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Updated: July 25, 2010 21:33 IST

Britain: redefining its global status

Hasan Suroor
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British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama hold a joint news conference in Washington, on July 20. Mr. Cameron has admitted that he sees Britain only as America's “junior partner.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama hold a joint news conference in Washington, on July 20. Mr. Cameron has admitted that he sees Britain only as America's “junior partner.”

There is a growing view that Britain must now abandon its search for a post-Raj role and learn to live by the new world order in which those it once governed are masters.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to visit India soon, maybe as early as next week, seeking an “enhanced” relationship — a nice-sounding resolve even though few in London or New Delhi appear to know how it would translate into action. The visit is less about outcomes (the two countries don't have major issues to resolve, so any outcome would be hailed as a success) and more about symbolism as the new administration sets out to rebrand the British foreign policy amid a raging debate over where Britain fits in the “new” world.

Britain's global status, long in decline, has plummeted to a new low, partly because of the broader shift of power from the West to the East and more specifically because London has simply run out of steam as an international power.

The view that Britain has failed to find a role for itself on the global stage since the loss of the empire may have become a bit of a cliché but it is a cliché that can do with some repetition. Britain ceased to be taken seriously long ago even by its erstwhile colonial subjects (more than a decade ago, an Indian Prime Minister dismissed it as a “third-rate power”) but till recently it had enough energy to punch above its weight and get away with it. Now it is too exhausted even to pretend that it is anything other than a “small island off the coast of Western Europe” as one academic put it.

It might have taken Britain a “long time to die,” in the words of Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's former Ambassador to the United Nations. But finally the show — as we used to know it — seems to be drawing to a close.

Indeed, there is a growing view that Britain must now abandon its search for a post-Raj role and learn to live by the new world order in which those it once governed are the new masters. But, in refusing to read the writing on the wall, old colonial powers can be like ageing ballerinas who are often reluctant to acknowledge that their glory days are over and time has come for them to leave the stage before push comes to shove.

Thus, like the ageing ballerinas determined to go on and on, Britain's hunt for a new “role” continues though, as Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash noted recently, most people in Britain don't even “notice there's a hunt on anyway.”

“They are too busy watching their compatriots lose at football, or tennis or cricket. Role-hunting remains very much an elite sport: the polo of British politics,” Mr. Ash wrote in The Guardian in a swipe at the successive governments and policy wonks' obsessive “role-hunting.”

There was, he said, a “persistent strand of self-delusion” in British policy elite's claims about Britain's role often “nicely punctured by memorable jibes” such as the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's remark that its much-touted relationship with America was so special that “only one side knows it exists.”

Defining or redefining Britain's “vision” of its place in the world has become a default instinct of every new administration. Labour, when it came to power in 1997, declared that it wanted Britain to be a global force for good by pursuing an “ethical” foreign policy and through “liberal intervention” in resolving conflicts. Another of its big ticket policy resolves was to put Britain “in the heart of Europe” in the words of Tony Blair.

And what was Labour's legacy when it left office 13 years later? A continuing civil war in Iraq and an open-ended insurgency in Afghanistan. As for Europe, far from Britain being anywhere near its “heart,” their relations took some heavy blows, mostly over Iraq, and also over Britain's resistance to fuller integration with the European Union. Even the “special relationship” with America is no longer so special (that is, if it ever was except in the sense of London playing second fiddle to Washington) as the Obama administration focusses its energies on Asia and elsewhere.

So much so that it has become rather unfashionable to mention the “s” word. Mr. Cameron has, in fact, admitted that he sees Britain only as America's “junior partner.” The Conservatives are trying to make a virtue out of necessity, saying they want to make foreign policy less America-centric and, instead, cultivate the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America. Foreign Secretary William Hague has been talking up his plans for a “distinctive British foreign policy” that would see it focus more on new centres of global power such as China, India, Brazil, Chile and the Gulf states.

“We're getting on with that straight away. Many Ministers will be visiting India in the coming months to strongly signal to India that we want to elevate that entire relationship,” he said in a newspaper interview describing his plans as the biggest change to foreign policy for a generation.

The era of Britain seeing its every decision in terms of its effect on America and Europe was over, he declared arguing that London needed to be more pro-active in pursuing its foreign policy aims instead of always reacting to events. And he had Napoleon on his side, he said quoting the maxim that the side that stayed within its “fortifications” was beaten — and the country that was “just reactive” was in decline.

Impressive, though, the rhetoric is, it is hard not to see that there is more froth than substance in Mr. Hague's brave assertions. In the absence of the nuts and bolts of his new policy, even a lay observer can see that the so-called “distinctive” policy is anything but “distinctive.” To portray the new focus on India and China as something “distinctive” for which they should perhaps be grateful to Britain is patronising nonsense. The fact is no country with a semblance of a coherent foreign policy and which does not wish to be isolated can afford to ignore these new, emerging powers.

And, by the way, the wooing of New Delhi and Beijing started much before Mr. Hague came on the scene. It was under the previous Labour administration that Britain established a “strategic partnership” with India — followed by a procession of ministerial and high-level business delegations of the sort Mr. Hague says would be heading for New Delhi soon. The problem is not that Mr. Hague is trying to pass off old wine in a new bottle but that he (and indeed the entire British establishment) believes that Britain's foreign policy still matters to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it doesn't. This brings us back to the point that Britain's ruling elite still suffers from a “persistent self-delusion” about the country's role beyond its shores. They are yet to “get it'' that much of the world no longer sees Britain as a great power and doesn't share its perception of itself.

As Mr. Ash says: “Roles, like identities, are an amalgam of who or what you think you are and what other people take you for. I may be convinced that I'm the finest opera singer in the world, but if no one else thinks I am, then I'm not.''

This is something that is yet to sink into the British ruling psyche. Once it could buy influence abroad through generous financial handouts but the recent economic crisis has left the country so broke that it is no longer in a position even to do that. The Department for International Development is under growing pressure to review its commitments despite the government's promise to protect overseas aid from the austerity measures forced on other departments. And with the Foreign Office facing deep spending cuts, the era of Britain's high-profile diplomatic presence that reflected its status as a world power is over. Embassies and consulates in a number of countries are to be closed at a time when, more than ever before, Britain needs these symbols of power to be more visible.

So, what can Britain do? “The answer is stark: not much, given the state of our finances,” wrote Michael Binyon, columnist of The Times, after attending a Chatham House conference on foreign policy.

Meanwhile, as a once great imperial power slowly dies on its feet it can draw some comfort from a new study that ranks Britain as the best country for the dying with its vast network of hospices and end-of-life care homes. It has prompted some cheeky comments about the country's own health — reminiscent of the jibes it suffered in the 1960s and 1970s when it was dubbed the “sick man of Europe.”

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