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Essays - UK Foreign Policy History from 1948 till 2020 (6 articles)

How Strong Is Britain?

(By Bernard Brodie - April 1948 – Foreign Affairs Magazine)


THE power of England was so long regarded as a great and fixed quantity that the spectacle of its undeniable decline is as confusing as it is disturbing. The star which shone so brightly is now revealed as a nova in descent, but we are at a loss to know what magnitude to ascribe to it. In referring to the world power constellation we still speak of the "Big Three," but also of the "Big Two." Similarly, we like the term "bi-polar" because it is arresting, and we eschew "tri-polar" because it would be a barbarism. But the preference does not argue a conviction that the former term is descriptively more accurate.

It would, of course, be a mistake to assume that the two Powers which are indisputably great represent whole and equal numbers. The ratio of power between the Soviet Union and the United States is not easily determined, yet each of those nations is unquestionably able to control militarily very large sections of the globe. Each of them would be unquestionably difficult to conquer even by a coalition of all the remaining Powers. But can the same be said of England, that England which on successive occasions saved herself by her efforts and Europe by her example? The example she still provides may be praiseworthy enough in other respects, but it no longer appears to be the kind which can promise salvation to others. On the other hand, the practice of writing off British power was born well before the recent war, and unfulfilled predictions do not age gracefully. We have to start afresh.


Since our appreciation of decline is, by definition, a sense of contrast between existing visible weakness and presumed condition of great strength in the past, it is worth our while to examine briefly some of those historical presumptions. The fact is that Pitt's valedictory summed up the extent of British power much more accurately than did many later historians, on whom Mahan's insights had a somewhat exaggerated influence. At any rate, Britain's influence stemmed not so much from power to intervene on the Continent as from the fact that she bore a charmed life. She could remain alive and intact where others fell, and could endure as a rallying leader—and incidentally a source of subsidies—to those nations who might in time be provoked to resist an otherwise successful conqueror.

In Pitt's own time England fought Napoleon's France for 23 long years, only fitfully interrupted by the brief Peace of Amiens. During much of that time she fought alone. And she was finally victorious. That was the crowning achievement upon which much of her prestige throughout the nineteenth century was based. It was a great achievement. But the span of 23 years argued weakness as well as stubbornness. Here was a country of only 10,000,000 population fighting against a nation of twice the size. Her success was a defensive success. Because she could keep Napoleon from hurling his armies across the Channel she could endure—and await better times. Splendid opportunities occurred again and again on the Continent, but she could raise no armies adequate for their exploitation. Until 1808, when Sir Arthur Wellesley set foot in Iberia to assist a people in revolt, her efforts ashore were a simple succession of disasters.

Then as later, the chief importance of sea power to Britain was that it made her invulnerable at home. On the offensive side it worked slowly and uncertainly and never came near to being sufficient in itself. In the net, it enabled England to wait until Napoleon hanged himself by his mistakes and then, by conveying small armies to the right spots on the Continent, to contribute an extra push to his final demise. But it is exceedingly doubtful whether in that pre-industrial age the British blockade contributed much in any direct fashion to the defeat of Napoleon. The 23 years would alone argue trenchantly against the notion.

The ensuing period was one too often referred to as the Pax Britannica. There were many factors besides the strength of the British fleet, and equally important ones too, which served to keep Europe relatively pacific. Nevertheless, this was also the century of the Industrial Revolution, in which Great Britain led by a most remarkable margin. It was a century in which her population increased fourfold and in which British capital stemming from British production and thrift overflowed with such teeming abundance that it went out to develop all the lands of the world, not least the United States. The age in which warfare first adopted the modern machine; first on sea and then on land, was also the age in which Britain almost monopolized the production not only of machines but also of iron ore, of pig iron and of coal. She still did not have the armies which would have enabled her to intervene decisively and at will on the Continent; but she had everything else necessary for war, and the fact that she did not need large armies for the defense of her homeland assisted her in expanding her power in every other respect.

But by the time of World War I, her ascendancy had long since begun to wane. Germany and the United States had already by the turn of the century overtaken her in iron and steel production. Both these countries were more populous, and were growing faster. The United States was of course not a threat in any real sense, as Germany was, but the superiority even of the United States was a hurt to British prestige and at certain times a worry. The development of internal transportation in Europe had diminished the superiority of mobility on the periphery of the Continent which British forces had previously enjoyed through sea power.

And even financially the British position had changed in an interesting fashion. By 1914 her exports of goods and services were already less in money value than her imports. The deficit was made up by an income on foreign investment which was indeed large enough not only to cover the deficit but also to provide for further investment abroad. The economist would argue that there is nothing wrong with such a position and that it reflects only maturity as a creditor. And certainly one would want to know how much investment was going on at home before a deficit of the kind just described assumes any real importance. Nevertheless, unless the investment at home could be proved to be abnormally large in comparison with what was going on elsewhere, the data do suggest that Britain's capacity to consume was overtaking—and perhaps passing—her capacity to produce.

Britain's contribution to the World War itself and its tremendous impact upon her are too recent and too well known to require much comment. It was the first war in her history in which she was obliged to maintain great armies continuously on the Continent, and it cost her 1,300,000 dead. Financially, too, she was dealt a blow from which she never really recovered. The great contribution of her sea power has been generally misunderstood. The blockade was indeed an important element in the pressure which brought Germany to collapse, but historians have too often overlooked the fact that without the great Allied operations ashore the Germans would scarcely have felt the blockade. And more important than the blockade was the availability to the western Allies through sea power of the resources and finally the manpower of the Americas. But the war did not end without a demonstration that the submarine had made Britain's previously unchallengeable maritime supremacy henceforth precarious.

World War II in retrospect is perhaps more remarkable for demonstrating the continuity of the British position than the changes which modern developments had made in it. It revealed strange parallels in British strategy between wars separated by more than a hundred years and by the whole inheritance of industrialization. Once again a conqueror triumphant in Europe was stopped by Britain at the water's edge. Once again Britain hung on, harassing him at the periphery of his power (and to some extent at the center of it), but chiefly waiting—waiting for him to make his irretrievable and apparently inevitable mistakes. At this point the parallel shifts to World War I. Once again the resources of the world are pooled through the instrumentality of sea power and are concentrated overwhelmingly against the continental aggressor. But the obverse of this happy circumstance is the second and intensified demonstration of vital dependence upon the United States. The new giant among the arms of war, the strategic bomber, discloses itself as not too bad a thing for England. It adds powerfully to the economic effects of the blockade, the latter proving not too important by itself. The use of air power is a two-way game, and England provides an excellent base for bombardment of the Continent. But the benefits derived from use of the submarine are again proved not to be equally divided among the belligerents. The same is true of the new V weapons, especially V-2. And what about the atomic bomb?

Some observers have professed to see a disturbing implication for Britain in the successful invasion of Normandy. What has proved possible in one direction, they argue, may at some future time prove possible in the opposite direction. The answer is simply that it has always been possible for the belligerent which commanded the seas to set an army on a hostile shore, provided that belligerent had also the army to throw ashore. There is certainly nothing new in amphibious operations. England has always used that technique when she had the resources; and, incidentally, it was used successfully on English shores some four centuries after the celebrated 1066, when the Earl of Richmond crossed the Channel with a small army and made himself king as Henry VII. What is mainly at issue now is not whether England can be invaded but whether she can be defeated without invasion, either through submarine blockade or air attack, with or without the atomic bomb.

That result of World War II upon Britain's position which needs finally to be noted is obvious enough and widely discussed, but not in terms of its far-reaching military implications, which have not been appreciated. The liquidity of her international financial position, impaired enough by World War I, was at last destroyed by World War II. The question now is not merely whether it can ever be restored, but whether it can be restored with a sufficient margin to enable her to build up substantial military forces. When we see Great Britain confessing her financial inability to maintain the position she accepted in Greece and Turkey or to support her occupation commitments in Germany, when we see her drastically and continuously cutting back the personnel of her armed forces and obliging them to content themselves almost exclusively with existing matériel, when we find her scrapping old capital ships without any promise of replacing them with modern types, we are reminded that it takes a lot of extra money to be a World Power. And money is just what Britain has not got. It is not rash to say that Britain's balance of payments problem is also her greatest single military problem.


A war has to be prepared for and fought, as Professor Jacob Viner has put it, with the potential disposable surplus of the country. The extent of that potential disposable surplus depends primarily on the accumulated wealth or fat in the land, on the size of the population and the per capita productivity of that population, and on the degree to which civilian consumption can be kept from devouring the national product. In none of these three respects is Britain's position today a good one, and in the first and third it is much worse than it has been in the past.

In six years of war and nine of austerity, Britain has consumed her fat. It will be a long time before it is replaced to anything resembling the prewar level. So far as concerns population, that of the United Kingdom has for some time been relatively static in numbers at a level about one-third that of the United States, and is about to begin declining. As is true of all populations in that situation, the average age level is moving upward. That means not only less manpower in the military age groups but also fewer young persons to support more aged ones.

Per capita productivity depends also on the efficiency of industry. With certain notable exceptions, the industries of Britain have long been inefficient by American standards, due in the main to poor organization, to output restriction by labor, and to inadequate investment over the last 30 years in capital equipment. The British are even now debating in the press and in Parliament the proportion of the national income which ought to go into new capital investment—a matter which is very much under the control of the government. The school of thought which seems to be winning out is that there should be less rather than more capital investment than has been going on recently, the idea being that what is most necessary is to halt inflation by turning out more consumer goods. Even at best, the amount which Britain could spend on rationalization of her industries in her present difficulties would be very small in comparison to her needs. Granting the most favorable possible results which can be expected from the ERP, we cannot look forward to any marked increase in the efficiency of British industries over the next decade or two.

It is clear that two decades of depression and two generations of labor union preachment have left their mark on work habits. The habit of "spreading work" as a solution for unemployment conformed nicely with the impulse to slow down in resentment against the "exploitation" of the capitalist employer. Both habit and impulse are now well-ingrained in the subconscious of the average British workman. If nationalization and a succession of Labor governments can accomplish anything for the British economy, it will be mostly in terms of breaking down those attitudes. On the other hand, if the net economic effect of Labor rule is to be a positive one, the régime will have to rid itself of its singular talent for maximizing inducements to leisure.

