Impotent Britain

The UK is no longer a major player on the world stage

Michael Burleigh

A year ago this month, as Brexit Britannia set off on open seas, the UK government released its Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy to great fanfare in foreign policy and security circles. While making some sensible suggestions on how to coordinate discrete Whitehall bureaucratic silos, critics quickly seized on the fact that it was predictable in analysis and long on global ambitions that bore little relationship to the limited means of a mid-tier north-west European country. Or rather a Tier 3 one, as former chief of SIS John Sawers put it, if you class “Chimerica” as Tier 1 and the likes of the EU, India, Japan and Russia as Tier 2. In any case, it raised more questions that it answered. What was the point of a country which is committed to nuclear non-proliferation increasing its warhead stockpile to 260? Or of deploying an aircraft carrier to the “Indo-Pacific” that China could sink in five minutes?

The aircraft carrier was part of a vague and hardly novel urge to pivot Obama-style towards Asia, although the immediate threat to UK security was identified as Putin’s Russia. That threat proved all too real for Ukraine but was not seen as so much of a threat to the UK that the government would do very much about preventing London acting as Ali Baba’s cave for Russia’s oligarch elite – including Tory party donors, the owner of Chelsea FC, and the proprietor of two British newspapers. 

Since the review was written by committee men for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the EU was scarcely mentioned, as if ignoring this economic superpower could will it out of existence. Indeed, stridently removing any reference to the EU has become like a watermark in all the FTA deals copied and pasted from EU prototypes by the then trade secretary, Liz Truss.

Instead, the UK was going to act within NATO (whose range now magically includes the China Seas), and bilaterally and grudgingly with key European powers even as the Tories willed the EU to destruction. In practice this has meant attempts to cosy up to illiberal Hungary and Poland – whose regimes may soon be ejected – rather than France or Germany which persist in elaborating their foreign policies at an EU level.

The review inevitably paid homage to NATO, that Brussels-based retirement home for hawkish superannuated Scandinavian politicians, generals and PR shills, despite that organisation having been memorably dismissed as “braindead” by President Emmanuel Macron of France, and as a drain on US resources by former President Donald Trump. This brings us to another of the review’s most striking omissions: that elites no longer make foreign policy alone among themselves.

It is as if the most powerful political force of our times miraculously eluded this major precis of UK foreign policy. For it took no account of the general unwillingness of the British public to support the elite’s future wars after two decades of futile and costly intervention in dismal and dusty places. Indeed, many of them regard the elite’s greedy enthusiasm for the Gulf autocracies as incomprehensible.

The gutter press (broadly-defined) is always gung-ho about UK Special Forces or pairs of jets seeing off marauding Russian strategic bombers, but paradoxically it is overwhelmingly readers of a right-wing disposition who have become as wary of elite wars as their counterparts in the US Republican party.

This is especially the case with Russia. It is yet to be seen how his invasion of the Ukraine will affect Vladimir Putin’s standing, but as a nationalist who espouses a conservative Christian morality, he has hitherto had plenty of admirers on the American and European populist Right, from Farage and Trump to Le Pen and Zemmour via the German AfD.

A similar ambiguity underpinned the review’s robust words about China, for the UK cannot afford to cut relations with what will soon be the world’s largest economy. The commercial spirits of David Cameron and George Osborne endured even as the review pandered to the Sinophobia of the so-called “China Research Group” of Tory MPs. 

While the review tried to buff up the UK as an important global power, with world-beating pop singers and spooks, the current reality is quite otherwise. We do not need to add to the tragi-comedy in Downing Street, but it has come to something when both the Russians and Americans laugh themselves to tears about ambushes by cake. And given the real tragedy unfolding in the Ukraine, it’s hard to see the funny side of now Foreign Secretary Truss living it up on a trip to Australia (ker-ching £500,000) as her EU equivalents met in an attempt to avert war. 

UK post-war foreign policy was based on three overlapping spheres, namely the one-sidedly “special relationship” with the US, membership of the EEC/EU, and the Commonwealth. Though this allusion to mathematical circles sounds very grand, evoking Euler or Venn, a better comparison might be a three-legged stool, prone to tipping over if one or two legs are removed.

Supporters of Brexit have added a similarly portentous accent with talk of the late Victorian (racist) idea of an “Anglosphere”, often reduced to “CANZUK” since South Africa disobligingly opted for Black majority rule in 1994, and with half the whites there not English anyway. True, one could just about claim India, a debased democracy where ten per cent of the population speak English.

The problem with this sort of thing is that, as in fight plans in boxing, they rarely survive the first smack in the mouth – as Mike Tyson once eloquently put it. Despite his Scottish mother, Trump, the half-German president who many Tories admired, denied the UK a free trade deal, and so has President Joe Biden, partly because of Britain’s jiggery-pokery with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

For all of Johnson’s desperate attempts to be seen leading the western response to the Russian attack on Ukraine, Dublin probably has more influence with Team Biden than Whitehall, not to mention the leverage it enjoys in Brussels, as an even smaller country on Europe’s northern peripheries.

As for the Anglosphere, this cosy club has effectively been reduced to the Liberal (conservative) government of Scott Morrison in Australia, whose days might also be numbered, for there is little warmth in UK conservative circles for the liberal and “woke” Justin Trudeau or Jacinda Ardern. And as for the Commonwealth, China has invested a colossal $913 billion in 42 Commonwealth nations since 2005, without demanding much more than derecognition of Taiwan.

True, there are tantalising trade deals with a notionally democratic and notoriously tricksy India – routinely the protectionist bad boy of the WTO – but this will automatically involve hundreds of thousands of visas which may please the generously represented South Asian contingent in the UK cabinet, but certainly won’t play well with Tory voters. 

In truth the integrated review was a kind of complacent Whitehall mirage, which should have involved looking at the UK from the outside rather than from within if realism was its objective.  The self-delusion got a little boost from UK chairmanship of the G7 and COP26 in 2021, even if Johnson could not rise above jokes about Kermit the frog that were lost on his heavyweight global audience.

But now the circus has moved on, and the cold reality – of a disintegrating government that corrupts every institution it touches through appointments based on ideological congruity rather than competence, and which constantly tries to bend the world to its own conceits, rather than cut its cloth to its limited means – has returned. Just read what the poor diplomats, such as Alexandra Hall Hall, a former ambassador and then lead envoy for Brexit in the British Embassy in Washington, someone who has had to represent this guff, actually think of it.

You do not have to be an advocate of foreign policy restraint (though their number is growing here as it is in the US) to add that most people in Britain would welcome less boosterism about being world beating in this or that despite our temporary embarrassment on the world stage by Johnson and Truss. If there is one upside, however slight, to the disaster in Ukraine it is that despite the rhetoric, the UK has had to trail along in the wake of the US and EU when it comes to responding to Putin’s aggression.

Indeed, on sanctions, the EU was able to act more swiftly and robustly than the UK could because they do not have London acting as a treasure island for sundry autocratic crooks. They also have serious leaders rather than a comedy hack who divides his time between statecraft and fending off police enquiries into his juvenile office parties, leaving him effectively sprawled out on the political mat like one of Tyson’s opponents.

Michael Burleigh is a Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas, the world’s leading university based thinktank. He has written extensively on global affairs, including “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. A History of Now”

Current Affairs

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