europe, as revolution and Russian meddling threatened war in Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea produced a shock in the west and raised the spectre of a second Cold War. In this situation, Cambridge Professor Brendan Simms surmised that Russia under Putin had long been ‘sticking the bayonet’ into the West and so far ‘encountered only mush’. He refers to the West’s reaction as ‘appeasement’ and argues that it should be replaced with a swift and aggressive policy. This should include NATO troop deployments in Eastern Europe, military integration and re-armament in the EU zone and measures to extract a high price from Moscow for its actions. Simms wants to fight fire with fire and sees the risks of escalation through aggressive policy as a price worth paying to stop the Eastern menace.

All of these sentiments carry a certain chest-thumping appeal; that action through military means shows strength and resolve, to deal with rogue actors in a decisive manner, and the determination to shape events rather than risk them shaping us. As strategy however, they are not only injudicious, but also dangerous.

Simms’ prescriptions, for instance, would have made the immediate emergence of a new Cold War a near inevitability. Advocating military build-up in Europe aimed at Russia plays exactly to deep-set historical fears in that country, which are based in the incredible destruction and bloodshed visited upon it in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as NATO expansion in the post-Cold War era. Russia’s actions in the crisis were barely cloaked aggression in an area where it maintains a great deal of power. It is hardly likely that military posturing by Western powers would either have reversed the outcomes in Ukraine, or created a better security situation in Europe.

In Syria, the dissolution of the centrally-held monopoly on violence unleashed a range of ‘micro-feuds’ in the country, according to analyst Yezid Sayigh. These clearly make the situation far more complicated than a simple schism between government and rebels. Into this situation, outside intervention would have been as likely to prolong and foment violence as it would to curtail it. The ‘humanitarian’ concerns of the likes of Michael Gove fail to reflect on this reality and place undue confidence in the constructive ability of applications of force. Where Gove’s voice on foreign policy is dulled by his government position in Education, the Henry Jackson Society of which he is a member, remains vocal. Blair’s views meanwhile seem to have grown more hawkish with time and his recent outbursts have caused the biggest stir. His total lack of acceptance of blame for committing ‘original sin’ in the long-term human disaster in Iraq never fails to shock. Along with the likes of Dick Cheney, he remains absurdly resolute that wars of choice are a legitimate and effective means of countering Islamic extremism, despite the shape of events in the last ten years.

Bew’s criticisms of Western policy towards Syria are perhaps most surprising. His praise elsewhere of nineteenth century ‘realpolitik’ adherents such as Rochau and Castlereagh stands in strange contrast to these views. The former in particular advocated pragmatism, caution and close awareness of the political realities of given situations when formulating foreign policy. It cannot be the case that embarking on another war of choice in the Middle East, so soon after the disaster of Iraq, or even given how the situation in Libya is unfolding, would improve Britain’s standing with other major world capitals or carry its voice further in the global arena. Contrary to the men he admires, Bew’s call to re-establish Western credibility through assertions of force are more reminiscent of the thinking that befell American policymakers in the Cold War. These men contorted the notion of ‘credibility’ into meaning ‘unchallenged supremacy’. The policy of ‘containment’ then evolved to entail military and covert interventions across wide areas of the globe, wherever ‘credibility’ was challenged. The United States became ensnared in a myriad of conflicts, often aligning it against forces for progress and with some of the 20th century’s nastiest villains. These interventions were conducted under a ‘pseudo-realist’ doctrine that consciously conflated regional and local conflicts, uprisings and revolutions with grave national security threats. The results, such as in Vietnam, were ugly.

Most crucially, all of the liberal-hawks, pseudo-realists, neoconservatives and others that make up this siren choir suffer from one common fallacy. It is the unerring belief that whilst non-western violence causes problems, western violence solves them. Until this is overcome, western foreign policy will be tempted towards the rocks.

Calls for intervention have not borne fruit in any of these conflicts, however, perhaps due to the profound and lasting influence of the effects of the Iraq War. In many Western nations there seems to be a lack of certainty about the shape of a ‘correct’ foreign policy in the current era. The many crises, economic, political and social suggest irreversible and perhaps perilous change in the global order. We are now entering what the journalist Paul Mason has called a ‘world without framework’. Despite this, Foreign Secretary William Hague has set out a positive vision and calls for ‘confidence’ in facing the world. Yet the gap between FCO rhetoric and the realities of British foreign policy has long been considerable.

This then, is a call for a renewed public dialogue about British foreign policy. Above all, we need to ask what the nature of our ‘national interest’ is and what we seek to achieve in the world. We need to better understand the power and the limits of our ability to achieve it. Good strategy must navigate between inaction and action, morality and practicality, steadfastness and flexibility. It requires balance, judgment and equanimity in constructing foreign policy to reflect it. If this debate is to begin, then more deliberative voices must speak louder to the sirens of interventionism.

The task for progressives in such a debate would be to put forward the case for a foreign policy framework that, to paraphrase historian Charles Beard, protects and promotes the moral and material interests of the people of these islands and subject to this, works towards the peace and civilisation of humanity. As we stand at a critical juncture staring into the unknown future, there will be susceptibility in the debate to let fear and aggression set the tone. With the stakes so high, it makes building such a case all the more urgent.


The Economist requires you to pay a pound a week to use its website. We’ll never charge for our content, but that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. If you can chip in a pound a week, please do.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData