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Britain has long gloried in the description that it “punches above its weight” in world affairs. It has exerted global influence out of proportion to its actual size through its leading role in the main international organisations, historic experience, capable military and much-envied Rolls Royce of a Diplomatic Service.
Sadly, this description no longer applies. Whilst promoting my book about life as a British envoy, “The Accidental Diplomat”, recently, I have been struck by how many people have asked me “where has Britain gone?”
These questioners include Germans noting how their country has been pushed to the fore in handling Russia’s aggression, despite it being a role their country neither seeks nor relishes. They realise that their economic ties to Russia and the specific knowledge of their Russian-speaking, East German raised Chancellor Angela Merkel necessitate their involvement. But they would like to have the greater global political experience of the British alongside them and are mystified as to why we are nowhere to be seen.
The Americans are equally disconcerted by Britain’s disappearance. A US diplomat friend recently opined to me that they have started consulting the French and Germans first about the big issues of the day, such as Ukraine, the Iran nuclear case and the Middle East, instead of their long-standing primary partner, the UK.
The responsibility for sacrificing Britain’s role in the world lies firmly with the current government. The complex, strategic and long-term nature of foreign policy has proved beyond their capabilities and they have neglected it in favour of their obsession with domestic austerity. This is a dangerously short-sighted approach given how much events in a globalised world impact domestic security and economics. Chancellor George Osbourne, for example, often attempts to deflect attention from the failure of his economic policies by blaming the Euro crisis – without ever apparently considering whether Britain might be able to influence what happens in Europe.
That, though, would require getting involved in the difficult business of understanding the issues and positions of our partners in detail, then negotiating with them. Instead, the government has adopted the petulant teenager approach of slamming the door and threatening to walk out of the EU for good whenever we do not get what we want straight away. All that produces is eye-rolling from the grown-ups in the room and ultimately being completely ignored.
This matters beyond Europe because a major reason why the US and rising nations such as China and India listened to us was that we stood a strong chance of bringing 27 other European countries along too. They are much less interested in our views now that we have opted to become a marginalised island off the coast.
As well as the “Little Englander” attitude permeating a ruling party that once promoted a patriotic sense of “Great” Britain, the actual policies the Tories have implemented have done huge damage to Britain’s influence in the world. The Foreign Office’s total budget is small, less than that of Kent County Council, for example. It represents only about 0.6% of UK government spending and any contribution it could make to the government’s austerity programme was minimal. The massive cuts it has endured anyway have severely damaged the capacity of what was already a lean diplomatic service compared to those of similar countries.
The budget cuts have been compounded by the Foreign Office being forced to focus more of its meagre resources on trade promotion. Whilst this has long been part of its remit, the Diplomatic Service’s core role in creating a freer world where the rule of law is respected has always been far more valuable to British business than acting directly as travelling salesmen on their behalf.
The Foreign Office’s ability to influence others has been further diminished by the well-documented defenestration of the armed forces by this government’s cutbacks. On occasion, the velvet glove of diplomacy has more chance of success when the iron fist of military power is known to be inside it. Sadly, our staunchest allies now know that we cannot offer much help and our adversaries are aware that we present little to fear.
Some might argue that Britain is better off not being a major power, with its attendant responsibility for sorting out the world’s troubles. It would excuse us from getting involved in places like Iraq and Libya, for example. But the Iraq disaster was the product of bad decision making, not having too much power. It is still better to be in a position to make decisions rather than just having to accept those made by others. And Libya’s descent into a failed state is an unfolding calamity that stems partly from our having neither the resources nor the will to do the job properly.
The father of foreign policy philosophy, Thucydides, famously said that the world was a place where “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” With the likes of Putin and ISIS about, this is an even worse time than usual for Britain to become one of the weak.
Paul's book The Accidental Diplomat is out now from Amazon