Finally we come to what is, from the point of view of military power, perhaps the most important single item in the economic category, the margin by which civilian consumption (and investment dedicated primarily to ultimate civilian consumption) can be cut below the over-all national product. For it is out of that margin that the military establishment is maintained and supplied with matériel. The United States is no doubt the only major Power in the world that is relatively free from the necessity of choosing between "guns or butter," and that for the simple reason that its gross production is so great that a formidable military organization can be built up from only a small part of it. There is plenty of butter for all in the remainder. Of course we can always insist upon "more butter" to the detriment of our national security, and are clearly in danger of doing so in so far as our national security is bound up with aid to Europe. But so far as our own armed forces are concerned, we can have our guns and eat our butter too.

The British people demonstrated during the war a willingness to cut civilian consumption to a degree which must command the awed respect of Americans. But whether they will be willing during peacetime to make anything like comparable sacrifices for the sake of maintaining an adequate military establishment on sea, land and air is quite another question. And in their present circumstances the sacrifices necessary to that end would have to be obvious and severe. It does not at present appear that they will be willing to make them.

The British are not living well, but they are living beyond their means. That is one interpretation of their inability to balance their international payments, especially since the deficit appears not to be offset by proportionate investment at home. And as was indicated earlier, so far as current production is concerned they have been living beyond their means for a very long time. In the period between the two great wars the income from foreign investments was just barely making up the deficit between current imports and exports, and that at a time in which the terms of trade—that is, the prices paid for imports as against those received for exports—lay markedly in Britain's favor. To be sure, Britain was then paying for a large navy, but she was not by any means keeping it up to date, and she was entirely neglecting the other services. Finally, in the last three years before World War II, due no doubt to her efforts to redress her unpreparedness, she was failing by an annual average of 45,000,000 pounds to cover her trade deficit out of foreign investment income.

Britain in World Strategy

(By Anthony Eden - April 1951 – Foreign Affairs Magazine)


PRESIDENT TRUMAN, in his message on the State of the Union, described the principles for which the United Nations are fighting in Korea as "the foundations of collective security." He was stating, in my view, a simple truth. But that it should be uttered by the Chief Executive of the United States at this time of decision in world history is a matter of profound significance. Until now, collective security has never been more than a concept, idealistic but abstract. Its effective interpretation, as we in Europe have confirmed in the acid test of experience, insists that the diplomacy of the peacemakers must have the backing of arms. Only in such a way can collective security perform its essential function, which is to avert war instead of merely permitting some to survive it.

The first invocation of collective security was in the days of the League of Nations. Maybe it did not fail by a very large margin. But it did so because of a reluctance, understandable enough though misguided, to use force. A contributory factor throughout the League's history was the non-participation of the United States. I do not think that there would be much dispute today as to the immense psychological influence which America's absence brought to bear on the calculations of potential aggressor and potential defender alike. It is therefore not surprising if present events are seen by some Americans as nearly a complete reversal, in a comparable situation, of the pre-1939 relationship between America and Europe. We in Europe now appear, in the eyes of the pessimists, to be the "absent," while the burden, psychological and actual, of giving effect to collective security seems to them to rest solely on the United States. This feeling is understandable, but it is not justified. Yet even as a minority view it deserves attention.

No country has better reason than Britain to know the reasons for such a mood in America today. We have had long experience of being both overburdened and misunderstood. For centuries Britain, as both a European and a World Power, was accustomed to provide security—almost single-handed in proportion to the heavy obligations of that rôle—to territories both of family and of friends. Britain's boundaries of responsibility and influence may seem to have shrunk in recent years, and phrases such as "the sun never sets . . ." gain no more than an occasional backward glance.

Yet are they so outmoded, after all? It does not seem so when we look, even now, at the dispersal of British strength in Korea, Hong Kong and Malaya, in the Middle East, in Austria and Trieste, and nearest home in Germany. It is at once obvious that these British forces are stretched, in relation to the availability of trained men and modern arms, more tautly than those of any other country, ally or enemy.

I would be the first to admit that we must improve upon this contribution to the collective security of the free world. At the recent Pilgrims' dinner in London to welcome Ambassador Gifford I urged that we must pitch our defense efforts at the maximum, not the minimum; that we must marshal all our resources and unite our endeavors in every sphere and at every level. We are not doing that yet. However, a review of the disposition of Britain's armed forces at this moment may be salutary for those who decry the extent of our present efforts, and at the same time it may provide the most realistic basis on which to plan priorities in expansion.

But first there must be a preface. If the free nations of the world are to recognize the part which the British peoples can play, the nature of the British Commonwealth of Nations and the way its strength can best be applied must be fully understood. Two-thirds of the area of the Commonwealth and Empire lie in lands whose shores abut on the Indian Ocean; there are parts of three Dominions and other vast territories which touch the Pacific; yet the chief centers of its skilled manpower, industry and war potential face the North Atlantic.

Britain is the heart of this unique complex of free peoples, and as the strength of our island lies in its command of the approaches to Western Europe, so also does its vulnerability. Our very proximity to the Continent stresses the dangers of a mortal blow by sea or air. Moreover, it must be remembered that Britain is not likely to become, at the very best, more than 60 percent self-supporting in foodstuffs. By far the greater part of our meat, wheat and fats comes from such far-flung sources as Australia, tropical Africa, the East Indies, Canada and the United States. Nor must our staple comforter, tea, be forgotten. Of raw materials, coal alone is normally produced in quantities sufficient to meet the needs of British industry. Yet the products of these raw materials, when converted into machinery, and in war into warlike stores, are vital both for the existence of many of the nations which supply them and for the fighting services wherever they may be in action. It is therefore true to say that the crucial aim of our strategy is the maintenance of the nerves and arteries of our family of nations—the lines of communications. But there are also other factors which exert a special influence.

Although oceanic in its general nature, our Commonwealth system has to take account of nearly 20,000 miles of land frontiers with foreign nations. Sometimes there are smaller nations behind the frontiers, as there are behind India and Pakistan, and these are liable to be influenced or even absorbed by other Powers. Siam, Tibet and Afghanistan, for example, stand in such a relation to Communist China and Soviet Russia. Indeed, some of our most important naval bases have land frontiers with foreign countries; Gibraltar and Hong Kong are both so situated. Lastly, the great area and variety of the Commonwealth produce diverse social and economic problems which Communism has persistently sought to exploit through the fevered readjustments of the postwar world.

Let me then summarize the main framework of the strategy which governs the siting of our forces. We must recall that there also exist, beyond this essential framework, our commitments in support of the United Nations, our obligations for mutual defense under the North Atlantic Pact, as well as our special bilateral treaties such as that with Jordan. Outside these commitments the vital points are as follows:

  1. The maintenance of free movement on the oceans.
  2. The defense of Britain, the heart of the Commonwealth and Empire, primarily from the air.
  3. The defense of the land frontiers of the Empire.
  4. The maintenance of internal security, with which is linked to some extent defense of important Commonwealth interests in certain foreign lands.


Look for a moment at what is involved in sea power alone. This depends upon the security of naval and air bases and of harbors for merchant ships. Since the main shipbuilding and industrial center is Britain, the destruction by air attack of our major war potential would cripple our sea power throughout the world. The treaty arrangements with the Western European countries impose upon us responsibilities for the provision of forces on the Continent. To that extent they are liabilities, but when viewed against the background of Commonwealth defense they may also be advantageous in providing depth to the air defense of the British Isles. Finally, unrest in certain colonial areas, or failure to uphold significant interests in other parts of the world, may deprive ourselves and our friends of some vital raw material without which our efforts would be hamstrung.

It is the direct responsibility of the British Government to control the foreign and defense policies of those colonial territories that fall under its authority. These comprise colonies which are at various but incomplete stages in their progress towards self-government; the protectorates which are, generally speaking, the least developed areas; and the trust territories under British administration. The self-governing Dominions, on the other hand, have of course absolute control over their own defense and foreign policy. Concerted action between them and Britain, together with the colonial group, is obtained only by consultation and agreement. Nevertheless, certain general principles have been formulated at Imperial conferences and other meetings between our statesmen. Perhaps the most important of these is the maxim that the defense of the whole Commonwealth is of common concern to all its members, but that the primary contribution of each must be its own local defense.

In order to carry out our responsibilities towards the colonial group, and for the additional reason that in peacetime the Dominions group can hardly raise naval forces sufficient for more than their immediate local defense in war, Britain has to maintain a large standing navy and air force. This must be remembered in considering the extent of the land forces Britain can raise, their rôle and locations. The British Army is the only force in the Commonwealth which contains a large "regular" core. On this regular army, assisted by trained national service men during the latter part of their two years' compulsory service, fall the following important tasks—apart from any occupation forces stationed in Europe:

  1. The provision of garrisons at naval and air bases and defended ports along our sea and air lines.
  2. The provision of forces needed for the land defense of certain overseas territories to the extent required by our interest in those territories and the possibility of a threat to them.
  3. The maintenance in the United Kingdom of a highly trained nucleus in a state of readiness to take the field. This force has to be available for immediate dispatch wherever it may best be employed to hold the danger until the Territorial Army formations can arrive to help.

To fulfill these tasks, where must our army be located and what are the appropriate numbers employed today for that purpose? The enormous geographical range can be seen from a brief review of only one set of commitments: the garrisons for naval and air bases on the main lines of communications. These include Bermuda and Kingston in the West Indies; the defended port of Freetown in West Africa, flanking the routes to South Africa; Gibraltar, at the opening of the Mediterranean, and Malta, Aden and Suez; Ceylon, where under the Independence Act of 1947 the United Kingdom may station such forces as are required to assist in the joint defense of port installations and communications; Singapore, the gateway to the Far East proper and to the Pacific, but so closely connected with its hinterland, Malaya, that the British garrison will be included, for my purpose here, in the estimate for Malaya as a whole; and Hong Kong.

Although for security reasons it is impossible for anyone outside government circles to be in possession of the full military facts, and although the situation changes from day to day as requirements in one theater necessitate movements of men and matériel from another, it is yet possible to give an approximate picture of the way in which we are fulfilling our varied commitments. These are round figures:

Bases, etc. (excluding Singapore and Hong Kong)


Areas of vital interests: Malaya 17,000, Hong Kong 20,000


  (including certain elements for Korea)


Middle East


Great Britain (including strategic reserve being built up after


  certain units had been sent to Korea)


Germany (existing units being brought up to strength and another


  division being formed)


Austria and Trieste









The United States is proposing such an enormous increase in its defense expenditure that there is danger some Americans may feel that our contribution falls short of their own high standard. It must be remembered, however, that the British economy is already fully stretched, with a higher level of taxation than any other country in the world. Before we begin to pay for our rearmament program, 43 percent of the total national income is already being taken in taxation by the local and central government. This can be compared with something over 35 percent of the national income which will be taken by the United States taxation authorities if new taxes are voted to cover the proposed budget of 71.6 billion dollars. What this means in terms of the individual can be understood when it is remembered that income tax and surtax in the United Kingdom on the highest range of incomes is 19/6d. in the pound, and this excludes substantial local taxation. There are now only 86 people in this country with a net income of over £6,000 a year, compared with 6,560 in 1939. Indirect taxation, which more particularly affects lower income groups, is levied on such necessities as soap, stationery, razor blades, and in fact on practically all commodities except food and some clothing and furnishing fabrics.

