Britain on its Own will Count for Little on the World Stage


23rd June 2017

We often discuss how the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU will determine the extent of the damage to the UK economy: the harder the Brexit, the bigger the cost. The same is true regarding Britain’s role and influence in the world.
Leaving the EU removes the platform Britain has used since the 1990s for projecting its power. We need to find a way still to be part of a Europe-wide foreign policy if we are to play a role in shaping the world.
First, though, let us step back a bit. Britain’s decline from being the leading power began in 1914 and, despite a noble second world war, the decline continued until 1980. The countries of the empire won their independence, the British economy was weak and, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee apart, we had mediocre political leadership. Remarkably, the decline was then arrested and reversed. London became once again a great city and a driver of the global economy. We had two world-class leaders in Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, who set us back on the path of growth at home and leadership abroad.
Mistakes were made, but Britain’s greater security and prosperity flowed from its enhanced standing and influence. While John Major and Gordon Brown were not of the same stature internationally, they played their cards judiciously. Mr Major shaped our unique role in the EU and Mr Brown led the way in limiting the damage of the financial crisis.
Britain’s decline resumed after the crash, however much David Cameron and his ministers tried to deny it. And Brexit threatens to accelerate that decline.
I was fortunate to be a diplomat when Britain counted. Our influence in Washington helped steer the western alliance through the end of the cold war, at times holding the Americans back from their own folly.
Britain was still the leading power in several parts of the world. In southern Africa we shaped the end of white minority rule. In the Gulf we were the go-to power politically, even after we had closed our bases, while the Hong Kong negotiations made us important in China’s eyes.
By the turn of the millennium, that era was over. But Britain found a new way to exert influence. The “quad”, a cold war grouping of the US, UK, France and Germany, managed the consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The “contact group”, a British initiative bringing together the US, Russia, Germany, France and Britain, steered western policy from Bosnia’s descent into chaos through to the independence of Kosovo.
The same was true over Iran. Britain, France and Germany launched the negotiations and made real progress from 2003-05. Then Iran changed course, and our approach changed from negotiations to pressure, engaging the US, Russia and China. That led to an agreement with Iran which, despite its shortcomings, prevents the country making progress on nuclear weapons.
The common thread in British influence since the end of the cold war is our co-operation with France and Germany. The three powers, working in the framework of a common European policy, represent Europe and together count for something in the world.
The UK often wrote the documents that formed the basis of negotiation and ultimately agreement. In diplomatic parlance, we held the pen, which sounds modest but is a crucial role in shaping the result. Others could only press their noses to the window while the real negotiation carried on among the select few.
How, post-Brexit, will the UK avoid joining the ranks of those outside? Some of that is about our national performance: no democratic country can be a power in the world unless it has a thriving economy. We also need to play to our national assets — our armed forces, our intelligence, our remarkable aid effort and our diplomacy. But we have to be part of a wider team. Britain on its own will count for little in deciding how the west deals with the threats that face us.
We will be part of Nato, yes. But as the US withdraws from global leadership, can we rely on the alliance for anything more than territorial defence? US behaviour is not just a question of Donald Trump: he is the consequence of America’s changing attitude to the world, not its cause. The regions the US has protected since 1945 have to determine their own defence and security. That includes Europe.
I welcome Emmanuel Macron’s offer to keep the door open for a UK change of heart, but sadly I doubt that our current leaders will countenance a strategic rethink. So, as we exit the EU, we need to remain joined to our continental partners, not just through Nato but in the painstaking work of building a common foreign and security policy.
Various solutions are at hand. But I see little effort to find one that enables Britain and the whole of Europe to benefit from our talents. If we can no longer help shape the world, others will do it for us. And Britain will have to lump the consequences.


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