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25 August 2021

Leader: The delusions of Global Britain

The Afghanistan crisis has exposed the wishful thinking behind the government's lofty slogans.

By New Statesman

In his speech on the government’s foreign policy review in March this year, Boris Johnson declared: “In all our endeavours, the United States will be our greatest ally and a uniquely close partner in defence, intelligence and security.”

The Afghanistan crisis has exposed the degree of wishful thinking behind this assertion. After the UK government was left bewildered by the speed with which the Afghan government collapsed, it took Joe Biden approximately 36 hours to return Mr Johnson’s call.

Mr Biden’s presidency was never likely to prompt a flowering of Anglo-American relations. Some in his team have still not forgiven Mr Johnson for his reference to the “part-Kenyan” Barack Obama’s “ancestral dislike of the British empire”, and Mr Biden, who is fiercely proud of his Irish roots, views Brexit as a threat to the Good Friday Agreement.

But there are other important factors magnifying the distance between London and Washington. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU, which deprived it of influence within the bloc, has made Britain a less valuable ally to the US. At the same time, America’s long-standing isolationist drift has accelerated. It was Obama who declared in 2013 that “a decade of war is now ending” and who allowed Bashar al-Assad to cross the US’s “red line” in Syria. And it was Donald Trump who signed a deal with the Taliban in 2020 and committed to the withdrawal of US troops. Mr Biden was the man left standing when the music stopped.

Key pillars of British foreign policy have crumbled in quick succession. The ambition of David Cameron’s government was to entrench the UK’s membership of the EU, to strengthen the “special relationship” with the US and to pursue a “golden era” of relations with China. Each one of those projects collapsed.

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“In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger,” wrote Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. The same could be said of the UK on the world stage today. In this new era of disorder, what is the purpose of “Global Britain”?

Foreign policy debates are too often polarised between interventionists who almost never oppose military action and isolationists who almost never support it. In reality, governments should respond pragmatically to circumstances. There are costs to intervention, as the catastrophic Iraq War demonstrated. But there are also costs to non-intervention, as the Rwandan genocide and the Syrian civil war proved.

In his cover story on page 22, Lawrence Freedman, who co-authored Tony Blair’s defining 1999 Chicago speech on liberal interventionism, recalls how the five preconditions for military action were strictly delineated: “Are we sure of our case? Have we exhausted diplomatic alternatives? Are there feasible military options? Are we prepared for the long haul? And is the action in the national interest?”

The Iraq War arguably failed most or all of these conditions. But in an era of rising great power rivalry, isolationism is not an option.

The UK, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as one of Nato’s leading military powers and as the world’s sixth largest economy, can still exert significant influence. But Mr Johnson has yet to prove that “Global Britain” is a reality rather than a slogan inspired by delusions of grandeur. The needless £4bn cut to the UK’s foreign aid budget, which has been reduced from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent, could lead to more than 100,000 preventable deaths (as calculated by the former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell) and further diminish Britain’s global standing.

In today’s world, with the British army due to shrink to its smallest size since 1714, it is fanciful to propose that the UK can lead by force. But it can still lead by example. 

[see also: Last of the forever wars: Afghanistan and the limits of liberal intervention]