It is clear, therefore, that there is no reserve of taxable capacity on which to draw. Setting entirely aside any question of hardship, an increase of taxation over and above its present level would have a directly inflationary effect. I use the word inflationary advisedly, for in my view existing British taxation has already passed the stage at which it can achieve the effect of deflation. On the contrary, a further increase in taxation must result in individuals drawing on either capital or savings in order to try to balance the rising cost of living against their diminishing resources. Furthermore, such an increase would undoubtedly have a seriously disheartening effect on effort in every range of income. More particularly would it discourage overtime by workers who are not now liable for direct taxation but whose extra earnings would immediately put them into the range of those who pay 5 shillings in the pound income tax. It is understandable that men and women are unwilling to do this even in conditions of crisis, short of actual war. All this does not mean that Britain cannot afford to pay for rearmament, but it does mean that our problem is different from that facing the United States.

Not only are the budgetary difficulties appallingly complex in this country, but the diversion of physical resources from civilian to military production is also more intricate than in the United States. Both men and machines are fully employed, and in neither is there a reserve capacity as there was in 1939. If men are to be transferred to the armaments industry and its auxiliaries, some reduction in exports will probably be necessary as well as a cut in expenditure.

The diversion of some of our production from exports to armaments must have an adverse effect upon our balance of payments problem. As must be only too well known to everyone in America, this has been our dominating economic preoccupation since 1949. The year 1950 saw a temporary solution. For the first time since the war the United Kingdom had a surplus in her balance of payments, even without Marshall Aid. This is threatened, however, by the rearmament program. It is true that in 1950 there was a surplus of something like £250,000,000 in our overseas account, but the terms of trade have steadily moved against us. A volume of imports such as we bought in 1950 would cost something like £ 300,000,000 a year more today, and the rearmament inevitably calls for increased imports.

I do not think it is generally realized that, while the enormous rise in prices of raw materials produced in the Commonwealth has been an aid to us in that it has increased our gold and dollar reserves, these belong to the sterling area. The position of the United Kingdom has thus, in certain respects, been made more, not less difficult. Huge sterling balances have accumulated in London in the accounts of countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Malaya. It is perfectly true that these balances are held chiefly by Australia and New Zealand, nations which have always exercised the greatest restraint and showed the greatest consideration for the interests of Great Britain and of the Commonwealth as a whole. But debts are debts, even when they are owed to creditors within the family. The demands of rearmament will fall first upon the engineering and vehicle-producing industries and must, even with a yet stricter rationing of civilian consumption, mean some drop in our exports. The balance of payments may once again become a serious problem. Connected with this question is the shortage of raw materials which hits the United Kingdom as hard as any other country in the world—or harder—since, with the exception of coal, all our raw materials have to be imported.

The United States is bravely accepting a heavy sacrifice, and no doubt many Americans, tormented by anxiety about husbands or sons in Korea, feel inclined to blame the United Kingdom for a seeming unwillingness to face the facts of the international situation. But they can be assured that now that the extent of the effort needed is known to the British people they will respond freely and fully. They can also be assured that even apart from those who are called up to serve in the armed forces, every citizen of the United Kingdom will be bearing an extremely heavy burden in taxation and other spheres.

For many years now a peculiar strength of Anglo-American relations has been the knowledge that we can speak our minds to each other, and this not merely because we speak the same language. But this does not absolve us from the responsibility to choose our words. There are, no doubt, critics in Britain who feel that the United States is comparatively inexperienced in international affairs. But it is still less than a century ago since the American people fought on their own soil one of the greatest and most gallant wars in history and achieved through it a miracle of unity. To recall this is to realize that no nation could come through such an experience without putting adolescence far behind. Leaders of the caliber of Lincoln and of Lee brought a luster to the young American tradition which has shone more brightly rather than faded with the years. Such men as these, who showed themselves willing to fight to the death for a principle, laid the foundations of America's maturity.

The whole trend of events, whether we view them from Europe or America, points to the supreme importance of Anglo-American unity. This is no longer an idealistic conception of small groups but a practical policy of governments. If it can be founded upon that rare intimacy which enables good friends to be also each other's severest critics, so much the better. The growth of interdependence between nations cannot be carried too far so long as it develops by free consent.

On this side of the Atlantic those nations which are determined that the cradle of Western civilization shall not also be its grave turn today to the United States. Nothing, in my view, can be more natural, for there is little in the American way of life which cannot trace a way back to European origins. I believe that the United States turns equally naturally to us, understanding that if either should fail in the supreme tests ahead, both must lose immeasurable treasure of freedom and send the world reeling back to an age of darkness.

I use the word "darkness" deliberately, for I believe that if we fail to meet and turn the challenge that confronts us, all the peoples of the world must live and have their being without hope. And what is darkness but utter hopelessness? And where, if the bastions of the free world should fail, could there be any hope for those who remain?

The most effective means of meeting any danger is first to comprehend its nature. By this I do not mean abstruse academic analyses of this or that philosophy, but a down-to-earth understanding of the facts of the matter. I believe that there are four types of people who easily respond to the appeal of the destructive Communist faith. There are certain idealists, sensitive to any blueprint promising a better world. There are the immature, who crave a crusade and to whom the sacrifices demanded of a Communist seem a kind of personal fulfillment. There are the discontented and the dupes who will accept any theory which throws responsibility upon others and guarantees uniformity for all. And there are the seekers after power who know that they can win command over others only through common desires or common fears.

To all these Communism is designed to appeal. Its doctrine has been presented as some species of philosopher's stone, as a glittering revelation of fundamental truths about society which gives to believers the keys to both understanding and action. The glitter is spurious, but so dazzling that the disciples are blinded and the truth hidden from them.

It is perhaps not irrelevant to mention the one kind of man who invariably rejects Communism almost without a second thought. The true nonconformist finds no appeal in Marxist dogma. He is inherently against subjection to any hierarchy and spontaneously rejects all doctrines of infallibility. To him, democracy is a necessary form of human dignity. By instinct he understands that the decision to become a Communist is usually the last decision a man ever makes for himself.

Communism stalks men in the guise of a religion; it demands sacrifice and self-denial for an ultimate, collective redemption. Communism enlists men in the uniform of militancy; it imposes discipline and austerity and spreads a skein of subterfuge. And so the needs of both the mystic and the practical man appear to be met. Once a man has been "indoctrinated," even seeing is not believing. A Communist cannot be convinced by argument because he cannot imagine such an anomaly as an adversary in good faith; to him, anyone who dissents is merely disloyal.

The Communist-led millions—and they are nearly half the world—are not permitted to see that it is they and their institutions which are in chains. How can they realize that it is not the citizens or workers of the West who are fettered, but those of the Communist states? By the rule of the system the faults of the system must go unquestioned and unchecked. Within a true democracy the individual is still free to fulfill himself and the promise of his abilities, and the individual and his faith are the only means by which anything on earth is ever done.

With all its faults, the Western system has infinite possibilities. The fact that it recognizes that it has faults is one of its greatest distinctions. It does not foreclose change. Yet because democracies limit liberty, while proclaiming it, is no reason to embrace a faith which wholly proscribes it. Without freedom, there is no risk, no challenge and, in the long run, no progress.

The West can survive only to the extent that individuals accept their obligations as members of a free community. As such, our duty is clear. First, last and all the time we must stand together. In this task there can be no excuse for failure, no room for misunderstandings and no scope for sabotage of the efforts of one nation by the ignorant of another.

All over the globe the British peoples have obligations. We are striving to fulfill them. I do not claim that our efforts are without mistakes of planning, judgment or execution. But in the same way that the American people are entitled to have others think that they are doing their best in a difficult job, so, I believe, are the British.

Realism in British Foreign Policy

(By Edward Heath - October 1969 – Foreign Affairs Magazine)


Looking back at the foreign policies of Britain and the United States since 1800 one sees two strands woven closely together—the strands of idealism and realism. In both countries, governments, parliaments and peoples have been happiest when these two elements have been brought together in apparent harmony. Take for example two quotations from nineteenth-century England:

“We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. . . . With every British Minister the interests of England ought to be the shibboleth of his policy.”

And then again:

“I hold that the real policy of England is to be the champion of justice and right: pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks justice is, and whenever she thinks that wrong has been done.”

The point of interest in these quotations is that they were spoken by the same man in the same speech without any sense of contradiction. They were the words of Palmerston in the House of Commons in 1848; but I am sure that both quotations could be matched by almost any Foreign Secretary or Secretary of State between that time and now.

Over much of this period it has in fact been possible for idealism and realism to run fairly well together. For example, in Palmerston's time the interests of England, as well as its liberal conscience, dictated that England should support those liberal and national movements which created the nation-states of Europe as we see them today. At the turn of the century, for a comparatively brief period, idealistic belief in Britain's mission overseas combined with a keen sense of political and commercial opportunity to create a positive imperial policy. After the Second World War a different brand of idealism combined with a realistic sense of the change in Britain's power to produce the peaceful transfer from a colonial empire to the independent association of the Commonwealth.

But at other times there has been an obvious and inevitable tension between the claims of idealism and of realism. When this tension has occurred it has been the instinct of the British to plump for realism, to a degree which until recently has tended to shock observers on the American side of the Atlantic. It is the first and not the second of the quotations set out above which has served as a text down the years for the instruction of new entrants into the British Foreign Service. If one looks in this century at the occasional clashes between British and American policy, between Wilson and Lloyd George at the Peace Conference of 1919, between Churchill and Roosevelt in the closing years of the Second World War, between Dulles and Anthony Eden over Indochina in 1954, one sees at each point a British preference for realism resisted by American statesmen, who preferred to look for some master principle which they could put forward as a universal ideal. To the British observer one of the remarkable shifts of American policy during the last decade has been precisely a movement toward a more realistic analysis of issues of foreign policy and a partial abandonment of the search for a master principle. I do not myself find this disturbing. For the interests of Britain and the United States in the present stage of their historical development clearly require stability and prosperity not only at home, but throughout the world. This means that we are once again in a period where the interests of our two countries coincide with any reasonable definition of the common good.

