Doing Good and Resisting Evil: Are We Entering a New Age of British Isolationism?

By Bew, John | New Statesman (1996), September 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

Doing Good and Resisting Evil: Are We Entering a New Age of British Isolationism?


Bew, John, New Statesman (1996)


Even before the parliamentary vote on Syria, British influence in the world was being maintained on a tightrope. That elaborate balancing act is becoming ever more difficult to perform because of the strains of our recent wars and swingeing defence cuts. Opining on world affairs is a luxury born of power, influence and security. History tells us that these things come at a price--a price that we are increasingly reluctant to pay, or would prefer if others paid for us.

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These days we prefer to take the world not as it is, but as it ought to be. We yield to no one in our moral outrage. Yet when the world throws up complex conundrums--or instances of savage barbarism such as the gassing of children by a dictator just outside the capital city of his country--we struggle to formulate a coherent response.

David Cameron's "I get it" statement in the House of Commons late on Thursday 29 August--when he ruled out the prospect of using the royal prerogative to engage in military action against the Syrian regime without the sanction of parliament--had the feel of one of those soundbites that will reverberate for years to come. With the government insisting it will not take the matter before parliament again, it is easy to see why it has been interpreted as a watershed moment in our foreign policy.

Naturally, we should beware the rush to judgement. Hysterical pronouncements of the deaths of "Great" Britain or the "special relationship" are premature. But the unavoidable reality is that the Commons vote on Syria was a grave blow to Britain's prestige in the world. That is certainly how it played outside the country, in the places that matter, from Moscow and Tehran to Paris and Washington, DC.

Richard Haass, the esteemed US diplomat and president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, described parliament's rejection of the government's motion as "nothing less than stunning" and indicative of a trend towards parochialism and potential isolationism. An opponent of gung-ho interventionism, Haass is the epitome of the moderate, mildly anglophile US diplomatic establishment. His suggestion that the vote "reflects the reality that Britain and the rest of Europe are neither able nor willing to play a substantial role in these other regions that will define the 21st century" will sting.

American reassurances to Britain that its friendship is still highly valued and that "these things happen" have the ring of a partner reassuring their lover about an uncertain performance in the bedroom--mildly comforting to hear, but not quite enough to put them fully at ease. The only consolation, in selfish strategic terms, is that Cameron's defeat begat further indecision in Washington. It prompted President Obama to blindside both his secretary of state, John Kerry, and his own advisers, and to seek congressional approval for a strike. To many others in the United States, let alone within Syria, that was no consolation at all.

Meanwhile, robust French support for the US--the inverse of what happened with Iraq--leaves Britain detached from its second most important military ally, with which it had been co-operating increasingly effectively over Libya and also, without fanfare, during the French intervention in Mali in January. Kerry's praise for France as America's "oldest ally" was intended to hurt.

The embarrassment is compounded by Britain, together with France, having consciously "led from the front" and kept up the pressure on a reluctant Barack Obama to act for many months. The latest incarnation of British "positioning"--a time-honoured foreign policy tactic pioneered by Winston Churchill--had been trialled over Libya. The strategy, too, of running ahead of the US on Syria began to run into grave trouble before the parliamentary recess. In May, it became clear to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary that both the Labour Party and a growing number of Tory rebels would oppose any efforts to arm the Syrian rebels.

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Doing Good and Resisting Evil: Are We Entering a New Age of British Isolationism?
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