Peter Nicholls / Reuters Police stand guard as anti-war protestors demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 2015.

Little England No More?

The United Kingdom Sends a Signal in Syria

"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.


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

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