Is Britain still a foreign policy power?

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In this latest installment of “Judy Asks,” Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior associate at Carnegie Europe, and editor-in-chief of Strategic Europe, consulted leading foreign and security policy experts on the current state of Britain’s diplomatic and military clout, and it’s future.

Fraser Cameron | Director, EU-Asia Center

Britain is a steadily declining foreign policy power, and this trend will accelerate dramatically if the UK leaves the EU. British ministers love to boast about the UK “punching above its weight” in the world, although one wonders if the boxing metaphor is really appropriate after the country’s military disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The plain truth is that despite having a Rolls Royce diplomatic service, the UK has been wrong on just about every major strategic issue in the past 50 years—from dismissing the plans to launch the European integration project to trying to block German reunification.

Britain’s most recent National Security Strategy placed terrorism as the top threat to the country. So what was the response? The government decided to upgrade its Trident nuclear program and build two new aircraft carriers—without being able to fly any planes for several years. That must really worry al-Qaeda!

British Prime Minister David Cameron has shown little or no interest in foreign policy, preferring to task UK embassies with flogging British cars. Sadly, the opposition Labour Party, although less infected with the anti-EU virus that runs through the ruling Conservative Party, also shows little vision for what role Britain can and should play in the world.

Malcolm Chalmers | Research director and director for UK defense policy, Royal United Services Institute

Yes. The UK remains one of the most globally oriented powers.

It is true that Britain’s influence on European security issues has diminished, and that of Germany—the key player in relation to both Greece and Ukraine—has increased. And the UK has become more cautious about the value of large-scale military interventions in the Middle East.

But the British remain much more active than other Europeans (apart from the French) in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Despite fiscal austerity, the UK is still willing to pay for the world’s second-largest development aid budget, NATO’s second-most-powerful military force, and considerable foreign intelligence capabilities.

Andrew Duff | Former member of the European Parliament

Clearly not. In terms of security policy, the UK shows no signs of recovering from its recent costly military defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In terms of geopolitics, the UK has long since ceased to make either an intellectual or a political contribution to strengthening European unity. The country’s ruling Conservative Party even risks British withdrawal from EU membership—a feckless policy that is met with derision everywhere else (I am writing from Washington, DC). But the problem is not just one of the right wing: neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats have even started to compose a coherent strategy for the UK when the EU embarks—as it will—on the next stage of federalization.

Unless and until Britain becomes part of the solution to Europe’s manifold problems, the UK condemns itself to global irrelevance. David Cameron is heading to be marked down as the worst British prime minister since Anthony Eden.

Jonathan Eyal | International studies director, Royal United Services Institute

Yes, Britain is still a major foreign policy player. That is not only because its military is one of Europe’s few armed forces that still possess global expeditionary capabilities. It is also because the UK’s policymakers think in global terms, its intelligence service is legendary, and its vibrant, multiethnic capital is home to Europe’s biggest financial center—and Britain enjoys the highest concentration of world-famous foreign and security think tanks. The abilities are there, and knowledge abounds.

Yet the country is afflicted by a curious feeling of impotence, as government and opposition parties alike are desperate to avoid foreign policy entanglements. Britain is nowhere to be seen in the conduct of the current crisis in Ukraine. And despite all the official noise emanating from London about the threat of the Islamic State in the Middle East, the British contribution to defeating that terrorist organization is precisely eight aircraft.

Meanwhile, Britain spends less on its entire foreign policy establishment than the country devotes to winter fuel subsidies for its elderly. Britain’s much-touted aim of devoting 2 percent of its GDP to defense spending is likely to be discarded.

Many factors, from a popular backlash against the foreign policy activism of previous governments to the economic crisis and the dispute about Scotland’s possible secession from the UK, have contributed to this mood of introspection. But it seems likely to last until the end of this decade, with terrible consequences for the security of a continent that can ill afford Britain’s absence.

Gianni Riotta | Member of the Council on Foreign Relations

The UK carries, and will continue to carry, a tremendous moral mantle fashioned in London during World War II. Officers who graduate from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst will still be admired, while the traditions so vividly narrated by the late historian John Keegan live on.

Yet Prime Minister David Cameron—or prime minister Ed Miliband should the opposition Labour Party win the May 2015 general election—has to cut a much better deal for Britain when navigating between Washington and Brussels. The special relationship that binds the United States and the UK should not be used to taunt the Europeans, and savvy London should be a transatlantic goodwill ambassador when it comes to defense.

As the Economist has noted, the UK has only three military personnel fighting the Islamic State in Iraq’s non-Kurdish areas, while Spain and Italy have deployed around 300 troops each. This cannot be. The new British Strategic Defense and Security Review due by the end of 2015 should make London the crucial center of NATO’s brand-new rapid reaction force, while coordination with Paris could avoid further military budget cuts.

