Britain’s declining influence has put global security in peril. And it is entirely self-inflicted, says James P. Rubin, a former aide to Bill Clinton
A major power doesn’t become irrelevant overnight. It happens over time. And so it has been a painful process to observe the UK, whose empire once spanned the globe, become steadily but relentlessly less relevant in world affairs. Granted my standards for London’s role are high. They were forged in the 1990s when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair worked closely together on Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Iraq and so much more. And yes, Blair tragically took things too far when he became a passive partner in George W. Bush’s decision to intervene in Iraq.
But in reality the close relationship between Clinton and Blair in the 1990s was not that unusual. It reflected a legacy of partnership with Washington that successfully guided the West through difficult periods during the many decades of Cold War. Indeed, ever since the end of the Second World War, London was Washington’s first stop in international affairs.
The reasons we remember the partnerships of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, John Kennedy and Harold Macmillan, Ronald Reagan (and George H.W. Bush) and Margaret Thatcher are many and deep-seated. Whether it was the depth of the ties between two English-speaking peoples, the extensive trade between two of the most open markets in the world, the across-the-board sharing of the two countries’ intelligence services, the breadth and depth of the linkages between the American and British militaries, or the day-to-day coordination of the British Foreign Office and the US State Department, no country mattered more to American policy makers than the UK.
Having lived in London off and on for most of the last 20 years, I have to acknowledge some surprise and sadness this past year after relocating to Washington in January. For I have noticed how rarely British views are mentioned or even considered in this city when it comes to the major international questions of the day.
Some in the UK might find this comforting, given the bullying style of the current administration. But they shouldn’t. Because it has little or nothing to do with the preferences of the administration or its mercurial president and far more to do with the perception that the UK is not that influential any more when it comes to the future of Europe, the challenges from Russia, the growing global struggle to deal with a rising China, or the chaos and instability in the Greater Middle East.
Consider the significance of the fact that the world has been looking to chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany or president Emmanuel Macron of France as the leader who many hope will stand up for the traditions of the international system against the depredations of president Trump. In a previous era, it would have been to the British prime minister that many would have looked to modify new and dangerous policies of an American president. That was true for Margaret Thatcher during Reagan’s presidency and Tony Blair during the administration of George W. Bush.
So, what has caused the perception (and reality) of an incredibly shrinking UK? Many have argued the British decline is the result of changed international circumstances, characterised by a shift of the geopolitical centre of gravity away from the West.
The rise of China, the growing economic and political power of India and other regional leaders like Argentina and Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria, and Singapore and South Korea has no doubt reshuffled the geopolitical power balance, reducing the relative influence of European powers in recent years.
But the so-called rise of the rest doesn’t explain why Germany and France are of greater importance to Washington than the UK. And they surely are. Trump’s meetings with his French and German counterparts are multifaceted discussions of a series of problems that previously would have been first discussed with London. And when Washington policy makers try to predict the European response to a new threat or challenge, nowadays they focus far more on Berlin and Paris, than London.
Part of the explanation for Britain’s declining role on the world stage lies in the disastrous decision to go into Iraq in 2002 and the equally disastrous failure to stabilise that country after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is only now, 16 years later, that there are grounds to believe that Iraq is becoming a stable, relatively functioning country whose destiny lies in Iraqi hands. It is no accident, therefore, that the two countries that opposed the Iraq war, Russia and France, have both been active international powers, deploying troops abroad and guiding international diplomacy. Their confidence has not been shattered by Iraq.
Contrast Russia and France with the United States during the eight years of the Obama administration. Other than counterterrorism raids and modest support for France and Britain during the Libya operation, the US was hesitant to lead internationally. The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was left to France and Germany, and Vladimir Putin ended up as the decisive player in the most consequential conflict of our time, the civil war in Syria.
Arguably, it was the UK vote in parliament not to act in Syria that initiated a new power balance among European countries. France was ready to support the Obama administration as it considered whether to follow through on its threat to use force if the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Britain was not. Hovering over the parliamentary debate on Syria was the ghost of Iraq. Spooked by the failures of Iraq, parliament broke a decades-long tradition of support for American action internationally and signalled a nation turning inward. The arrival of Brexit, soon after, then slammed the door shut on Britain’s international role.
Not only is a Britain out of the EU less significant to the US and the rest of the world, but the decision to leave has overwhelmed the British government to the point that there is no will nor bandwidth to take leadership positions internationally. For it is Brexit that prompted a weakening of the pound and a fall in defence procurement, not to mention a civil and diplomatic service utterly consumed with one issue that much of the world cannot comprehend.
Add to that a spell as foreign secretary for Boris Johnson which led Americans and others to doubt for the first time the basic competence of the Foreign Office and it is no wonder perceptions of the UK’s irrelevance have taken hold. For better or worse, the all-encompassing shadow of Brexit has left the UK as a country with a ‘closed for business’ sign replacing its previous reputation for punching above its weight in world affairs.
In a speech earlier this week, former prime minister John Major revealed the hard truth of our time. As a consequence of Brexit, Major admitted, Britain’s ‘value, as an ally of America, will decline. we will be less relevant.’
This is worse than a tragedy, it is dangerous folly. For Anglo-American leadership has helped bring order and prosperity to Europe and Asia these past 70 years, an unprecedented period of peace. Beyond order and the absence of war, it is the promotion of freedom and democratic values that London and Washington more than other governments have pushed that has made the world we take for granted.
And a look around the world these days, from the sudden disappearance of the head of Interpol, to the mass imprisonment of Uighurs in China, to the authoritarian spike in the Philippines and Egypt, to the illiberal governments in Hungary and Turkey, and finally to the butchery at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and we can see already what a world with an irrelevant United Kingdom and an amoral America looks like.
James P. Rubin was an assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Clinton administration. He is now a senior counselor at Ballard Partners in Washington DC and a contributing editor to Politico