Bri­tain’s re­treat from global stage is a dan­ger for the world

The New European - - Agenda - 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

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 English­s­peak­ing 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

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

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.

Photo: Getty Im­ages

FROM GI­ANTS TO PYGMIES: The fall from great­ness in six faces: Roo­sevelt, Kennedy, and Trump, Churchill, Macmil­lan, and May

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