The coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats by Britain’s allies marks an important evolution in British foreign policy since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This time, rather than eschewing a multilateral effort, the UK led one. It might not hit Vladimir Putin where it hurts – in the oligarchic system that sustains him in power – but it was an important victory for British diplomacy. It is a welcome development.
It was a personal victory for Theresa May, too, which followed a surefooted and measured statement to the House of Commons. Downing Street wisely sidelined the foreign secretary – who had compared modern day Russia to the Nazis – and the adolescent defence secretary who blurted out a schoolyard condemnation of President Putin. The Prime Minister, in contrast to Brexit-as-usual, had a rare success abroad that was widely recognised at home.
Yet it would be a mistake to over-claim this development as somehow proof of the merits of “global Britain”. Here’s why.
The expulsions were mainly from the United States – with whom we have claimed a “special relationship” since the Atlantic Charter in 1941 – and from fellow EU member states. It was Britain’s traditional allies that rallied, not new or renewed partnerships. In that sense the response was no more or less global than we would have expected. Foreign policy principally proceeds on the basis of interests: the whole Western alliance has an interest in containing a newly aggressive Russian state. This was the coincidence of solidarity and self interest.
Moreover, we simply cannot know what the reaction would have been if we were not on our way out of the EU. It is certainly plausible that all of the EU27 would have acted if we had continued to be one of the most important EU member states. Perhaps those that did act would have done so more forcefully, with a greater number of expulsions or other measures. Most EU member states stood in solidarity with us. But not all.
One year after Article 50 was triggered, the diplomatic tension is a reminder that EU membership amplified British power and influence rather than dampening it. On our way out, it is hard to conclude that we have been anything but politically and diplomatically diminished. Brexit accelerated long-term decline that had already been in rapid advance since the catastrophe of the Iraq War. The vote to leave came in the wake of austerity at home and in the foreign service. Budgets were cut, talented diplomats departed, and embassies and missions were culled or closed.
Brexit has done our soft power enormous harm. In most of the world, Brexit is mentioned in the same breadth as the election of Donald Trump – not a brand association anyone would wish for. It has widely been perceived as a vote against immigration and in favour of insularity. Britain’s universities, for example, already report that it is harder to attract top-flight talent since there is a fear of being unwelcome. Our standing in the world has sustained heavy damage.
So, let’s celebrate the success and solidarity of recent days, just as we remember all those harmed by the Russian state’s serious act of aggression. In a moment when we needed friends, we found that we still had many. But let us not lose sight of the underlying reality: Brexit has diminished us politically and diplomatically. Our departure from the EU takes us to future where we cooperate less with our friends and allies than we do at present – just as this affair plainly shows us that we are stronger together than alone.
Tom Kibasi is the Director of IPPR, the progressive policy think tank. Follow him on Twitter @TomKibasi