Britain found a role but is in danger of losing it again

Why would China listen to us if our sway with Europe, and hence the US, had shrunk? asks John Kerr
Former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain's 'peace for our time' describes a key pillar of British foreign policy © Getty

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The Foreign Office I joined, 50 years ago, deserved Dean Acheson’s jibe: we were losing our empire, with the failed 1956 Suez invasion killing some post-imperial pretensions, but had yet to find a new role.

The Foreign Office was split between Atlanticists and Europeans, with European Economic Community expertise largely confined to specialists in economic relations. The separate Commonwealth Office felt slighted and unloved.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office I left had learnt that being influential in the EU strengthened our voice in Washington, in the UN and in the Commonwealth. The split in the service between economic and foreign policy specialisms had healed; my predecessor and successor in Washington had, like me, worked on European economic issues. The British at last felt at home in a Brussels where English had become the common language. In Washington, we were regarded as good guides to EU outcomes: our access to top US policymakers reflected respect for our leading role on EU external issues.

Some of this has since gone. Disasters in the Middle East, together with cuts in defence and diplomacy, have weakened our capacity to lead. While boasting of non-involvement and having the best of both worlds may work at home, greater sympathy and solidarity would have better underpinned a leadership role in Brussels. But much more is now at risk and we would do well to stand back and assess the forthcoming EU referendum’s possible impact on foreign policy.

Modern British foreign policy rests on four pillars. The link with Washington is fundamental. Britain at its best is in step with America at its best. That would not change if Britain leaves the EU, but influence on American policy is a function, not of sentiment, but of perceived power. We are useful to the Americans to the extent that we can convince or cajole our European friends. We cut ice in Washington when we are seen to cut ice in Brussels; to cut ourselves off from our continent would see us cut down to size in the US.

The second pillar is Nato. The alliance is now thinly stretched, with a revanchist Russia occupying Crimea and the Donbass, and threatening the Baltic states. UK defence cuts have gone deep, and lower economic growth post-Brexit could mean their going deeper still. And effective western soft power would certainly be damaged. German reticence about armed deployment, and French unease about US-led command structures, have meant that it has often fallen to Britain to forge the link between Nato and soft power decision-taking in the EU’s Council of Ministers. Our leaving would hurt Nato.

Pillar three is built on the lessons of history. Pace Neville Chamberlain, it is not in our interests to regard our neighbours as far off countries of whom we know nothing. Stability and prosperity in central Europe is a vital UK interest. That is why Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech called for an opening to the east, and why the ex-Soviet colonies, looking over their shoulders at Vladimir Putin’s Russia, do not want us to go. The key point is that an EU without us, or at least without a Britain true to itself, would be less open, less liberal, less secure, less aligned with British values and interests, properly defined.

The fourth pillar is the belief that a rules-based multilateral order serves British interests and should be sustained. That order is built on the rule of law, on the UN and aid, and trade structures optimised to support economic development. If we left the EU, its aid programmes would be smaller, and probably less focused on our friends.

Our ability to help defuse threats of conflict would decline. Why should Iran, India, China or the UN Security Council listen to us if our influence in Europe, and hence on America, has shrunk?

These four pillars of UK foreign policy are mutually reinforcing. If one goes, all are weakened. That is why the vote on June 23 is so crucial, and not just for our prosperity. Our influence across the world would shrink and our allies believe their interests would suffer.

As Boris Johnson said, in 2012, “supposing Britain opted to come out, what would actually happen? You would still have huge numbers of staff trying to monitor what was going on in the [European] community, only we wouldn’t have any vote at all. Now I don’t think that’s a prospect that’s likely to appeal.” For foreign policy and other reasons, I sincerely hope his prediction proves right, and I am sorry his own views have changed. Even Macbeth, contemplating regicide, knew that vaulting ambition can o’er leap itself.

The writer, a former UK ambassador to the EU and US, is chairman of the Centre for European Reform

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