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"Britain has got its mojo back," declared British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York last week. His comments followed a vote in the House of Commons that authorized British airstrikes in Syria. British allies greeted the decision with relief—the vote appeared to reverse what some critics viewed as the United Kingdom's inexorable retreat from the world stage.
Those critics argued that the United Kingdom had adopted an increasingly parochial attitude toward the rest of the world. They pointed to budget cuts in the military and diplomatic corps, a reluctance to join the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), an approach to China that prioritized narrow economic interest over broader strategic concerns, an inability to formulate a strategy to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and British skepticism toward the European Union, with a referendum on membership of the EU likely to take place in 2016.
Over the last couple of months, the British government has certainly taken steps to address some of its foreign policy shortcomings—a process no doubt facilitated by the terrorist attacks in Paris. The vote in the House of Commons was the clearest illustration, as British parliamentarians finally cleared the way for the United Kingdom to join the coalition against ISIS in Syria. The United Kingdom's military contribution will only have a marginal impact. To date, British airstrikes have carried out around eight percent of the total carried out against ISIS in Iraq. But the political signal was much more valuable, particularly in the wake of explicit calls by the French government for British assistance.
How lasting these changes prove to be, however, and whether they represent the germs of a coherent strategic approach to foreign relations, still remains to be seen.
A FORCE AWAKENS?
Ten days after the Paris attacks, the prime minister announced a 12 billion pound (about $18 billion) increase in the defense equipment budget over the next decade. Some of this money will go toward filling known gaps, including funding nine maritime patrol aircraft to address the threat posed by Russian submarines. Two days later, the Foreign Office avoided further cuts when George Osborne delivered his autumn statement and spending review in November, setting out the government’s spending priorities for the next five years.
These are positive signs. But important challenges remain, including how best to address the remaining shortfalls in defense spending. And if future tax revenues fail to meet Osborne's expectations, any increases in spending that do pass now may be temporary.
But more important than budgetary concerns is whether the United Kingdom will rediscover what former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Houghton has called the "courageous instinct" to commit militarily, including the deployment of ground forces when the need arises. The government has ruled out the commitment of boots on the ground in Syria. And its reluctance to get too deeply embroiled mirrors public opinion. Whereas 59 percent of the public supported British airstrikes against ISIS on November 17, only 48 percent did by December 1.
Beyond the immediate threats confronting the country, the United Kingdom's broader approach to international affairs still remains ambiguous. Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to London in October reignited fears about the United Kingdom's willingness to put economic gain above the defense of the liberal international system. The British government treated the Chinese president to a lavish welcome—at Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's country house at Chequers, and Westminster Palace. British ministers again avoided mention of any of the fraught geopolitical issues provoked by China’s rise. At some point, the government will face the consequences of continuing to affirm its attachment to its Western allies while relentlessly pursuing narrow economic advantage in its dealings with Beijing. If the Chinese openly threaten the rules based international order, the United Kingdom may have to choose between loyal membership of the Western club and being, in Osborne’s words, China’s “best friend in the West.”
And, of course, there remains the elephant in the room. Although British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged solidarity with the French, he also maintains that he may still campaign for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. His decision, he claims, will hinge on his success in getting what he wants from his "renegotiation" with other member states.
Europe has not been so insecure since the end of the Cold War.
It is hard to show solidarity with European partners while holding ransom the very club they depend on to help them confront their challenges. It has not escaped attention that some of Cameron’s demands are trivial, such as his insistence on increasing the competitiveness of the European economy, a goal the European Commission is already pursuing.
There could hardly be a worse time for the United Kingdom to rock the EU boat. Europe has not been so insecure since the end of the Cold War. And these insecurities require collective responses. It is because European sanctions on Russia are collective that they have inflicted the pain they have. If Europeans are serious about stabilizing other parts of the world—if only to prevent future waves of migrants—their actions must be collective.
Perhaps the United Kingdom has indeed turned a corner. Perhaps the Paris attacks and the vocal criticism of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy have provoked a serious reconsideration. But Cameron is a tactician rather than a strategist, and whether these short-term measures signal a durable shift toward longer-term engagement remains to be seen.
Finally, domestic politics will play a part. Cameron has announced that he will step down before the 2020 election. Osborne’s New York speech formed part of an increasingly clear attempt to appear prime ministerial by playing a more prominent role in foreign policy. Osborne is more responsible than anyone else for the close relationship that the United Kingdom has built with Beijing. With a leadership struggle on the horizon, the United Kingdom's newfound solidarity with its Western partners may remain tentative. Yet if the country has not resumed a central role in world affairs, it has at least not turned its back on the international stage entirely.