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

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 foreign policy objectives and a lack of sufficient oversight has limited its impact. Furthermore, the government was slow in mobilizing resources for its campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom and alienated its European allies for years in the run up to negotiations over its EU membership.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in the United Kingdom for a state visit at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II, October 19, 2015.
Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

But the United Kingdom’s problems run deeper than Cameron’s foreign policy missteps. The country’s opposition leaders, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, have not come even close to offering a coherent alternative to Cameron’s doctrine. Indeed, the political class as a whole has a tendency to think about its future while looking in the rearview mirror; it has thus failed to reflect and question the country’s changing place in the world. At its root, the problem stems from an identity crisis. 

To understand this, it is important to appreciate the fact that the United Kingdom never fully came to terms with its decline from global preeminence. Throughout the twentieth century, even as its power atrophied, it emerged on the victor’s side of humanity’s greatest struggles: the two World Wars and the Cold War. And so, unlike France and Germany, the United Kingdom did not experience foreign occupation or the forced dismantling of its institutions. Its detachment from Europe and its belief in its own institutional exceptionalism seemed vindicated by this historical experience. And when the United States eclipsed the United Kingdom as the global superpower, British politicians found comfort in the fact that the world was still being led by what Churchill called “the English Speaking Peoples.”

The central motifs of the United Kingdom’s post-war foreign policy reflect its desire to, as former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd once said, “punch above its weight”: establishing the British Commonwealth; building a “special relationship” with the United States; appointing itself as a trans-Atlantic “bridge” between the United States and the European Union; and its soul-searching debates about whether or not the United Kingdom was “really” a European power.

This desire continues to resonate today. Like greying movie stars auditioning for roles that they have outlived, British politicians talk about how the United Kingdom “remains” relevant and “continues” to play a role. Take Cameron’s attempt to imply that it has a “special relationship” with India, presumably based on the fact that it once colonized the country. Or the way that that the debates about Scottish independence or EU membership focus on maintaining what the United Kingdom once was instead of focusing on what it is or can be. Each year, the British think tank, Chatham House, asks citizens of the United Kingdom a question that seems ironic anywhere but in the United Kingdom: whether the country should aspire to “remain” a great power. In 2015, 63 percent said “yes,” though the rest of the world knows that the United Kingdom’s days as a great power are over.

The United Kingdom’s problems run deeper than Cameron’s foreign policy missteps...At its root, the problem stems from an identity crisis.


They key to reversing the United Kingdom’s decline lies in reframing its future, not in terms of its past, but what it is now. The country holds just 0.88 percent of the world’s population and 2.4 percent of global GDP. Its relative economic and military might will continue to shrink as Brazil, China, India, and others emerge as major powers. Its traditional sources of influence will grow less relevant as the world’s strategic center of gravity shifts east and its “special relationship” with the United States, such as it is, inevitably becomes less special.

But these changes do not mean that the United Kingdom has to accept irrelevance. Look at how Australia, a country with roughly a third of the United Kingdom’s population and half of its GDP, has succeeded in positioning itself as a key player in Asia by piloting concepts like the Indo–Pacific, a geostrategic region that encompasses “the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia.” It has also centered itself in new and unlikely constellations of powers, most recently with MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia), and reaffirmed its strategic relevance through partnerships with United States, India, and Japan.

The United Kingdom has plenty of assets to craft a new and meaningful global role. For one, it has extraordinary convening power. London, its greatest asset, is perhaps the most globalized place on the planet. It is a thriving, vibrant, successful multi-ethnic city. Roughly 37 percent of its current population was born overseas. It is a financial hub, convening business leaders from every continent. It hosts 250 global banks, 80 percent of Europe’s hedge funds, 78 percent of its foreign-exchange trades, and 57 percent of its private equity. East London’s “Tech City,” London’s answer to Silicon Valley, saw more businesses created in that single zip code between 2012 and 2014 than Manchester and Newcastle, two British core cities, combined.

Like greying movie stars auditioning for roles that they have outlived, British politicians talk about how the United Kingdom “remains” relevant and “continues” to play a role.

The United Kingdom also has the capacity—through a great mix of universities, think tanks, and practitioners—to become a place where the theory and practice of globalization meet. Every conceivable challenge and opportunity associated with globalization—from transnational taxation to terrorism, transnational crime, immigration, and ethnic diversity—is and has been debated in London’s boardrooms, ministries, schools, and universities. It is a global media, legal, educational, and nonprofit hub, home to three of the world’s top ten universities, world-class think tanks, and a sprawling aid-industrial complex in East London, created in part by the Department for International Development.

On top of this, the United Kingdom has an impressive ability to project itself and its ideas globally, such as through its membership to all of the major international institutions including the European Union, the UN Security Council, NATO, the G–7, the G–20, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. It was recently ranked first in a survey of international soft power, has a diminished but nevertheless impressive diplomatic service, and a strong and nimble military that makes it one of a small group of powers capable of intervening internationally in combat operations.

Instead of looking to the past, British leaders should use these strengths to remake the country into a thinker, convener, and connector with the aim at promoting and improving globalization. It could begin by advocating for improvements to the international system. For example, the United Kingdom could propose a workable alternative to the unwieldy G–20, which struggles to make decisions. It could spearhead the development of global agencies or coalitions to address blind spots in global governance such as cybersecurity, migration, and the environment. It could also promote real reform of the United Nations, the IMF, and World Bank—helping them achieve greater legitimacy by reflecting the significance of emerging markets. As an EU member, it could promote globalization through internal liberalization, EU enlargement, and free trade agreements with major economies such as ASEAN and India. It can utilize London to pioneer city-to-city diplomacy with other international hubs like Dubai, Mumbai, New York, Shanghai, and Singapore.

But none of this will be possible unless the country gets serious about providing adequate funding for foreign policy. It cannot allow its diplomatic service to focus solely on attracting foreign direct investment, despite its efforts to ensure fiscal austerity. It needs to maintain its current levels of military spending to ensure the country’s credibility as a strategic player. And it should develop domestic policies that reflect its commitment to international leadership, especially by rethinking its short-sighted immigration policies that limit post-study employment and by fighting hard to maintain a union with Scotland and the European Union. Most of all, the United Kingdom must develop and execute a coherent foreign policy that can convert its impressive assets into sustained international influence.

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