But it is clearly not enough to define these interests in such general terms. The realist has to look more closely into ways and means. It is at this point that there has been in recent years a certain question mark over British foreign policy. We have shown some reluctance to define our course, and to hold to that course steadily in the day-to-day conduct of foreign affairs. We have tended to become preoccupied with day-to-day difficulties, and so to miss the tide of events. We have suffered from a degree of diffidence and uncertainty which has obscured our vision of reality.


An obvious example has been the British attitude toward the movement for unity in Europe. Ever since Winston Churchill made his great postwar speeches at Zurich and The Hague, farsighted Englishmen have seen that the movement for European unity holds enormous benefits for Britain, It promises an end to those conflicts between European powers from which the European countries, including Britain, have been the chief sufferers. It promises a voice for Europe in world affairs which individual European countries cannot hope to achieve by themselves. It promises in the long run a single market in Europe to provide a foundation from which European industry and European science can grow to match the achievements of the United States and the Soviet Union.

This elementary analysis is now overwhelmingly accepted as valid, in Britain as elsewhere in Western Europe. Yet the sad fact is that each British attempt to associate Britain with the movement for European unity has failed, and that each attempt has taken place in less favorable circumstances than its predecessor. When I made my first speech in the House of Commons in 1950 I urged that Britain should join the European Coal and Steel Community. At that time, and for a few years afterwards, Britain had the opportunity to join the European communities at their birth, and so to have a decisive say in European institutions and the way in which they were run. But by the time Mr. Macmillan's government decided in 1961 to apply for membership in the European Economic Community, our task was already more difficult. During the negotiations which I conducted in 1961 and 1962 we had to reckon with a Community whose institutions and policies were already partly formed without taking account of the needs and interests of Britain. During these negotiations we came a long way to finding solutions to the practical problems resulting from that situation; but we were frustrated in January 1963 by the abrupt decision of the President of France.

By the time that the Labor government was converted to the European idea and made its own attempt to join the Community in 1967, the policies of the Community had taken even more definite shape. In particular the Community had, since the earlier negotiations, adopted in detail a Common Agricultural Policy which Britain would clearly have to accept as a condition of membership. The second attempt failed without negotiations having started at all because the French President refused to alter his well-known stand. It is too early to be sure how far the basic French objection to British membership in the EEC has now changed. But it is certain that Britain is now less able than she was in 1961-62, or even in 1967, to assume without special arrangements the obligations of full membership. The increase in Britain's international indebtedness and the underlying weakness of her balance of payments make more formidable the heavy short-term burden which a Common Market and the Common Agricultural Policy as it now stands would inevitably impose.

The setbacks which we have suffered in Europe have also raised in some minds a doubt as to whether we are on the right path to European unity. It has been suggested that we ought to break away from the wearisome attempt to enter the Communities and to find a short cut by means of some dramatic political initiative aimed at finding a new formula. Recipes for this formula have varied, but I believe that they all miss the basic fact about the way in which European unity can be constructed.

In my judgment the unity of Europe will in the end be achieved by European governments forming the habit of working together. Public and parliamentary opinion works upon governments, but in the end it is governments, elected ministers and their officials, who take the decisions. Confidence between governments is the only lasting cement for the unity of Europe. The underlying analysis of M. Monnet and the other founding fathers of the Communities was that the governments of the Six would begin by working together for the abolition of tariffs and the creation of a common market. Under the stimulus of the European Commission they would then move on, as confidence in the joint taking of decisions increased, to create an economic union. They would gradually extend the range of their cooperation until it passed beyond purely economic matters into foreign policy and defense. At the same time, as confidence grew, governments would be more ready to pool their powers in strictly European institutions.

I am sure that this still remains the only realistic approach to European unity, and that short cuts can only lead to a further round of disappointments which neither Britain nor Europe can afford. Of course the process has been slower than the signatories of the Treaty of Rome had hoped. There have been delays and setbacks; in an enterprise of this magnitude these were to be expected. But the Communities and their institutions have survived and proved their worth. It is inconceivable to me that the unity of Europe could now be established on any other basis.

In the next year or two there may be another opportunity for Britain to join in this process. If this effort is to succeed it must be most carefully prepared, for public opinion in Britain could not tolerate a third failure. There has understandably been some falling-off of British enthusiasm in recent years. The cause of European unity has suffered from far too high a ratio of words to action. It would be a serious miscalculation to suppose that enthusiasm could be rekindled by a new round of conferences or declarations of intent; this would merely aggravate the sense of frustration. But once there was a prospect of practical and acceptable answers being found to the real problems which now bar the way, then I believe that public interest would quickly revive and the strength of the underlying argument in favor of European unity would prevail.

Britain's application to join the EEC remains on the table with those of the other applicant countries. The next step so far as Britain is concerned must be for the Six to signify that they are all ready to begin negotiations on our application. Then before negotiations between Britain and the Six as a whole can begin there must be thorough bilateral discussions between Britain and each of the Six, as well as with the European Commission if they so wish. These discussions are needed to ensure, before negotiations start, that enough common ground exists for their success. They will naturally cover the whole field of the Treaty of Rome. Many of the results which we achieved in the negotiations of 1961-62 are still valid and will provide a foundation for eventual British membership. Other difficulties were not resolved in the earlier negotiations and still exist today, though in the case of New Zealand, for example, it was accepted in principle by the Community that a solution was essential for a successful negotiation. It is not realistic to suppose that these difficulties can be brushed aside as of no importance. But given the political will to succeed, these problems are not of a magnitude to frustrate a final agreement.

But preparation must in my judgment go well beyond the scope of the Treaty of Rome. We shall not succeed unless we can work out with our future partners guidelines for the other problems which confront Europe today. We shall not achieve final solutions at this preliminary stage; as I have already said, I believe that these final solutions will grow out of the confidence formed by the habit of working together. But the British Government needs to show from the beginning that it favors a common approach to these further problems, and that it has ideas on what this approach should be. The further problems fall broadly under three heads: monetary cooperation, political cooperation and defense.


The monetary predicament of the Western world looms larger today than it did in 1961-62 or even in 1967. It is, of course, a problem with many facets. In 1967 a principal cause for concern was the weakness of sterling and the instability of the sterling balances. The former led to devaluation; but devaluation, in its turn, gave a shock to the sterling system which aggravated the problem of the sterling balances. In effect, a European solution had then to be found for this problem. The Basle agreements contained arrangements which could well have been a part of such a European solution.

At the same time, a general uncertainty persists—a result of the continued increase in Britain's indebtedness, the continued U.S. deficit, the weakness and sudden devaluation of the franc and the accumulated surpluses in Germany—which impedes the economic policy of each of these countries and many others besides. Obviously, there could be no purely European solution to these problems, but equally it has become clear that Europe cannot proceed much further toward economic union without a more fundamental consensus on monetary matters than is contained in the Treaty of Rome or the practice of the EEC to date.

Two related issues in particular dominate the present international monetary scene. The first has worldwide ramifications; the second, in practice, is more directly the concern of the European Communities.

On the wider issue, the Bretton Woods system (not as originally envisaged, but as it has developed in practice) has for some time been showing acute signs of strain. On the one hand, there is a continuing need for increased international liquidity to satisfy the reserve requirements of various countries without precipitating the international transmission of deflation and a return to the beggar-my-neighbor policies of the interwar years. On the other hand, this need has been met by persistent imbalance—on the part of the Americans—creating a flow of dollars into Europe. This has eased the liquidity problem at the expense of growing doubts about the value of the dollar. While these doubts have not been resolved, the pressures to which they could have given rise have largely been neutralized by German reluctance to convert dollars into gold.

The creation of liquidity in this way has had certain unplanned and unforeseen consequences. First, the gold-exchange system envisaged at Bretton Woods has effectively been put into suspense and replaced by a dollar system. Secondly, the surplus of dollar balances, instead of accumulating in official hands, has contributed to the development of the Eurodollar market to supply the need for a European capital market.

These developments have both good and bad features. On the positive side, the supply of liquidity necessary for the continued growth of world trade has been maintained; the Eurodollar market now performs an invaluable role as a flexible international money market, and America has been able to continue exporting scientific know-how and managerial skill to Europe.

On the negative side, the system depends upon a continued U.S. deficit which in turn means a flow of real resources to the richest country in the world; the Eurodollar market is also a potential source of instability, lacking as it does any overt control or "lender of the last resort;" and under the dollar system the world is forced to march in step with the United States, which effectively determines the ebb and flow of activity throughout the rest of the world.

Europe must decide whether it really does want America to eliminate its deficit or whether to accept a world dollar system. Can the European countries agree on a viable alternative to American domination of the international monetary system?

The related, but narrower, European problem is how individual members of the Common Market can adjust imbalances between themselves. It can be argued that once the Community is fully developed, scope for imbalance will be strictly limited. The ties between members of the Community will then be so close that the development of inflationary or deflationary pressures in one country will immediately be transmitted to its partners before any serious balance-of-payments difficulties arise.

But this does not alter the fact that a real disequilibrium at present exists between Germany on the one hand and France on the other. The problem is that there is a conflict between measures to eliminate disequilibrium— such as exchange-rate changes—and other aspects of the Community, in particular the common agricultural policy. Under this policy, agricultural prices were set in terms of units of gold which reflect the present value of the dollar. Any member which changes its exchange rate would have to accept, under the rules, related changes in food prices and farm subsidies, which may be undesirable. Members of the Community have therefore to come to terms with this problem, either by taking a giant stride toward integration of monetary and fiscal policies or by finding some way of permitting adjustment between members which does not undermine the existing framework of the Community. It may well be that the special but temporary adjustments to common agricultural policy made by the EEC Council of Ministers in order to assist France after the devaluation of the franc will pave the way for more far-reaching reforms.

As regards political coöperation, the first step must be an effective system of harmonizing foreign policy within the Council of Ministers of the EEC. It is a paradox that while the EEC itself has failed to establish any such pattern of consultation, the Council of the Western European Union (the Six plus Britain) had quietly and undramatically achieved a form where the seven governments regularly exchanged views on foreign policy matters. That is one reason why I was opposed to the attempt to make WEU part of the means of outflanking the French veto on British entry into the EEC. The only practical result has been to cause France to exclude herself from meetings of WEU which she had previously attended. It is ludicrous that countries of Western Europe are now without a means of concerting their policies on matters of such vital concern to Europe as, say, the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.

