Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Littler England the United Kingdom's Retreat from Global Leadership

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Littler England the United Kingdom's Retreat from Global Leadership

Article excerpt

In the last year, some 39,000 migrants, mostly from North Africa, 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. The United Kingdom does not merely lack a grand strategy. It lacks any kind of clearly defined foreign policy at all, beyond a narrow trade agenda.

Historically, the United Kingdom has been an active player in world politics. After the loss of its empire, the country was a founding and engaged member of the institutions of the postwar Western order. British governments have led the way in pressing for, and undertaking, humanitarian interventions from Sierra Leone to Kosovo. 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. In its limited contribution to the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as isis), in its mercantilist approach to China, and in its inability to formulate a real strategy to respond to Russia's aggression in Ukraine, the United Kingdom has prioritized narrow economic interests to the detriment of broader considerations of international security.

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. What exactly is the United Kingdom capable of achieving when acting alone? Should London work with partners to compensate for declining national capabilities? Do international organizations increase or constrain the power and influence of their member states?

The answers the United Kingdom provides to these questions will shape its engagement with international politics in the years to come. A vote in favor of a British exit would embroil London and Brussels in months of bitter argument, heightening already disturbingly high levels of European parochialism. It would weaken not only the United Kingdom but also the eu, deprived of its most globally engaged and militarily powerful member state.


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, and the ministry has been told to prepare for further reductions of 25 to 40 percent. 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 former head of the Royal Navy has spoken of "uncomfortable similarities" between the United Kingdom's defenses now and those in the early 1930s.

So much have British capabilities declined that during nato's 2011 mission in Libya, the United Kingdom was painfully dependent on U.S. support to fight a third-rate military. In the current campaign against the Islamic State, a shortage of already antiquated Tornado ground attack jets has kept the British contribution to the air strikes limited, with only eight aircraft being deployed. …

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