Which role in global affairs? Britain’s hard choice

The government of the United Kingdom is facing some difficult choices about what kind of role the country intends to play in both European and global affairs.  In some ways, the current challenges constitute the continuation of a process that has been underway for years.  Brexit marked an especially significant tipping point, since British voters decided that their country would no longer be one of several leading powers in the European Union.  However, it was not clear at the time, and it remains murky, about what kind of role London intends to play over the longer term.

There appear to be four major options for the United Kingdom.  One possibility would be to rescind Brexit and rejoin the EU.  Another option is to be a European Union fellow traveler.  That approach would give British leaders the opportunity to act with greater independence and flexibility than formal EU members, but it would still enable Britain to be a significant factor in European affairs.  In either case, Europe would be the principal focus of UK foreign policy.  

A third scenario would be for London to attempt to become a truly independent great power with interests and objectives throughout the international system.  In some respects, that strategy would attempt to recapture and revitalize the global role that Britain played before the country was so severely weakened by World War II that it was forced to retrench.  With the fading of U.S. global hegemony, and the emergence of an increasingly multipolar world, Britain may have the opportunity to be one member of a concert of great powers. 

The final option is to continue the current policy of being Washington’s obedient junior partner in global affairs.  That approach has significant advantages, but it also entails some worrisome disadvantages.  

One crucial advantage is that the “special relationship” has given London disproportionate influence over U.S. foreign policy decisions.  For example, it is not certain that George H. W. Bush’s administration would have opted to confront Iraq militarily after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded and occupied Kuwait, if it had not been for London’s insistent lobbying.  British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher insisted that the development had far-reaching adverse implications and reportedly urged Bush not to “go wobbly” on repelling Baghdad’s aggression.  Bush and his advisers eventually concluded that Iraq’s conquest of its neighbor set an unacceptable precedent in what was emerging as a post-Cold War world. 

However, Washington’s increasingly brash, confrontational approach to world affairs is creating situations which could endanger Britain’s best interests and even its survival.  The willingness of Prime Minister Tony Blair to blindly embrace George W. Bush’s crusade to oust Saddam not only entangled the UK in mounting Middle East turmoil, his stance also impelled him to deceive both parliament and the British public, thereby damaging the country’s democratic system.

Matters have been equally bad on other occasions when British leaders have attempted to match the ill-advised hawkishness of the UK’s American patron.  London has been enthusiastically supporting the Biden administration’s policy of getting NATO members to provide Ukraine with military aid.  Indeed, there are indications that both U.S. and British intelligence agencies have aided Kyiv in its battle plans.  Such an approach carries serious risks of getting the UK as well as the U.S. entangled in a direct military confrontation with Russia.  

Washington’s increasingly hardline policies toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on both Taiwan and economic decoupling entails similar unpleasant risks.  However, despite some earlier deviations, London now seems fully on board with the Biden administration’s approach.

The risk-reward ratio for continuing to be Washington’s junior foreign policy partner is not promising for British interests.  The other options have more upside potential.  Focusing on Europe’s future rather than trying to play a global role should have considerable appeal for a mid-size power.  Trying to do so while remaining outside the structure of the European Union, however, makes that task difficult.  Being an EU “fellow traveler” would give Britain some additional policy flexibility, but it also would limit London’s influence on important matters. 

If Britain rejoined the EU, the country automatically would again be one of the “big three” players in determining that association’s approach to both European and world affairs.  At the same time, British membership would give the EU greater heft in dealing with the United States, the PRC, India, and other major countries.  Rejoining the EU also would have considerable appeal to factions within Britain (especially Scotland) who were unhappy with Brexit in the first place.  

However, being a truly independent power in a multilateral global system also has its own advantages.  It would spare Britain from being subject to excessive regulatory meddling by the EU’s bureaucracy in Brussels.  That attempt at economic micromanagement was a crucial reason why UK voters embraced Brexit in the first place.  There is no guarantee that a similar problem won’t arise if Britain decides to rejoin the EU.

A key question is whether the global system is now sufficiently multipolar so that a mid-size power such as the UK could be an effective player, economically, diplomatically, and militarily as part of a new concert of great powers.  That picture remains somewhat unclear, but it is apparent that both the bipolar system of the Cold War and the post-Cold War unipolar system that the United States has dominated to this point no longer reflect reality.  Russia has become a second-tier power in the international system, both economically and militarily, as its surprising difficulty in subduing Ukraine confirms.  The United States is still dominant militarily, but economically the world already is clearly multipolar.  Indeed, the Biden administration appears to be having mounting difficulties preserving the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

Even Washington’s military primacy is fading.  The PRC has emerged as a serious challenger, especially in the Pacific.  Several war games conducted by the Pentagon and independent think tanks in recent years indicate that the United States probably would lose a war trying to defend Taiwan against the PRC.

In such an emerging multipolar international system, the concept of a concert of great powers is no longer fanciful.  British leaders need to give serious consideration to that option.  It probably is a close call between that choice and again becoming one of the three leaders of the EU with a primary focus on developments in Europe.  The least appealing option for the UK, by far, should be to remain as Washington’s junior partner.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute.  He also served in various policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute.  Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs.