Where Now for Britain Internationally?
Matthew JAMISON | 29.11.2016 | WORLD / Americas, Europe

Where Now for Britain Internationally?

As a Cambridge trained historian my specialization has always been in foreign policy history, especially Anglo-American foreign policy history. Before I left for university I had the opportunity to meet for a second time in the space of a couple of months with the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady asked me what I was planning to study at Peterhouse, Cambridge (a college she had visited on several occasions and which had provided a great deal of the intellectual meat on the bones of Thatcherism while she was leader of the Conservative Party in the 1970s and 80s). I told her I would be reading history and she approved saying she wished she had studied history during her time at Oxford as it gives you an excellent grounding in human nature and the forces at work that shape the world we live in. She also advised I specialize in foreign policy history as she said: «Foreign affairs are so interesting. They effect everything that happens to our way of life back home». And so it was that I made that my specialization not only academically but throughout my career to date. 

Now with Britain leaving the European Union, where now for Britain internationally? Membership of the European Union had been the central foundation of British foreign policy since at least the early 1970s and even before then it was seen as the new framework for Britain in the world with the dissolution of Empire. Alongside Britain entering the European Community as it was known back in 1973, the alliance with the United States, the so-called «special relationship» was also the most important component of the British international posture. These two components existed in a symbiotic relationship, one reinforcing the other. Successive British Governments, both Labour and Tory, aimed to be a leading member of the European Union while also acting as a bridge between the United States and continental Europe.

For the Americans, they viewed Britain as a useful ally in the European Community and a vital satellite of intelligence gathering. The French President Charles de Gaulle was always suspicious and antagonistic towards American power and hegemony. His vision of Europe was a counterweight to that of the United States and an emerging independent power Bloc in its own right. As a member of the five eyes of intelligence powers (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand who all share their intel with each other), Britain provided a useful «Trojan horse» for Washington DC to counter-balance Gaullist influences and keep a watchful eye on what was going on inside Brussels. This was why the General famously vetoed the British application for membership of the EEC, not once but twice. It was only after De Gaulle had left power that Britain's way was clear to join the European Community and Washington DC was delighted. 

One of the most important objectives of American foreign policy in Europe was to have its close ally Britain inside the European Union and integrated within the political and diplomatic institutions of Europe. As the EU led by Germany and France in the early 2000s became more hostile and assertive against American power due to severe disagreements over the wisdom of invading Iraq, this objective became even more important to Washington DC as it was Britain who could be relied upon to represent American interests in increasingly hostile and critical European Councils and rally the Eastern European countries to a pro-American Atlanticist position. That representation and leadership will soon be gone thanks to the decision of the British electorate to leave the EU and the whole concept of Britain being a bridge between America and the rest of Europe (which was always a delusion of the British Government) is out the window as well.

This was why Washington DC was so adamant that Britain remain in the European Union. The brutal realpolitik for British foreign policy is that once the UK finally exits the EU its worth and value to the United States will greatly decline. Many British politicians constantly speak that Britain has a global role and that it is the number one ally of the United States. Yet what they never talk about, perhaps because intellectually it has never occurred to them, is that this position has been underpinned by British membership of the European Union. Britain's global role and foreign policy vis a vis America has always been heavily dependent upon its role in Europe. It is like a house of cards. You take away one layer and the whole structure comes tumbling down. 

What does this mean for Britain internationally? We are already starting to see some of its effects. The British Government know their position in Washington DC has been seriously damaged by Brexit and rather than take the opportunity to reappraise their relations with other powers have decided to double down on the delusional and one-sided alliance with the United States by throwing themselves in a supplicant fashion at the incoming Trump administration. Yet Donald Trump is a canny, shrewd businessman. He knows that the British have really no where else to turn but towards America so he is quite content to revel in the even more supine nature of the British Government with regards to the United States. Hence, his hilarious breach of protocol (not to mention respect) for America's supposed number one ally by almost ordering the British Government to appoint Nigel Farage as its Ambassador to the US, no less on Twitter, dispensing with centuries of diplomatic procedure and undermining the current British Ambassador to Washington DC Sir Kim Darroch.

Trump sees nearly everything, whether it be his business dealings, his marriages, his political relationships, diplomacy, as transactional. He asks the question that any successful businessman would ask of their business partners: «what can you do for me ? What will I get out of this?» Now that Britain is leaving the European Union and has poisoned its relations with the rest of the EU for generations, the British can offer very little for a Trump administration with regards to the rest of Europe. Trump understands this perhaps better than the British do themselves hence his disregard for diplomatic niceties with regards to the so-called «special relationship». 

Britain will no longer be able to let the Americans know what the rest of the EU is up to. The UK will have no influence over decision making in the councils of Europe. It will no longer be able to shape the rules and policies of the European Commission. It will be able to provide no detailed, authoritative intelligence on EU matters for the United States. It will no longer be the American «Trojan horse» able to block policy initiatives which Washington DC dislikes such as moves towards a European Defence Community with a European army. Thus, Britain has not only destroyed a major plank of its international standing and foreign policy value with regards to the Europeans, it has also diminished substantially its value as an ally of the planets leading superpower the USA. 

It was already difficult enough before the EU referendum to sum up what British foreign policy was all about. The British do not really do foreign policy any more. The Foreign Office has been gutted both politically and financially. It lacks expertise on matters as geopolitically important as Ukraine. There is no tradition of foreign policy experts becoming Foreign Secretary rather mere party political creatures with little academic and professional training, experience and expert credentials in the field of foreign affairs. There is no grand, over-arching strategic vision for Britain in the world and British foreign policy. As a scholar and practitioner of foreign policy I cannot for the life of me sum up in a few sentences what British foreign policy is. For decades it has been content to bob along as a perpetually grumpy member of the European Union while deluding itself that because of sentimental values it was always going to be America's best friend and number one ally while indulging in sentimental nostalgia for Empire with the vacuous Commonwealth.

However, the foreign policy truth is that Britain is merely one of many allies that America makes use of. If there are any real «special relationships» for the United States then the Israeli-American relationship, and perhaps even the Irish-American relationship, are of greater power than the Anglo-American «special relationship». If British interests ever came up against and clashed with the power of Israeli interests on Capitol Hill then I have no doubt that it would be Israel that would come out on top. The same is true in many respects of the battles the British fought in Washington DC with the Irish-American lobby with regards to the internal goings on and status of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Rather than strengthening their diplomatic position in the European Union and becoming a leading member of the EU, the British have cut off their nose to spite their face. In so doing they have also devalued themselves in the eyes of the State Department and CIA. So, to return to the title of this article, where now for the British internationally? I can only see a future for British foreign policy which becomes ever more reliant on the United States in the manner of Tony Blair's Anglo-American foreign policy, without getting much in return for their blind and unquestioning loyalty. Hence, the country as it pulls out of Europe will become more isolated and of little global significance within the great game of global power politics.

America will move closer towards Germany and begin to openly label it as its closest partner in Europe as President Barack Obama has started to do. The rest of the EU will move further towards becoming an independent equal of Trump's America while largely ignoring little Britain. Washignton DC may decide to pity the British and continue to indulge the British in their self-induced delusion that they really mean something to American administrations politically, diplomatically, militarily. Or they may not. A lot of this depends on the good graces and mood of the moment of a capricious President Trump. Not exactly the greatest position of strength one wants to find oneself in, at the mercy of Donald Trump. China will see Britain as ripe for the pickings knowing full well that with Britain out of the EU and largely dependent on the good graces of the Americans, the British need Chinese investment a great deal more than China needs anything that a post-Brexit Britain can offer. 

Tags: European Union  UK  US