August 4, 2014 7:10 pm

Small-scale vision is right for post-imperial Britain

The country does have a role in the world: as a nexus for global flows of capital and people
British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech during a joint press conference with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on March 13, 2014. AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEXTHOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

David Cameron

Does America Need a Foreign Policy? asked the title of a book by Henry Kissinger in 2001. It turned out to be a cheeky ruse to lure readers in. The answer was yes, don’t be silly, and weeks later terrorist attacks on the east coast gave rise to an unmistakable foreign policy, even if it strayed from the august US diplomat’s realist counsel.

It says something about modern Britain that a similar title concerning its own foreign policy would be more than a retail gimmick. It would cause reflection, and more answers in the negative than could have been imagined a generation ago. And it should.

Britain is increasingly accused of lacking an international strategy, and therefore a “role in the world”, in a scolding tone suggesting we all know why this is a bad thing. David Cameron is said to be directionless abroad, a spectral presence in such large areas as Russia and the Middle East, with an EU policy forced on him by his ornery backbenchers. Ed Miliband, the prime minister’s Labour opponent, is suspected of conflating statesmanship with roving partisan opportunism.

The problem with these criticisms is not their accuracy. This government really does live hand to mouth. It came to power with blueprints to revive the Commonwealth, a weird Tory obsession that predictably came to nought. It had no intention to reopen the Europe question but ended up committing to a renegotiation of membership and a referendum. Its reticence on the abysmal plight of Libya could make you forget that it intervened there just three years ago. There is no Cameron Doctrine, unless making it up as you go along is a doctrine. And anyone who seriously expects a more strategic approach from Mr Miliband, with his strange brew of passivity (on Syria) and do-somethingism (on Israel), possesses a special kind of optimism.

But what if this does not matter all that much? What if Britain’s smallness of vision is not down to a second-rate generation of politicians, reared on peace and complacency, but a fatalistic generation who know that their country can no longer influence world events? Would it be any wiser to emulate the clarity of Tony Blair, who gave Britain well-defined goals – to become a central actor in the EU, to stop the acquisition by rogue states of the most destructive weaponry – but also an illusory sense of its own capacity to achieve them all?

British foreign policy is not what it was because British power is not what it was. Grand strategy makes less sense for a country that is, though still militarily formidable and well represented in global institutions, slowly becoming one medium-sized power among many.

The fiscal crisis is now the inescapable fact of government, and it has brought cuts to the armed forces and the diplomatic corps that will continue for years. One minister acknowledges that, whatever the government’s official projections, the army could fall below the symbolic level of 80,000 troops. Ahead of a Nato summit in Wales, Mr Cameron has asked other member nations to show the alliance “means business” by increasing their defence budgets to the target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product. The real question is whether Britain itself will continue to spend at that level.

Professor Lawrence Freedman, a British academic, has written that strategy is about “getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest”. Britain’s starting balance of power is diminishing. It does not need a foreign policy, if that means an overarching mission or a take on the world. What it needs are foreign policies. It must know what it wants in specific areas of vital interest – these need not cohere into some grand narrative to please the windbags of diplomacy – and be prepared to let the rest go.

This means an EU policy, something both the government and the opposition have. (We may question the wisdom of these policies but it is another thing to pretend they do not exist.) Then there are the EU’s volatile borders, including Ukraine, where Britain currently has a view but, for unavoidable reasons of geography more than anything else, a less than central role. Beyond these hinterlands, Britain should feel no duty to summon words, much less deeds, for the sake of it. That includes the Middle East. Unless Britain can be confident of making a material difference, mute vigilance is a respectable posture. It is also the only affordable one.

It is true that Britain, with its open economy, has an interest in the preservation of a rules-based liberal order across the world, just as it did in 1914. The country does actually have a role in the world, and it is that of host. It is a nexus for global flows of capital and people, and makes its living this way.

But a century ago it had the power to uphold this world system. Even 50 years ago, its thumb on the scales could tip things this way or that. That is less true now. Big-picture foreign policy was right for a great empire, and for one of an oligopoly of powers. For modern Britain, it is both vain and in vain.


Letters in response to this column:

New conditions will demand agility / From Lord Howell of Guildford

Don’t be beguiled into believing the UK should think small / From Mr Guy Salter

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.