Is Cash-Strapped Britain Losing the Will to Defend Itself?

Some want to carve out a new role for Britain as a post-modern pacifist “soft-power.” Former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband, for example, has tried to recast Britain as a “global thought leader.” Others say Britain should become a “global hub” in the fight against climate change. A British think tank recently sponsored a conference titled “Rethinking the UK’s International Ambitions and Choices.” The conference was tasked with “assessing the UK’s international priorities and the policy choices it faces in matching its ambitions, interests and resources.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in his first major speech since taking office, outlined his government’s long-term vision for Britain’s role in the world. He promised a sweeping overhaul of British foreign policy aimed at expanding the country’s “global reach and influence” to every inhabited continent. Hague said that if Britain wants to maintain its influence in a changing world, it will have to move beyond its special relationship with the United States and forge new strategic alliances around the globe.

The geopolitical reality, however, is that most governments around the world only pay attention to Britain when it is acting as a close partner of the United States. Britain derives its global influence not primarily from itself, but from its close ties to America, and the maintenance of that influence is directly related to the military manpower and materiel Britain can bring to the geopolitical table.

Cameron says that despite the spending cuts, Britain will still have the fourth-largest military budget in the world, and will meet the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. He also says that although Britain will be without an aircraft carrier capable of carrying jets for a decade, it will still punch “above its weight in the world.” In a telephone call, Cameron promised U.S. President Barack Obama that Britain will remain “a first-rate military power and a robust ally of the United States.”

The Cameron government says it wants to reposition Britain as a central hub in the geopolitical world at the same time that it is being forced to radically cut spending on diplomacy and defense. Cameron’s defense cuts, however, mark the end of Tony Blair’s concept of “liberal interventionism,” first set out in his landmark speech in Chicago in April 1999, during the Kosovo crisis. As such, it also marks another milestone on a long road to British decline.

As Britain abandons its long-standing tradition of deploying forces into the field, and as it follows in the footsteps of other European countries by refusing to have its soldiers killed in NATO out-of-area missions, many fear it may also mark the beginning of the end of the NATO alliance. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both warned that deep reductions in Britain’s armed forces will have profound consequences for transatlantic and international security.

Speaking to the BBC, Clinton said British defense cuts are worrisome. “I think we do have to have an alliance where there is a commitment to the common defense. NATO has been the most successful alliance for defensive purposes in the history of the world, I guess, but it has to be maintained. Now each country has to be able to make its appropriate contributions.”

At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Gates said: “My worry is that the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the U.S. to cover whatever gaps are created. At a time when we are facing stringencies of our own, that’s a concern for me.” He also said: “As nations deal with their economic problems, we must guard against the hollowing out of alliance military capability by spending reductions that cut too far into muscle.”

More than 60 years ago, Winston Churchill concluded that Britain could best expand its global reach and influence by strengthening, not weakening, its special relationship with the United States. But Cameron appears to have decided that Britain no longer possesses the economic means or the political will to do so.