In the field of defense there has already in recent years been a movement toward creating a European voice within NATO. This tendency will inevitably increase if it becomes apparent that, despite the lesson of Czechoslovakia, the United States is determined to reduce the size of the forces which up to now she has been ready to station in Europe.

The chief difficulty in the way of this coming together of European countries on defense has been that France has so far been excluded as a result of President de Gaulle's withdrawal from effective cooperation with NATO. The immediate aim of European countries should be to devise a way to end this unnatural separation. It is now three years since I proposed the idea of a joint Anglo-French Nuclear Deterrent which could be held in trust for Europe. I have been glad to notice that similar suggestions have now been made by Herr Strauss and hinted at by the new French Government. My conception has been that the non-nuclear countries of Europe could join with Britain and France in a Consultative Committee which would have exactly the same relationship to the joint Anglo-French deterrent as the so- called McNamara Committee has to the U.S. deterrent. There would thus be no question of infringing upon the Nonproliferation Treaty, or giving non- nuclear countries an unacceptable measure of control, commonly described as a finger on the trigger. A scheme of this kind would not in any sense be anti-American; indeed, because of the provisions of the various British agreements with the United States in this field, it could not be implemented without American support. I believe that this support would be compatible with the general principles of American policy toward Europe in recent years. The United States under different administrations has shown remarkable farsightedness in being willing to make concessions of its immediate interests in order to further the creation of a European unity.


In Britain in recent years, our role outside Europe has been the subject of lively discussion which has run somewhat parallel to the discussion in the United States, although the circumstances and issues are widely different. There is little dispute in Britain about the part which Britain should play in the various international enterprises in which she is a partner. It is widely accepted in Britain that the peacekeeping and peacemaking functions of the United Nations should be supported and strengthened, and that this can be done without acknowledging that every resolution passed by the General Assembly, or its Committees, enjoys some sacred infallibility. The United Nations has shown that, in the right place and under the right conditions, it can provide a useful addition to the traditional techniques of diplomacy which no country genuinely interested in international stability can afford to neglect.

Similar considerations apply to the Commonwealth, an organization which may be on the verge of a new usefulness as the prejudices of the past evaporate. During its early years the Commonwealth suffered from the suspicion of some of its members that Britain was using the organization to perpetuate under a new name some of the privileges of empire. Latterly it has suffered from the suspicion in Britain that other Commonwealth countries were interested in the association primarily as a means of extracting help from Britain, and as an opportunity of reading Britain lectures on British policy of a kind which would be bitterly resented if addressed to any other country. This suspicion gained ground as a result of the preoccupation of the Commonwealth with the Rhodesian question. But after the last Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London, which achieved a greater success than was recognized by some at the time, it seems at least possible that suspicions are fading. New possibilities of cooperation within the Commonwealth are opening up, based primarily on the dense network of connections between Commonwealth countries in almost every field of human activity, a network which has largely survived the vagaries of politics.

Equally there is little argument in Britain about British membership in the alliances to which she now belongs, and in particular of the importance of the connection with the United States. Here again much of the rhetoric of the past has vanished, leaving behind a realization that a special relationship does not mean special privileges. It means a recognition that the two countries still hold interests in common across the world to an extent which goes well beyond the normal dealings between friendly states and peoples. This relationship will continue to the extent, and only to the extent, that each country contributes effectively to the furthering of those common interests.

Much of the argument in Britain has concentrated not on Britain's part in these common enterprises but on the individual role of Britain in helping to keep the peace in certain well-defined areas.

In our recent history there have always been those in Britain who have opposed spending what is necessary on defense to safeguard the security of the country and protect its interests overseas. Now this group has been joined by those who divide the world up into isolated compartments and argue that the British defense effort must henceforward be confined to our own islands and the continent of Europe,

The arguments used in defense of this thesis do not in my view stand up to serious examination. We would all prefer to see a world order in which stability was achieved by some accepted system of international enforcement. But failing such a system, there is no political law of harmony in operation which ensures that the sovereign states in any given area of the world will settle down automatically into a state of peaceful coexistence. There will be circumstances in the future, as in the past, when independent nations which believe themselves to be threatened will appeal to their friends elsewhere in the world for help. It would be as foolish to claim that such appeals should always be refused as to pretend that they should always be accepted.

There have been instances since World War II of British military power failing to achieve the purpose for which it was deployed. But there have also been instances where British power has been strikingly successful in averting a threat not only to British interests but to the stability of the area involved. The arrival of British forces in Kuwait in 1961 ruled out the possibility of an Iraqi take-over. British military action in East Africa in 1964 prevented the overthrow of three Commonwealth East African governments by armed mutiny. The major British military effort in Eastern Malaysia from 1964 until the change of régime in Indonesia not only maintained the integrity of Malaysia but also averted a serious threat to the stability of Southeast Asia. The lesson to be drawn from both the failures and successes during this period is that a British military presence can be effective if the political context is right. This should, I am sure, be the test for our future policy. It happens that in the Gulf and in Singapore/Malaysia the political context has been right for the successful deployment of limited British forces. These forces have, politically speaking, been part of the landscape, and their presence has been welcomed by our friends in the area, British forces have not physically protected British investments and installations, but they have helped to ensure the stability without which such British interests cannot flourish.

This analysis, rather than any nostalgia for imperial grandeur, has led the British Conservative Party to the firm conclusion that if a Conservative government is returned to power it will consult with our friends to see, in the conditions then obtaining, what kind of British effort is required. In Southeast Asia we have put forward a scheme for a joint five-power Commonwealth force including contingents from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia. We have been greatly encouraged by the fact that since I first advanced this proposal in Canberra last August, the governments of Australia and New Zealand have made known in cogent statements of policy the decision of these two countries to keep troops in Singapore and Malaysia after the end of 1971. It is noticeable that informed opinion in Britain is increasingly coming round to accept our analysis. It is more and more recognized that the economies promised as a result of the policy of withdrawal are false in the sense that they expose British interests and the future of our friends to unacceptable risk.

It is sometimes said that foreign affairs are of no real interest to a democratic electorate, and that politicians should concern themselves with bread-and-butter issues. In my experience this is a considerable oversimplification. Certainly, so far as Britain is concerned, I find that even those who have no detailed knowledge of the particular issues of foreign affairs are nevertheless anxious that their country should not retreat into the shadows. They are quick to resent any suggestion that Britain should contract out of any interest in what happens beyond her shores or the continent of Europe.

The pattern of future British policy which I have outlined is, I believe, based on a realistic assessment of British interests. But it also offers scope for idealism—in building the unity of Europe; in helping forward the prosperity and security of the Commonwealth and in increasing Britain's share in all those international enterprises, small and great, which are gradually edging us toward a better world.


Littler England

The United Kingdom’s Retreat FromGlobal Leadership

(By Anand Menon - November/December 2015 – Foreign Affairs Magazine)

In the last year, some 39,000 migrants, mostly from North Africa, tried to make their way to the United Kingdom from the French port of Calais by boarding trucks and trains crossing the English Channel. In response, the British government attempted to secure the entrance to the tunnel in Calais, dispatching two and a half miles of security fencing that had been used for the 2012 Olympics and the 2014 NATO summit.

The United Kingdom’s improvised response to the migrant crisis, with recycled fences substituting for a coherent immigration policy, is emblematic of its increasingly parochial approach to the world beyond its shores. The Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron appears to lack a clear vision of the country’s place on the global stage. The United Kingdom, a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, now seems intent not on engaging with the outside world but on insulating itself from it. The United Kingdom does not merely lack a grand strategy. It lacks any kind of clearly defined foreign policy at all, beyond a narrow trade agenda.

Historically, the United Kingdom has been an active player in world politics. After the loss of its empire, the country was a founding and engaged member of the institutions of the postwar Western order. British governments have led the way in pressing for, and undertaking, humanitarian interventions from Sierra Leone to Kosovo. And the United Kingdom’s relationship with the United States has been a great asset to both sides since World War II.

Recently, however, factors including fatigue following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a recession, and a prime minister with little apparent interest in foreign affairs have conspired to render the British increasingly insular. The British diplomatic corps and military have seen their capabilities slashed amid harsh austerity measures. In its limited contribution to the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), in its mercantilist approach to China, and in its inability to formulate a real strategy to respond to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the United Kingdom has prioritized narrow economic interests to the detriment of broader considerations of international security.

With a national referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership likely to be held in 2016, debates about the country’s place in the world will come into sharper focus. What exactly is the United Kingdom capable of achieving when acting alone? Should London work with partners to compensate for declining national capabilities? Do international organizations increase or constrain the power and influence of their member states?

The answers the United Kingdom provides to these questions will shape its engagement with international politics in the years to come. A vote in favor of a British exit would embroil London and Brussels in months of bitter argument, heightening already disturbingly high levels of European parochialism. It would weaken not only the United Kingdom but also the EU, deprived of its most globally engaged and militarily powerful member state.


Budget cuts are the most visible sign of the United Kingdom’s retreat. The budget of the Foreign Office has been cut by 20 percent since 2010, and the ministry has been told to prepare for further reductions of 25 to 40 percent. The armed forces have also been downsized, with the army alone expected to shrink from 102,000 soldiers in 2010 to 82,000 by 2020. The former head of the Royal Navy has spoken of “uncomfortable similarities” between the United Kingdom’s defenses now and those in the early 1930s.

So much have British capabilities declined that during NATO’s 2011 mission in Libya, the United Kingdom was painfully dependent on U.S. support to fight a third-rate military. In the current campaign against the Islamic State, a shortage of already antiquated Tornado ground attack jets has kept the British contribution to the air strikes limited, with only eight aircraft being deployed. And the United Kingdom’s decision to scrap its Nimrod maritime surveillance aircraft in 2010 has left the country vulnerable to the incursion of Russian submarines in the Irish Sea.

The penchant for disengagement has not been confined to the executive branch. In 2013, the British Parliament voted against intervention in Syria, presaging a more cautious approach to military intervention in general. Public opinion seems equally allergic to foreign entanglements. A 2015 Pew poll found that less than half of the British public favors using force to defend the territory of a NATO ally that falls victim to armed aggression. It was hardly inaccurate for the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, to declare, in the run-up to the 2015 election, that “there are no votes in defense.” Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party has elected a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is opposed to all military intervention unless explicit UN approval is secured, who has compared atrocities committed by the Islamic State to U.S. actions in Fallujah, and who has called for British withdrawal from NATO.


