Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

English retreat

Wayne Berbert, who teaches at Syosset High School in New York, pointed out this article from Foreign Affairs about the new debate about England's role in the world. Is it like the 1930s?

Littler England: The United Kingdom's Retreat From Global Leadership
In the last year, some 39,000 migrants… tried to make their way to the United Kingdom from the French port of Calais by boarding trucks and trains crossing the English Channel. In response, the British government attempted to secure the entrance to the tunnel in Calais, dispatching two and a half miles of security fencing that had been used for the 2012 Olympics and the 2014 NATO summit.

The United Kingdom’s improvised response to the migrant crisis, with recycled fences substituting for a coherent immigration policy, is emblematic of its increasingly parochial approach to the world beyond its shores. The Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron appears to lack a clear vision of the country’s place on the global stage. The United Kingdom, a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, now seems intent not on engaging with the outside world but on insulating itself from it…

Historically, the United Kingdom has been an active player in world politics… the country was a founding and engaged member of the institutions of the postwar Western order… And the United Kingdom’s relationship with the United States has been a great asset to both sides since World War II.

Recently, however, factors including fatigue following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a recession, and a prime minister with little apparent interest in foreign affairs have conspired to render the British increasingly insular. The British diplomatic corps and military have seen their capabilities slashed amid harsh austerity measures…

With a national referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership likely to be held in 2016, debates about the country’s place in the world will come into sharper focus…

Budget cuts are the most visible sign of the United Kingdom’s retreat. The budget of the Foreign Office has been cut by 20 percent since 2010… The armed forces have also been downsized, with the army alone expected to shrink from 102,000 soldiers in 2010 to 82,000 by 2020…

The penchant for disengagement has not been confined to the executive branch. In 2013, the British Parliament voted against intervention in Syria, presaging a more cautious approach to military intervention in general. Public opinion seems equally allergic to foreign entanglements…

As British policymakers have lost interest in engaging with the outside world, they have embraced a shortsighted conception of economic interests…

Such mercantilist priorities are also shaping British foreign policy in the Persian Gulf, where, for instance, the pursuit of lucrative arms contracts with Bahrain has come to supersede strategic considerations of regional stability or the promotion of democracy. A similar myopia defines the British response to Russia…

What is so confounding about London’s narrow mercantilism is that even if economic prosperity were the chief objective of foreign policy, the current approach would still be shortsighted. Profitable trade depends on the preservation of a stable and rule-bound international system, which both the Islamic State and Putin seek to revise. China may be a large and enticing market, but geopolitical rivalry in Asia represents a real threat to global prosperity. An emphasis on trade policy alone will do nothing to address major challenges to the international order, including piracy off the coast of Africa, the Islamic State’s attempts to throw the economies of the Middle East and North Africa into turmoil, and the massive flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. No European state—indeed, no state at all—can hope to confront these challenges alone. For a country with limited means, dealing with problems of this scale requires collective action.

Yet precisely when international cooperation is needed most, a new political argument threatens to weaken the United Kingdom’s ability to collaborate: the debate over whether the country should leave the EU…

Buried within some of the Euroskeptics’ criticisms of EU membership lies a paradox about British power. On the one hand, advocates of Brexit [British exit from the EU] argue that London is too weak to wield sufficient influence in Brussels… On the other hand, the skeptics maintain that the United Kingdom is so inherently powerful that free from the shackles of the EU, it would suddenly enjoy enough global heft to negotiate trade deals effectively with the likes of China…

The United Kingdom cannot defend its interests alone. Many proponents of Brexit argue that international collaboration should occur with the United States rather than through the EU. Yet it’s not clear that U.S. policymakers are interested in working with an insular United Kingdom adrift from the EU…

These days, Washington is longing for its allies to take on a greater share of the burden of maintaining security in their own backyards. Moreover, and in stark contrast to earlier periods, Washington has increasingly come to believe that for the Europeans to be able to maintain security, they will need to work together within the EU…

The upcoming referendum will determine whether the country’s retreat will continue unchecked. Yet whether it wishes to or not, the United Kingdom cannot detach itself entirely from events in eastern Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. Collective European action, of precisely the kind the EU was designed to foster, represents the only viable alternative.

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