Alone, Britain can do nothing to reverse a Russian land-grab in Ukraine. In concert with other European countries and the US, London has some influence over Moscow but even then not much. A western military adventure on Vladimir Putin’s threshold is unthinkable. That leaves diplomatic opprobrium and economic sanctions as the only levers, over which David Cameron’s hand hovers uncertainly.
Putin is betting that a fiscally fragile European Union will not fancy taking on Ukraine as a dysfunctional client state, nor jeopardising its eastern gas supplies to make a point about sovereignty in the Black Sea. He is right. If Russia demands possession of Crimea and strategic dominance of eastern Ukraine, Cameron and others will acquiesce.
There is nothing new in the exposure of Britain as a mediocrity among powers. Our credentials as a nation that matters – a big economy, a professional army, nuclear weapons, a seat on the UN Security Council – are carried over from the 20th century. It is not clear how that elevated status will be sustained. Nor is it necessarily plausible for Britain to imagine itself as a global force distinct from the EU when other players – the US, China, India – are the size of continents.
Cameron touches on this when he talks about a “global race” but he has in mind a commercial rivalry played out within globally recognised boundaries of free-market capitalism. A lesson from Crimea is that some states don’t play by those rules.
There isn’t much point expecting a more sophisticated account of Britain’s role in the world from the Prime Minister. It isn’t in his nature to dwell on perplexing things. His friends present his short attention span as a healthy aversion to ideology; a very British pragmatism. The ungenerous interpretation that circulates among disappointed Tory modernisers and angry traditionalists alike is of a high-spec public school dilettante, clever and self-assured enough to busk an answer to most questions but disinclined to interrogate matters in depth.
That temperament is reflected in foreign policy. Cameron has handled relations with the EU – a vital strategic alliance – as a function of Conservative Party management. In opposition, it was a hazardous topic to be avoided. In government, when evasion became impossible, he switched to obstructing co-operation and calling that reform.
His attitude to overseas conflicts has also evolved ad hoc. In opposition, he rejected Tony Blair’s model of liberalising vigilantism, asserting in 2008, “We cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet.” In Downing Street, the focus switched to economic expediency. He styled himself as salesman-in-chief of UK wares.
The limitations of diplomacy as mercantilist roadshow were exposed by the Arab spring. As brittle dictatorships crumbled in northern Africa, Cameron discovered a Blair-like capacity for human rights evangelism. In Libya, that became military support for a rebel insurgency. The relative success of that enterprise from Downing Street’s point of view – Colonel Gaddafi toppled without harm to UK troops – gave Cameron the confidence to offer support for prospective US strikes in Syria last summer. But he misjudged the readiness of his MPs to go along with that gamble. Their reluctance, combined with Labour’s visceral post-Blair suspicion of military impetuosity, snuffed out Cameron’s interventionist spirit. Normal insular service was resumed.
The Prime Minister’s humiliation would have been greater had a Tory spin operation, led by George Osborne, not changed the subject. Instead of Downing Street miscalculation, the Westminster conversation switched to a supposed crisis of national self-confidence, triggered by Ed Miliband infecting parliament with lefty pacifism.
There was a brief attempt to revive that partisan spirit in the context of Russia’s Ukrainian incursion. Tory MPs, including ministers close to Cameron and Osborne, suggested that Putin had somehow been emboldened by Labour’s new tendency to appeasement. That sniping was silenced when word came down from the Foreign Office that mining the current crisis for old mud to fling at the opposition was not serving the cause of government dignity or prime ministerial authority.
The impulse to play domestic politics in an international emergency was revealing. The Conservative side of the coalition has artfully reduced political debate in this parliament to the most parochial terms possible. A financial crisis born of global economic imbalances and systemic market failure has been truncated into a parable of wanton Labour spending. The challenge of running public services on tight budgets is expressed as a test of will to withdraw undeserved cash from idle layabouts.
Cringing fear of Ukip has prohibited any serious effort to defend a single European market, including free movement of workers, as a driver of future prosperity. What vestige there is of liberal migration policy in government is secretly supported by the Treasury and publicly blamed on the Liberal Democrats. Anything amiss in the country is ascribed to failure from Labour’s time in office.
This approach to politics as glorified parlour game yields petty victories that don’t add up to successful government. It gives no clarity about Cameron’s motive for being in Downing Street, aside from the recreational pleasure of winning and holding power. Since the Prime Minister struggles to express guiding principles in a domestic agenda that consumes most of his time, it seems unlikely he will articulate a coherent sense of strategic purpose in foreign affairs, to which he pays only occasional attention. He may talk about global challenges but his record is of ducking difficult issues and keeping politics parochial.