Toby Melville / Reuters The Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament at dusk in central London, December 15, 2014.

After Empire

An Era of British Decline

The United Kingdom is at risk of slipping into irrelevance: its potential exit from the European Union threatens its membership to the world’s largest economy; Scottish nationalism has shaken certainty about the country’s territorial integrity; and its foreign policy is widely derided for both its passivity and short-term outlook. Indeed, not long after British Prime Minister David Cameron’s re-election last May, CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria commented that the country had “resigned as a world power” and columnist Ross Douthat penned a eulogy for the “suicide of Britain” in the The New York Times.

The current government deserves its share of the blame for the United Kingdom’s strategic shrinkage: For five years, the country has lacked a coherent foreign policy. When Cameron came to office in 2010, he inherited not only an economic crisis, but also a public that was war-weary after Iraq, impatient with U.S. unilateralism, and distrustful of the European Union. His government responded by distancing itself from the United States, neglecting its relationship with Europe, and continuing to cut spending on British foreign service, which has suffered real-term cuts of 20 percent since 2008. At other times, the United Kingdom has simply been missing in action, most notably at the height of the Ukraine crisis. The media has also criticized the United Kingdom’s role in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), calling its contribution “strikingly modest.”

Although the government has rightly emphasized economic diplomacy, especially with China and India, and has admirably delivered on its pledge to commit 0.7 percent of GDP on overseas aid, these moves are not united by a coherent vision. The United Kingdom caused much consternation in Washington and among other allies when it joined China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, since at that time, Australia, South Korea, and others were negotiating with China to raise the AIIB’s standards. Meanwhile, although the United Kingdom’s aid policy is noble, its spending has not been tied to clear

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