As British policymakers have lost interest in engaging with the outside world, they have embraced a shortsighted conception of economic interests. The Foreign Office has had its ambitions lowered, with its main role now to promote trade as part of the government’s so-called prosperity agenda.

This narrow focus can be seen most clearly in China, where the British government has pursued political appeasement for economic gain. In July, the United Kingdom initially refused to grant a visa to the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, which many saw as an attempt to curry favor with Chinese President Xi Jinping before his visit to London in October. Although most parts of the Foreign Office have faced severe cuts in staff, the British embassy in Beijing has become bloated with commercial employees.

Observers could be forgiven for thinking that the notion that China may pose a geopolitical challenge has not occurred to the British foreign policy establishment. On his recent trip to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, Cameron said next to nothing about the security concerns troubling that region, but he did oversee the signing of several trade deals.

Such mercantilist priorities are also shaping British foreign policy in the Persian Gulf, where, for instance, the pursuit of lucrative arms contracts with Bahrain has come to supersede strategic considerations of regional stability or the promotion of democracy. A similar myopia defines the British response to Russia. Almost a decade since the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London, most likely by Russian agents, there is still no sign of a coherent British approach to Russian aggression beyond the occasional firm word. The United Kingdom has been content to leave it up to France and Germany to lead the European diplomatic response to the Ukrainian crisis. And Russian oligarchs seeking property in London continue to receive a warm welcome, despite their support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What is so confounding about London’s narrow mercantilism is that even if economic prosperity were the chief objective of foreign policy, the current approach would still be shortsighted. Profitable trade depends on the preservation of a stable and rule-bound international system, which both the Islamic State and Putin seek to revise. China may be a large and enticing market, but geopolitical rivalry in Asia represents a real threat to global prosperity. An emphasis on trade policy alone will do nothing to address major challenges to the international order, including piracy off the coast of Africa, the Islamic State’s attempts to throw the economies of the Middle East and North Africa into turmoil, and the massive flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. No European state—indeed, no state at all—can hope to confront these challenges alone. For a country with limited means, dealing with problems of this scale requires collective action.


Yet precisely when international cooperation is needed most, a new political argument threatens to weaken the United Kingdom’s ability to collaborate: the debate over whether the country should leave the EU. Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017, and it appears likely that one will take place in 2016. The United Kingdom—like all EU members—continues to pursue its own foreign policy alongside those formulated for the EU as a whole in Brussels. If, however, it votes to leave the union, it will weaken its global influence and further jeopardize the stability of the international order.

For some proponents of a British exit from the EU, or “Brexit,” withdrawal forms part of a broader strategy of retrenchment. Twenty-four of the 30 Conservative members of Parliament who voted against intervention in Syria also defied their own party to vote in favor of a referendum on EU membership in October 2011.

For other Euroskeptics, however, a British exit offers a way of reinforcing the United Kingdom’s global heft. Nigel Farage, the leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, has held out the vision of the United Kingdom outside the EU as a “thriving, energetic, global hub.”

The clunky, bureaucratic EU, these Euroskeptics argue, lacks the agility to pursue the kind of nimble foreign policy that a globalized world increasingly demands. Besides, they point out; the economic benefits of continued membership are small. Almost 60 percent of British exports currently go to countries outside the EU, so it makes little sense for so much of the British economy to be bound by the EU’s strict regulations. And for those worried about geopolitical challenges, a United Kingdom that left the EU would still have its security guaranteed by its membership in NATO.

Many of the criticisms of the EU as a forum for foreign policy collaboration are accurate. More than 20 years of trying to create what the EU terms a “common foreign and security policy” has led to countless summits, declarations, targets, and rhetoric, but precious little in the way of substantive policies. There is little meaningful European defense collaboration, nor is there a robust common policy toward China. And when it comes to confronting insecurity in its own backyard—whether to the south or the east—the EU has strategies aplenty but few effective policies.

Yet the Euroskeptics are wrong to ascribe all the blame for these failings to the much-maligned bureaucrats in Brussels. A lot of the fault lies with the member states themselves, who have refused to commit themselves wholeheartedly to a multilateral European foreign policy. But since the capabilities of even large EU members, such as the United Kingdom, are declining, they have little choice but to invest in an imperfect institution.

Only the EU possesses structures to foster cooperation on everything from trade policy to sanctions to the defense industry. In a complex world, economic and security problems are intricately intertwined, and only a comprehensive approach to them has any chance of success. A more genuine commitment to such multilateralism from key member states, such as the United Kingdom, is essential to ensure that institutional inadequacies in Brussels are successfully addressed and overcome.


Buried within some of the Euroskeptics’ criticisms of EU membership lies a paradox about British power. On the one hand, advocates of Brexit argue that London is too weak to wield sufficient influence in Brussels. They contend that the EU’s ­excessive regulation and ­internal empire building—epitomized by its drive toward “an ever-closer union”—are long-term trends that the United Kingdom can do little or nothing to stymie. On the other hand, the skeptics maintain that the United Kingdom is so inherently powerful that free from the shackles of the EU, it would suddenly enjoy enough global heft to negotiate trade deals effectively with the likes of China.

The evidence suggests that, at least when it comes to China, London has limited influence. In May 2012, during his first term, Cameron met with the Dalai Lama, provoking Chinese criticism, before changing course and voicing opposition to Tibetan independence the following year. Yet neither move engendered any perceptible change in Chinese policy. Nor is there any credible evidence that London’s pandering to Beijing was the reason China invested twice as much in the United Kingdom between 2012 and 2014 as it had in the previous seven years.

Even if the United Kingdom were able to strike an advantageous trade deal with China by leaving the EU, it would be forgoing far more important benefits of EU membership. For one thing, trade is not merely about trade. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, currently under negotiation between Brussels and Washington, could provide significant economic benefits (primarily from the removal of nontariff barriers, as tariffs between the United States and Europe are already low). Yet its implications are geopolitical as much as economic. The deal is as much about underlining the solidarity of the nations of the Western Hemisphere in the face of common political challenges as it is about eking out marginal gains from opening trade still further.

And this solidarity is crucial in today’s unstable world. The United Kingdom cannot defend its interests alone. Many proponents of Brexit argue that international collaboration should occur with the United States rather than through the EU. Yet it’s not clear that U.S. policymakers are interested in working with an insular United Kingdom adrift from the EU. British timidity feeds U.S. disenchantment with the United Kingdom by contributing to the perception that the country is disengaging not only from Europe but also from the wider world and that it is willing to sacrifice geopolitical principles in the name of prosperity. The United Kingdom’s absence from the Minsk talks over the crisis in Ukraine and from unstable regions such as the Sahel which is precisely where the United States is looking to Europeans to pick up the slack as it pivots toward Asia reinforces such doubts across the Atlantic.

These days, Washington is longing for its allies to take on a greater share of the burden of maintaining security in their own backyards. Moreover, and in stark contrast to earlier periods, Washington has increasingly come to believe that for the Europeans to be able to maintain security, they will need to work together within the EU. No longer does Europe stand in opposition to the transatlantic relationship; it now represents one of its building blocks. The route to a more effective NATO runs through central Brussels. It is precisely by using EU structures that Europeans can best facilitate the military collaboration that is required to strengthen the transatlantic alliance.


It is difficult to exaggerate the difference the United Kingdom could make if it decided to throw itself wholeheartedly into the work of building collective foreign and security policies. On the rare occasions when London opts for such engagement—as it has with the EU’s mission to combat piracy off the coast of Africa, for example—collective action proves enormously effective. But when it remains diffident about taking the lead in the EU, it not only weakens the EU but also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: by contributing to the EU’s ineffectiveness, British reluctance to provide leadership serves only to strengthen the arguments for Brexit.

As one of Europe’s strongest military powers, the United Kingdom is well placed to lead. It was Tony Blair’s government that finally allowed the EU, tentatively, to begin to formulate its own defense policies. And it was subsequent British diffidence that contributed to those policies’ increasing ineffectiveness. By taking the lead when it comes to collaboration over weapons programs, by engaging fully in discussions over how to implement European military interventions, and by actively helping shape the union’s foreign policies, London could arguably do more than any of its partners to reinforce Europe’s international influence.

Uncertainty about the United Kingdom’s place in the world is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1962, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared, “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” Today, the United Kingdom exhibits an even greater reluctance to engage in international affairs. The upcoming referendum will determine whether the country’s retreat will continue unchecked. Yet whether it wishes to or not, the United Kingdom cannot detach itself entirely from events in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. Collective European action, of precisely the kind the EU was designed to foster, represents the only viable alternative.


Britain Adrift

The United Kingdom’s Search for a Post-Brexit Role

(By Lawrence D. Freedman - May/June 2020 – Foreign Affairs Magazine)

“Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” What might have appeared as an unexceptional observation by former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, made during a speech at West Point in December 1962, created uproar in the United Kingdom. London’s Daily Express spoke of a “stab in the back.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan felt compelled to defend his country’s honor, writing in an open letter, “Mr. Acheson has fallen into an error which has been made by quite a lot of people in the course of the last four hundred years, including Philip of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler.”

Why did Acheson’s comment hurt so much? The loss of empire was accepted as part of the inexorable logic of decolonization, but with an empire had come a set of strategic interests that required active engagement across the globe, and now those were gone. Although many saw the United Kingdom’s main task as adjusting to this loss, rather than finding a replacement for it, Acheson’s taunt suggested that a new role must be found. And so a search was set in motion for some truly distinctive role that only the British could provide, one that would be essential to the satisfactory functioning of the whole international system. Identifying this elusive role came to represent the holy grail of British foreign policy.

The search for a distinctive role continues to this day, now in much more trying circumstances. The two relationships that have defined British foreign policy for decades—with Europe and with the United States—are clouded by uncertainty, as a result of the United Kingdom’s deliberate decision to leave the EU and U.S. President Donald Trump’s disdain for NATO and free trade. In a country that has always celebrated alliances and partnerships, the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now stressing independence as a virtue in itself. But it has yet to answer the question of whether this independence will enable the United Kingdom to be less involved with the world’s problems or more.


