‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role’. Fifty-five years on, Dean Acheson’s remark has not lost its sting. British statecraft is, even now, an attempt to lay claim to a place in the post-imperial world. The events of the past few months — Brexit, the election of the most unlikely US president in history and the debate over the Union — all raise the issue of what kind of country Britain hopes to be.
The chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria last week has prompted the first foreign policy crisis of this new era. Britain’s role in the response has become a proxy for the wider debate about our global standing. In just a couple of days Downing Street moved from saying ‘no one is talking about military action’ to backing Trump’s retaliatory strikes. Then Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, cancelled his trip to Moscow so as to leave the way clear for Rex Tillerson, his American counterpart. He also unsuccessfully pushed for sanctions at the G7 summit.
Criticism of the British role has been unfair. Indeed, the eagerness of the Liberal Democrats and the SNP to regurgitate the Kremlin attack line on the Foreign Secretary — that he is America’s ‘poodle’ — has been rather revealing. After all, one of the UK’s main aims since Trump won the presidential election has been to discourage him from working with the Russians in Syria. The US air strikes and subsequent American criticisms of Moscow’s role in the conflict indicate that the Trump administration has now come around to that view. I understand that the White House will soon repeat in public what they have been saying in private — that the Assad family can have no future role in running Syria. It is worth noting that this is the line the Foreign Office has been pushing for months.
It would be delusional to argue that Britain has been the decisive factor in this change of mind: it has far more to do with the shifting balance of power within the Trump administration. But Boris Johnson and Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, have built ties as well as anyone with those leading this change in direction in Washington.
The rise of James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, the US generals who now hold the posts of Defense Secretary and National Security Adviser respectively, together with the decline of Steve Bannon, suggest that the Trump administration’s strategic approach will not after all mark a radical departure from previous US policy. ‘McMaster has had a huge influence on Trump,’ I am told. As one senior UK government figure observes, the President’s behaviour shows he has honoured his promise to be guided by his generals.
Mattis and McMaster are likely to push a foreign policy that maintains the alliances that the US has created and deals sceptically with Russia. Their ascendancy will make life easier for the UK, because Trump now looks much less likely to force Britain to choose between the American and European views of the world. As one cabinet minister remarked to me a few days ago: ‘It looks like we all panicked a bit prematurely.’
But not having to throw our lot in with either the US or Europe doesn’t answer the question of what Britain’s role should be. The government’s aim should be to make the country a nimble champion of free trade and free markets, whose military and diplomatic presence can further the security of the liberal democratic West.
Before this can be done, though, Britain must show the world that Brexit was not about this country retreating into not-so-splendid isolation. That will mean demonstrating that we remain open, keen to engage with the world. Which demands a properly resourced Foreign Office, something that Britain has not enjoyed for some time. So how to finance this in a continuing age of austerity? One solution would be to fold the Department for International Development back into the Foreign Office. Britain’s commitment, codified in law, to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on development assistance means that DFID has more money than it knows what to do with. Putting it back in the Foreign Office would ensure that the money was spent in a strategic fashion.
It is hard, politically, to scrap the spending targets for foreign aid. But if DFID’s budget is to remain so large, far better that it be brought under the Foreign Office’s guidance. Development experts may say that the Foreign Office tends to define development as supporting the ambassador wife’s favourite charity. But it is indisputable that if the Foreign Office were to take back control of DFID and Liam Fox’s International Trade department, it would bring greater coherence to British policy.
Defence spending needs a boost, too. Britain might be in the minority of Nato members who meet the alliance’s commitment to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence, but it has taken too much clever accounting to achieve this — George Osborne added war pensions to the list of things that were counted towards the target. Our defence spending, as a share of government totals, remains at a historic low.
Britain is keen to make much of its security contribution to Europe in the Brexit negotiations. But this point would be more potent if we were expanding our military capabilities, rather than working out whether we need to cut the Royal Marines or not. An increase in defence spending would be a more sensible use of taxpayers’ money than, for example, the ‘triple lock’ on state pensions.
Debates about Britain’s role in the world too often pretend that our only choice is to be top dog or an irrelevance. It’s true that we will never be the global hegemon again. But we still have the capacity to shape the world, rather than be shaped by it. We still have money. We just need to spend it a little more wisely.
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