Britain’s policymakers should reread the speech that former prime ministerWinston Churchill made at the Council of Europe in August 1950 and subscribe to his wise proposal: “The Assembly, in order to express its devotion to the maintenance of peace and its resolve to sustain the action of the [UN] Security Council . . . calls for the immediate creation of a unified European Army subject to proper European democratic control.”

James Rogers | Editor, European Geostrategy and lecturer in European security, Baltic Defense College

What a peculiar question! The UK is and will remain a global power with considerable political and economic reach into all continents and a member of numerous international organizations, including a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Britain maintains an array of companies, embassies, and military facilities overseas that are second only to those of the United States.

Since 2012, and uniquely among European powers, the UK has pushed firmly into the Indo-Pacific, having formed new defense partnerships with the Gulf states, Japan, and Australia, among others. Britain was the only European country with the naval means to actively deliver aid to the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan in 2014, and it has been one of the few European countries to send combat aircraft to help press down the threat from Islamic State jihadists in Mesopotamia.

Meanwhile, UK structural power—although often invisible—continues, in conjunction with that of the United States, to undergird European security, ultimately providing the background conditions for European integration.

Indeed, the British have been central to reinforcing NATO’s reassurance measuresto deter Russia along Europe’s Eastern flank, not least since the alliance’s Wales summit in September 2014. And Britain has rapidly translated words into action: the country has already sent combat aircraft, tanks, and troops to undertake military exercises in the Baltic states and Poland.

The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.

Brendan Simms | Professor of history of international relations, University of Cambridge

British Prime Minister David Cameron has recently been battered by a wave of criticism of his foreign policy, led by retired military, diplomats, and—as one would expect—the opposition parties. Some of this criticism is perfectly justified. Britain has been curiously absent from the discussions about the recent increase in Russian-sponsored aggression in Ukraine, the Greek government debt crisis, and even the struggle against Islamic State jihadists. It is also true that the prime minister, who prides himself on his pragmatism, is not—and has never claimed to be—a strategic thinker.

That said, Britain played an important role in preventing a massacre in Libya in 2011. While the situation there has since deteriorated, it is much worse in Syria, where avote in the UK House of Commons in August 2013 led by the opposition Labour Party prevented Cameron from intervening. In part, this passivity reflected the weariness of the British public after draining conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet this does not mean that Britain is no longer a foreign policy power. It possesses a robust currency, a nuclear deterrent, and shrinking but still highly potent armed forces. Above all, the UK maintains a huge latent strength and internal resilience that historically has come to the fore only in moments of crisis. Vladimir Putin and others beware. Write Britain off at your peril.

Stephen Szabo | Executive director, Transatlantic Academy

Sadly, Britain is no longer punching at its weight—let alone above it, as it did for many years. The UK is a country that has turned inward, beset by challenges to its internal cohesion, including the recent failed bid for Scottish independence and growing xenophobia as evidenced by the rise of the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party.

Now, the UK faces the prospect of another weak coalition government coming out of the general election to take place in May 2015. The possibility of a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU also looms on the horizon.

The UK’s strategic role is being undermined by continuing defense cuts, which mean the country can no longer even patrol its coast in search of Russian submarines. All of these trends are damaging Britain’s role as a partner to the United States and ceding the leadership of Europe toGermany. Concerns about a Brexit are not premature. Britain has already left the EU.

Xenia Wickett | Project director for the United States, Chatham House

It is impossible to argue credibly that Britain is not a foreign policy power today. Events of the past few years, ranging from the 2011 military intervention in Libya to the last decade in Afghanistan, have emphasized better than words ever can Britain’s importance in foreign affairs. The closeness with which the international community watched the September 2014 vote on Scottish independence and continues to watch a prospective 2017 referendum on staying in the EU shows the concern that Britain’s partners hold over its future.

The question, therefore, should be not whether Britain is still a foreign policy power but whether it will remain one.

Two principal factors bear on the answer to that question: the possible 2017 EU membership vote, and Britain’s defense spending. If the British people choose to leave the EU, and UK defense spending continues to decline, the best the UK could hope for would be to lose its global influence gradually rather than suddenly. Maintaining high levels of development assistance, while important, is not going to change this.

As a nonmember of the EU, the UK would wield no power within Europe. Without a role in the union and with a military in decline (despite continued intelligence sharing), two of the three legs of the strong UK-U.S. relationship would crumble. That would leave the legitimacy that the UK brings as a partner as the sole remaining leg. And stools do not balance for long on one leg.

Without Europe and without the United States, it is hard to see Britain in the top echelon of foreign policy powers for long. The UK might maintain some relevance, but it would certainly lose its current role.