By Martin Seiffarth
Ever since 52% of British voters decided that Britain ought to leave the European Union, commentators on both sides of the Channel have sought to paint this decision as a regressive one.
Britain, they argue, is not simply leaving a political and economic bloc; it is, rather, seeking to retreat from the international stage to the soothing safety of benighted Blighty.
For these observers, Brexit was not a brave and unprecedented decision to take back control, but merely the continuation of Britain’s long-lasting slide into international irrelevance. In this narrative, Britain’s national decline began with the Second World War, continued with the loss of Empire, and is now culminating in her exit from the only organisation in which it held considerable sway.
Unfortunately, this interpretation is not entirely unjustified. For the past twenty years, successive governments have constantly been warned of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s woes, and proceeded further to limit its remit and cut its budget. What was once one of the greatest and best-respected diplomatic services in the world has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.
The future looks bleaker still: Theresa May’s government is planning a further 8% cut to the FCO’s budget in 2019/2020.
Indeed, a change in government would be more disastrous still. Corbyn’s historic sympathies for the provisional IRA, Hamas, and Hezbollah hold contempt for Britain’s past and current defence and foreign policies. A Corbyn government would have Britain abandon the nuclear deterrent, ignore her treaty obligations, and virtually end her involvement in international peace-keeping missions.
The international context, too, is changing against Britain’s favour. Brexit is alienating Britain from her traditional European partners. Diplomatic relations with Russia have reached an historic nadir and consequently, the United States is looking elsewhere for reliable partners.
During Obama’s time in office, the United States’ shift in foreign policy towards Asia already served to relegate Britain to a secondary role. Now, President Trump’s personal sympathy towards French President Macron has been taken as signalling the start of an entente cordiale between the two countries. The ever-less ‘special’ relationship with America cannot be relied upon to bolster Britain’s decaying international status.
In the face of such challenges, what are the government’s options? One is to continue the present course. This means proceeding with the piecemeal dismantling of the Foreign Office, accepting Britain’s role as a secondary power within NATO and the UN, and hastening the descent of the Commonwealth into a loose, largely ceremonial congregation of countries bound only by their history. This option is not merely a rhetorical conceit: newly self-confident France would likely be happy to become the de facto leader of NATO in Europe. Within the UN, the upcoming economic powerhouses of the East would be keen on replacing Britain as a permanent member of the Security Council.
The alternative is a robust, muscular re-assertion of Britain’s role in the world. This is not simply a matter of monies: increasing FCO and DFID budgets is required, but not sufficient. Attitudinal changes will be in order, too.
Economically, only 8.5% of the UK’s total trade is currently with Commonwealth members. This unconscionable state of affairs must be rectified by re-asserting the historical, legal, and cultural ties between the UK and other members — without being frightened, in doing so, of being accused of some presumed ‘neo-colonialism’
The re-establishment of Britain as a leading military power — both within and without NATO — will require even more unpalatable decisions. Suggestions of large-scale military interventions — especially ones involving ground troops — in foreign conflicts are, in this country, tantamount to political suicide. Putting ‘boots on the ground’ especially is difficult. Yet interventions of precisely this nature by Britain’s allies have proved, in recent years, remarkably successful.
France’s Operation Serval, in 2013, offers a blueprint. Here, the deployment of thousands of ground troops did not lead to disaster. On the the contrary, it achieved France’s declared objective: the removal of rebel forces from Mali with little delay and few casualties.
Furthermore, becoming a leading military power would require a sharp increase in British military spending. Whilst the British people would likely approve, how keen would they be if it meant prioritising defence over health and education?
Britain is faced, then, with a clear choice. She can, in the name of political expediency and economic convenience, continue on her downward spiral into international irrelevance; or she can accept that difficult, expensive, and often unpopular choices will have to be made to reverse that spiral, and return Britain to her place as one of the world’s great powers.