When Acheson made his speech, the most obvious role for the United Kingdom was as the United States’ junior partner. As two maritime powers that both valued free trade, they had swapped positions in the international hierarchy earlier in the century as the American economy took off. In August 1941, seeking to encourage the United States to join the war against Nazi Germany, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to lay out a shared vision for the postwar world, resulting in the Atlantic Charter. After the war, the two countries sought to turn that vision into a reality, setting up new institutions to manage international security, encourage open trade, and deal with the Soviet threat. London appeared to be settling into its role as a close supporter of and wise counselor to the United States, then it was seen as brash and inexperienced but boasting the almighty dollar and enormous military power. Without this “special relationship,” as it came to be known, the United Kingdom’s strategic weight might well have contracted almost as quickly as its imperial holdings.

The United Kingdom wished not only to influence how American power was applied but also to get help in sustaining its own power. Any thoughts of going it alone on the world stage evaporated with its ill-fated Middle Eastern adventure of 1956, when a joint expedition with France, in collusion with Israel, to reverse Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal was stopped in its tracks by the Eisenhower administration. The French concluded from this episode that they must strive for even more independence from the United States. The British drew the opposite conclusion. Macmillan sought to get even closer, reasoning that by doing so, the United Kingdom would be more, rather than less, influential. 

There was also a more practical matter. The United Kingdom had developed its own nuclear weapons after 1945 not only because it wanted to assert its independence but also because the United States had broken off wartime cooperation. Macmillan worked hard to get nuclear cooperation back on track during the 1950s, now aiming for interdependence as much as independence and he succeeded in getting the United States to agree to sell the United Kingdom Skybolt missiles, which would allow its bombers to launch weapons away from Soviet air defenses. Then, just before Acheson’s speech, the Pentagon announced that it was canceling the Skybolt program. The United Kingdom’s special relationship with the United States now looked shaky, along with its nuclear deterrent. But the immediate crisis in transatlantic relations quickly passed: the White House distanced itself from Acheson’s words, and at a summit later that month in Nassau, the Bahamas, U.S. President John F. Kennedy came to an agreement with Macmillan that the United Kingdom could acquire Polaris submarine-launched missiles, which turned out to be a much better deal. 

Close cooperation in the nuclear and intelligence fields remained at the heart of the special relationship, but what truly sustained it was a succession of shared projects that reflected a common strategic perspective. After working together to win World War II and set up the postwar institutions, they joined hands in conducting and ending the Cold War. The British often failed in their attempts to influence the Americans, and the two countries did not agree on everything—even during the golden years of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. But the shared projects provided a framework within which disagreements could be addressed.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States embarked on a new set of joint undertakings: adapting international institutions and practices to the new world order and promoting liberal capitalism under the guise of globalization. Then came 9/11, after which British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed that his country would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States in the war on global terrorism. But these new ventures ran into trouble. The 2008 global financial crisis undermined confidence in the economic model the two countries were offering, and the disheartening interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya raised questions about their political judgment. On both sides of the Atlantic, people were growing more skeptical about globalization and foreign interventions.

Further complicating the relationship, President Barack Obama shifted the United States’ focus to the Asia-Pacific region, a process that has continued under Trump. If the new big project is containing China, it is one in which the interests of the two countries do not wholly coincide and to which the United Kingdom could make only a limited contribution. Trump, moreover, lacks his predecessors’ commitment to NATO and free trade. The problem, therefore, is not that the two countries no longer have a special relationship—the many ties of language, culture, and history survive—but that they no longer share a grand strategic project to work on. No wonder the British foreign policy establishment is at a loss about what to do next.


This is not the first time London has wondered about the future of its relationship with Washington. The difference now is that it is doing so after having abandoned Europe. After working with the European powers to persuade the United States to commit to European security and form NATO in 1949, the United Kingdom failed to sign on to the European Economic Community in 1957. Belatedly, Macmillan pushed to join that group, a common market and customs union, to give a boost to an economy that was lagging behind the rest of Western Europe.

But his pursuit of the special relationship with the United States jeopardized that effort. Weeks after the December 1962 missile deal with the United States in Nassau, French President Charles de Gaulle cited the agreement as evidence of the United Kingdom’s innate Atlanticism as he vetoed its application to join the European Economic Community. If the British were let in, he claimed, “There would appear a colossal Atlantic Community under American dependence and leadership, which would soon completely swallow up the European Community.” 

It took until 1973 before the United Kingdom was at last able to join the group. By then, membership was not just about economics but about foreign policy, too. U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1971 decision to end the convertibility of the dollar to gold had undermined the Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange. Meanwhile his withdrawal from Vietnam renewed worries that the United States would shirk its alliance commitments, and indeed, Congress was angling to cut U.S. military deployments in Europe by half. On top of that, the Watergate scandal seemed to be throwing the American political system into chaos. London saw real advantages in combining with the other major European powers to form a powerful bloc that could act autonomously, free from the influence of the United States. For a while, this seemed plausible, notably when it came to the Middle East, where the Europeans took a less pro-Israeli position than the United States did. By and large, however, differences in capabilities and priorities limited the extent to which Europe spoke with one voice. 

Where the EU, the successor to the European Economic Community, did prove strategically important was when it came to progress on democracy and the rule of law. Membership allowed European countries escaping authoritarian regimes a way to confirm their commitment to liberal values. In the 1980s, Greece, Portugal, and Spain were all allowed to join after military rule in each country ended, and beginning with a round of enlargement in 2004, the same privilege was eventually afforded to eastern European countries emerging from communist rule. 

The United Kingdom applauded and encouraged this expansion, but the process changed the character of the organization. As the EU grew, decision-making slowed. Even before the influx of new members, common positions were becoming harder to find. In 1998, Blair tried to make more of the EU’s defense and security potential when he met with French President Jacques Chirac at the port of Saint-Malo. In the declaration that resulted from their summit, the two leaders called for “the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces.” Once again, the United Kingdom was hedging against the possibility that the United States was withdrawing from the world. Blair worried that the Clinton administration’s tentative response to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia reflected a nascent isolationism. The promises of Saint-Malo never materialized, in part because of tedious arguments about the appropriate division of labor between the EU and NATO, but also because of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when Blair chose to join a war that France and Germany opposed. 

But the biggest divergence between the United Kingdom and its European partners concerned the degree of integration. After German reunification, France and Germany pushed for a far closer union, something that Thatcher and her wing of the Conservative Party deeply opposed, fearing the loss of sovereignty it would entail. Her successor, Prime Minister John Major, only barely managed to overcome the “Euroskeptics” and push through Parliament the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, by which the European Economic Community became the more powerful European Union. He did so by securing a number of opt-outs from the EU’s requirements regarding justice and labor and, most important, from its economic and monetary union. Although these exceptions made the EU more politically palatable in the United Kingdom, they also led to a semidetached relationship with it—a distance that was confirmed when the otherwise pro-European government of Blair decided to stick with the pound sterling over the euro.

During the Labour years of Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, immigration into the United Kingdom from new EU member states surged, and Euroskepticism became an even more powerful force in British politics. It was thus always likely that whenever the Conservative Party returned to power, the relationship with the EU would grow even more strained. When David Cameron, a Conservative who became prime minister in 2010, the relationship at first changed a little because he had to work in a coalition government with the pro-European Liberal Democrats. Yet after Cameron achieved an outright majority, in the 2015 election, he decided that the European issue had to be addressed once and for all, and a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the EU was scheduled. 

The Leave campaign argued that if the United Kingdom did not get out, it was bound to get drawn into an ever-closer union, a prospect that this camp claimed would even include a “European army” to which the British would have to contribute troops. Meanwhile, the Remain campaign warned of the economic costs of leaving the customs union and the single market and pointed to the opt-outs that British leaders had secured over the years. But extolling the benefits of semi-detachment was hardly a rousing endorsement of membership. Few argued—as was argued in the 1970s—that the EU represented a grand geopolitical project that could enhance British influence. In fact, even if the referendum had gone the other way, the United Kingdom would likely have become increasingly marginalized in the EU, because it was not part of the main European project: creating and sustaining the euro-zone.


Thus, even before the twin blows to the pillars of British foreign policy in 2016—the Brexit referendum in June and the election of Trump in November—those pillars were already weak. The United Kingdom was neither part of the euro-zone nor sharing a grand project with the United States. It was already showing a declining interest in foreign affairs, as evidenced by Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary support for strikes against Syria in the summer of 2013 and then his absence during the Ukraine diplomacy of 2014–15, leaving President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to take the initiative.

It took until the end of January 2020 for the United Kingdom to actually withdraw from the EU, after over three years of protracted parliamentary wrangling that did little for the country’s standing abroad and encouraged further introversion at home. Now, the United Kingdom must work out the details of its future relationship with the EU, a process that will be dominated by questions of trade and thus drain energy away from other areas of policymaking. There is no reason why the current arrangements concerning security cannot continue, including tracking criminals and terrorists and working together on minor military operations. The problem is that difficulties in the wider negotiations may make it harder to sustain these other forms of cooperation. The government will also need to cope with the dislocation at home resulting from the break with the EU, including revived demands for Scottish independence and even pressure for Irish unification.

Nonetheless, Brexit might affect British foreign policy less than is commonly supposed. The United Kingdom will obviously have far less influence over developments within the EU—including, for example, rising authoritarianism in a number of member countries. But precisely because the EU never lived up to the early hopes about its foreign policy potential, the overall effect will be limited. Europe’s international influence has always depended as much on cooperation among individual European countries as on European institutions. Consider how close London has stayed to Paris and Berlin in the Trump era. Not only have the three governments worked together to try to preserve something of the Iran nuclear deal after Trump’s withdrawal from it; they have also stuck with the Paris agreement on climate change and opposed the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

Paradoxically, although the United Kingdom is not part of the drive toward ever-closer union in Europe, it does share at least one big project with the continent: coping with the impact of the Trump administration. Some observers contend that Trump’s enthusiasm for Brexit and a new bilateral trade deal will push London closer to Washington, but this has yet to happen. Although Johnson is keen to push ahead with trade negotiations with Trump, he is well aware of the potential pitfalls, not to mention the president’s unpopularity among British voters. Trump, for his part, has cooled toward Johnson since the prime minister defied U.S. entreaties and allowed the Chinese company Huawei to help develop the United Kingdom’s 5G wireless network.

