Questions about Britain’s international leadership

This coming Thursday, the people of the United Kingdom (U.K.) will be asked to vote for their new Parliament. Depending on the result, the country will be run by either outgoing Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, or by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, almost certainly through a government coalition. During a campaign where no winner seems to have emerged, the topics of foreign policy and Britain’s role in the world have been rather ignored. 

In the past few months, many on both sides of the Atlantic have lamented the U.K.’s declining international influence. Things have changed since Tony Blair’s internationalist premiership. Less than 15 years ago, in 2001, the Labour Party marched to a second consecutive, and overwhelming, electoral victory, winning 413 seats out of 659. At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair was at the height of his popularity not just in the U.K., but also in continental Europe and was even revered, strangely, in the United States.

In the following few months, Labour Party officials rejoiced at the fact that Europe was run by “progressive” center-left parties, all of whom had won general elections—including Germany’s Social Democrats (led by Gerhard Schroeder), France’s Socialist Party (Lionel Jospin), Italy’s Democratic Party (Massimo D’Alema), Portugal’s Socialist Party (Antonio Guterres)—and that London was closer than ever to Washington. He enjoyed close partnerships with both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. 

The U.K.’s weight was not limited to the transatlantic bond. In Europe, Tony Blair proudly asserted that his government was having an unprecedented influence on the European decision-making and institutions, especially the European Commission and the European Parliament, which were crucially supported by the UK representation in Brussels. A “fast track” for young, ambitious British civil servants was developed in order to extend—quickly—the U.K.’s impact in the European Union (EU).

Today, looking at regions ranging from Ukraine to Syria, Iran or Sub-Saharan Africa, one can only wonder what happened to Blair’s Britain. Never in 20 years has the level of British influence in the world been so low. 

Blair, of course, left power in 2007 as a result of the Iraq war fiasco. But he was, unlike his successors, pro-European by nature. The more Eurosceptic Gordon Brown’s 3-year premiership—marked by his refusal to accede to Blair’s desire to bring Britain into the single currency—failed to restore confidence in British leadership in Europe. 

Then came the current government, a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which seems intent mostly on reassuring its right wing of its toughness on European Union matters. Fulfilling a ludicrous electoral promise, David Cameron managed in 2010 to extract his Conservative Party out of the European Parliament’s largest political group, the European’s People Party (EPP). British representation in Brussels was downgraded and given fewer experienced diplomats.

In 2013, Cameron called for a renegotiation of the terms of his country’s EU membership and promised to organize a referendum by the end of 2017 if his Conservatives get voted into power in the general election on May 7. In 2014, Cameron also staged a failed war against the EPP’s candidate for president of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is now happily seated in Brussels and recently called for the creation of a “European army.” Would such an endeavor succeed without British involvement?

In the defense arena, the current U.K. government has blocked every common European defense policy initiative, including the development of the European Defense Agency for procurement or and even the idea of joint EU operations. It is seen as inevitable that the U.K.’s defense spending will drop below the two percent target of GDP. This certainty has led both the U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to express their deep concerns about the 30,000 job cuts in the British military

It is unusual for senior officials in Washington to express such open worries about a country long considered their “special” ally. Despite a visit by U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who called for “transatlantic security cooperation in a dangerous world”, the Obama Administration, and many others, seem incredulous about the U.K. foreign policy of the past five years.  

The specter of a possible British exit from the European Union also hangs over the special relationship. Having opened the Pandora box of “Brexit”, David Cameron has now undoubtedly reduced its country’s influence over the European institutions to the dismay of Washington and others. 

If Ed Miliband and the Labour Party win the election, will the U.K. choose a different foreign policy path? There is not much a Labour government can do to increase the U.K.’s role in the world unless it decides to increase both the Foreign Office and Defense ministry budgets. On April 24, Miliband stated in a Chatham House speech that he would not implement “the extreme spending cuts that the Conservative party propose [because] they would be truly catastrophic for the armed forces”. But he did not say much about the future of the Foreign Office. 

Perhaps the most significant part of a foreign policy shift under Labour would have to do with Europe: unlike his main opponent, Ed Miliband said, in the same Chatham house speech, that Britain’s loss of influence in Europe would lead to a further loss of influence in the world. He did not commit to organize a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. This would be reassuring not only for the rest of Europe, but also for those, including in the United States, who believe there is only one way for Britain to regain its role in the world: to reappear as a leading European nation with an impact on both the EU and its external policies.