It is the problems of Trump as much as those of Europe that will dominate the major review of British foreign and defense policy that Johnson announced after Brexit. The biggest challenge involves NATO, whose purpose Trump has questioned and whose members he has spurned. Unlike the EU, the alliance is something the United Kingdom helped found, and the country has always seen it as its main contribution to European security. Even with a friendlier U.S. president, the American public will still question why European countries that individually have GDPs far greater than that of Russia need the United States to provide security in their neighborhood. If the Americans are to be persuaded to continue in their current role, European countries will need to step up—increasing their defense spending and the efficiency with which it is applied and enhancing their capacity to manage the regional crises to which Washington is paying little attention. 

Without going as far as French President Emmanuel Macron in announcing the alliance’s “brain death,” Ben Wallace, the United Kingdom’s defense secretary, has publicly doubted the reliability of the United States, saying in a January interview, “We need to diversify our assets.” Providing European security with a less attentive United States, or even a completely absent United States, raises hard questions. Can NATO continue without Washington playing a leadership role? Continental Europeans support the alliance in principle, but they are less enthusiastic about the prospect of actually fighting to defend one of its members. When the Pew Research Center asked people whether their country should use force to defend a NATO ally against a hypothetical attack from Russia, only 41 percent of French, 34 percent of Germans, and 25 percent of Italians surveyed said that it should. What does that tell countries that are more exposed to Russia? Then there is the question of how to replace the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. The United Kingdom has pledged that its nuclear deterrent extends to all NATO members, but that pledge depends on it supplementing the American deterrent. By itself, or even with a corresponding French commitment, the promise hardly seems credible. 

Even if the United Kingdom sincerely wanted to stress a new security relationship with Europe, making the shift would not be straightforward. British intelligence and defense capabilities are deeply intertwined with American ones, and it would not be easy to disentangle them in short order. The most substantial recent investments, including in Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines, Queen Elizabeth–class aircraft carriers, and F-35 fighter jets, all rely on U.S. technology and facilities. Furthermore, within NATO, the United Kingdom has tended to focus on northern Europe. Although it has been involved in a number of air campaigns in the Middle East and still has a military base in Cyprus, it has offered only modest contributions to ground operations in North Africa, where southern European countries have taken the lead. 


It is against this unpromising backdrop that the British government is reconsidering its foreign policy. In the past, British governments relished the challenges of multilateralism and took pride in their diplomatic prowess. In recent years, those attempting to identify the country’s distinctive role have similarly pointed to its mastery of multilateralism—an ability to build bridges across the Atlantic and uphold a rules-based order. But there are now fewer opportunities for multilateralism as a natural consequence of a United States with little interest in playing the liberal hegemon. The Trump administration’s distrust of international organizations has diminished their effectiveness.

Brexit is also part of the trend away from multilateralism. The British government has stepped up its rhetoric of independence as it sorts out its new relationship with the EU, and in this, it is aided by the United Kingdom’s fortunate location. The country enjoys relative security as an island at the more tranquil end of the Eurasian landmass, with a decent economy, a moderate climate, and a high standard of living. Because of this, the case for a quiet life, for steering clear of trouble elsewhere, is not so unreasonable that it can be dismissed out of hand.

Yet despite all the talk about sovereign decision-making encouraged by Brexit, in practice, the United Kingdom still has to work with other countries. If getting favorable trade agreements is a priority, for example, then British negotiators will need to be solicitous about the concerns of others. To get its exports accepted into the EU, it will still need to be a rule-taker as much as its own rule-maker. One can add that it will also have to be a crisis-taker. In the age of climate change, cyberattacks, and pandemics, the United Kingdom can be buffeted by events elsewhere. It will still be affected by the stresses and strains in the EU, for example, if there is another financial crisis in the Euro-zone. The novel coronavirus has provided a tough lesson in global interdependence.

The challenge for Johnson is to manage the tension between independence and interdependence. On the one hand, he wishes to project an image of a confident country enjoying its newfound liberation from an overbearing supranational organization. On the other, he has denied that Brexit represents an inward-looking turn and an embrace of nationalist populism, eschewing any talk of “Britain first” in favor of “global Britain.” The latter slogan is intended to show that the United Kingdom is broadening its focus beyond its backyard, looking for more sources of high-quality trade and immigration rather than just putting up barriers. So somewhat incongruously for a leader in the process of complicating trade relations with his country’s most substantial economic partner, Johnson has spoken of the United Kingdom as a force for good in the world and as a “superhero champion” of free trade.

But to get past the slogans, Johnson will need to offer a realistic assessment of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy options. The case for international engagement has to be made—it cannot be taken for granted. The context has changed. The British Empire represented a moment in international history that was passing at the time of Acheson’s 1962 gibe. The strategic imperatives that the empire generated were getting harder and harder to meet. The Cold War then created its own imperatives, which were easier to meet. Now, the imperatives are less clear and more contested. One consequence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the British public has little appetite for more military expeditions to help sort out the quarrels and misfortunes of others; another is that it is unlikely to be swayed by alarmists’ talk of future threats.

In an encouraging sign, the British government may have found a formula that allows it to evade Acheson’s challenge. Although it nodded in Acheson’s direction by framing the foreign policy review as an attempt to “define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world,” it also offered a more modest description of the country as “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation.” This opens up the possibility of focusing on capabilities more than objectives, suggesting a pragmatic, constructive approach to working with others that avoids grandiosity and any suggestion of a grand strategy. A capabilities-based review is about keeping options for a wider range of contingencies, with a stress on flexibility and adaptability; it is not about trying to gear everything toward specific strategic imperatives that have yet to materialize.

As a helpful problem solver, the United Kingdom still has much to offer. The country has a good record of adapting its national security tools to new circumstances. Its GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), for example, used to be associated solely with signals intelligence and code-breaking, but it now deals with most of the challenges of the digital age, including cyberattacks, electronic fraud, and child sexual abuse. The country has a long experience with counter-terrorism. Its contributions to economic development have been substantial and innovative. In November, in Glasgow, it is set to host the next major international conference on climate change. It remains a significant military power, with only France in a comparable position in Europe.

The “role” Acheson had in mind was a position within an international system that was ordered and stable, but that no longer exists. Instead, the world is beset by anxiety, with much in flux internationally. Power balances are shifting, and disruptive behavior is becoming the norm. In this world, the United Kingdom has much to contribute, so long as it accepts the limits of independence and, above all, abandons the quest for a unique, exceptional role.


How to make ‘Global Britain’ slogan a reality

If the UK wants worldwide influence, it will have to invest in diplomacy.

(By Robin Niblett – Politico – January 11, 2021)

LONDON — this is when the hard work starts. Tough trade negotiations with the European Union may be over, but when it comes to Britain’s post-Brexit future, there’s still a lot that needs doing — especially when it comes to making sure British diplomacy is up to the monumental task of navigating the U.K.’s new geopolitical landscape.

“Global Britain” has become a catchy label for the government’s ambition to look beyond Europe for new commercial opportunities and pathways to global influence. But it will only be meaningful if the U.K. government recognizes that extra investments are needed to make its vision a reality.

In this sense, a positive image of Global Britain must be earned, not declared. The government’s recent commitment of an additional £16 billion to the armed forces over the next four years is, in part, a recognition of this fact. But this sum will at best plug the shortfall for existing commitments to major platforms, such as making two aircraft carriers operational and modernizing the country’s nuclear deterrent.

The missing piece of the puzzle remains British diplomacy, where spending will need to rise significantly to promote U.K. interests in a highly competitive global marketplace dominated by the United States, China and the EU — or, more to the point, to retain the same level of global influence the U.K. enjoyed when it was an EU member.

Outside the EU, Britain will no longer be able to rely on the European Commission to manage complex and simultaneous trade negotiations with other powerful blocs and emerging markets. Nor will it be able to leverage the division of labor that the EU offered, whereby the U.K. could leave Germany and Central European states to take the diplomatic lead on Belarus and Ukraine, for example, while the U.K. focused its efforts on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The U.K. will also need to expand its presence in Brussels to monitor and try to influence the decisions of EU institutions, as well as in European capitals such as Berlin and Paris, which have outsized influence on EU policymaking. It will have to strengthen relations with key players, such as the Netherlands, important for its leadership of the more Euroskeptic group of member countries; or Spain and Italy, given their economic size and voice on foreign policy; or Poland, given its role in Central Europe and in EU–Russia relations.

Even as the U.K. deepens its European networks, it will also need to expand its diplomatic presence in major capitals around the world.

In Washington, the U.K. will have to fight its way to the table when Joe Biden’s presidential administration starts to re-energize the transatlantic relationship. The EU and its major members will be central to transatlantic agreements on digital taxation, sanctions policy toward Russia and responding to climate change. A beefed-up British commitment to NATO will only go so far to buy American attention.

The U.K. will also face additional demands on its resources at the multilateral level. It will need to supplement its presence in institutions where it no longer forms part of the EU camp, such as the World Trade Organization.

British officials will need to look beyond their traditional stomping grounds — the United Nations in New York and Geneva, or the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington — and focus on projecting Britain’s voice into the deliberations of new regional actors, such as the African Union in Addis Ababa and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing.

Lacking the clout of the U.S. or China, and unable to leverage that of the EU, it will take a lot of hard work for the U.K. to insert itself as a player or broker in contentious debates over how to govern new areas of international affairs, like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cyber governance and outer space.

On the surface, there are promising signs. The financial resources applied to the country’s diplomacy have risen by 18 percent since 2010-2011, and the total number of diplomatic personnel, including those based at home and overseas plus local staff, has climbed above the level of six years ago.

However, these figures disguise a fundamental shift. If the proportion of British diplomatic resources supporting development assistance and British commercial interests has risen significantly, investment in traditional areas of diplomacy — such as conflict resolution, crisis management and the nurturing of bilateral and institutional relationships — has continued to fall.

The government has closed or downgraded 11 consulates and diplomatic offices between 2016 and 2019, leading the U.K. to fall from ninth place in terms of its global diplomatic presence to 11th at the end of last year. This has weakened Britain’s voice at a moment of maximum strategic uncertainty for itself and the world.

If Britain doesn’t invest enough in diplomacy, it can forget its global ambitions. Shorn of the loyalty of its EU neighbors, and with others obliged to prioritize relations with their own regional neighbors or the big powers, the U.K. could find itself squeezed to the margins.

Britain’s recent humiliations at the U.N. — such as its failure to win a seat on the International Court of Justice in the election of judges in 2017 and its defeat in a vote over the fate of the Chagos Islands in May 2019 — are warnings for what its post-Brexit future could become.