“Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” What might have appeared as an unexceptional observation by former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, made during a speech at West Point in December 1962, created an uproar in the United Kingdom. London’s Daily Express spoke of a “stab in the back.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan felt compelled to defend his country’s honor, writing in an open letter, “Mr. Acheson has fallen into an error which has been made by quite a lot of people in the course of the last four hundred years, including Philip of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler.”

Why did Acheson’s comment hurt so much? The loss of empire was accepted as part of the inexorable logic of decolonization, but with an empire had come a set of strategic interests that required active engagement across the globe, and now those were gone. Although many saw the United Kingdom’s main task as adjusting to this loss, rather than finding a replacement for it, Acheson’s taunt suggested that a new role must be found. And so a search was set in motion for some truly distinctive role that only the British could provide, one that would be essential to the satisfactory functioning of the whole international system. Identifying this elusive role came to represent the holy grail of British foreign policy.

The search for a distinctive role continues to this day, now in much more trying circumstances. The two relationships that have defined British foreign policy for decades—with Europe and with the United States—are clouded by uncertainty, as a result of the United Kingdom’s deliberate decision to leave the EU and U.S. President Donald Trump’s disdain for NATO and free trade. In a country that has always celebrated alliances and partnerships, the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now stressing independence as a virtue in itself. But it has yet to answer the question of whether this independence will enable the United Kingdom to be less involved with the world’s problems or more.


When Acheson made his speech, the most obvious role for the United Kingdom was as the United States’ junior partner. As two maritime powers that both valued free trade, they had swapped positions in the international hierarchy earlier in the century as the American economy took off. In August 1941, seeking to encourage the United States to join the war against Nazi Germany, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to lay out a shared vision for the postwar world, resulting in the Atlantic Charter. After the war, the two countries sought to turn that vision into a reality, setting up new institutions to manage international security, encourage open trade, and deal with the Soviet threat. London appeared to be settling into its role as a close supporter of and wise counselor to the United States, then seen as brash and inexperienced but boasting the almighty dollar and enormous military power. Without this “special relationship,” as it came to be known, the United Kingdom’s strategic weight might well have contracted almost as quickly as its imperial holdings.

The United Kingdom wished not only to influence how American power was applied but also to get help in sustaining its own power. Any thoughts of going it alone on the world stage evaporated with its ill-fated Middle Eastern adventure of 1956, when a joint expedition with France, in collusion with Israel, to reverse Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal was stopped in its tracks by the Eisenhower administration. The French concluded from this episode that they must strive for even more independence from the United States. The British drew the opposite conclusion. Macmillan sought to get even closer, reasoning that by doing so, the United Kingdom would be more, rather than less, influential. 

This is not the first time London has wondered about the future of its relationship with Washington.

There was also a more practical matter. The United Kingdom had developed its own nuclear weapons after 1945 not only because it wanted to assert its independence but also because the United States had broken off wartime cooperation. Macmillan worked hard to get nuclear cooperation back on track during the 1950s, now aiming for interdependence as much as independence, and he succeeded in getting the United States to agree to sell the United Kingdom Skybolt missiles, which would allow its bombers to launch weapons away from Soviet air defenses. Then, just before Acheson’s speech, the Pentagon announced that it was canceling the Skybolt program. The United Kingdom’s special relationship with the United States now looked shaky, along with its nuclear deterrent. But the immediate crisis in transatlantic relations quickly passed: the White House distanced itself from Acheson’s words, and at a summit later that month in Nassau, the Bahamas, U.S. President John F. Kennedy came to an agreement with Macmillan that the United Kingdom could acquire Polaris submarine-launched missiles, which turned out to be a much better deal. 

Close cooperation in the nuclear and intelligence fields remained at the heart of the special relationship, but what truly sustained it was a succession of shared projects that reflected a common strategic perspective. After working together to win World War II and set up the postwar institutions, they joined hands in conducting and ending the Cold War. The British often failed in their attempts to influence the Americans, and the two countries did not agree on everything—even during the golden years of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. But the shared projects provided a framework within which disagreements could be addressed.

A British soldier at a checkpoint south of Baghdad, Iraq, November 2004
British soldiers at a checkpoint south of Baghdad, Iraq, November 2004
Damir Salgoj / Reuters

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States embarked on a new set of joint undertakings: adapting international institutions and practices to the new world order and promoting liberal capitalism under the guise of globalization. Then came 9/11, after which British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed that his country would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States in the war on global terrorism. But these new ventures ran into trouble. The 2008 global financial crisis undermined confidence in the economic model the two countries were offering, and the disheartening interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya raised questions about their political judgment. On both sides of the Atlantic, people were growing more skeptical about globalization and foreign interventions.

Further complicating the relationship, President Barack Obama shifted the United States’ focus to the Asia-Pacific region, a process that has continued under Trump. If the new big project is containing China, it is one in which the interests of the two countries do not wholly coincide and to which the United Kingdom could make only a limited contribution. Trump, moreover, lacks his predecessors’ commitment to NATO and free trade. The problem, therefore, is not that the two countries no longer have a special relationship—the many ties of language, culture, and history survive—but that they no longer share a grand strategic project to work on. No wonder the British foreign policy establishment is at a loss about what to do next.


This is not the first time London has wondered about the future of its relationship with Washington. The difference now is that it is doing so after having abandoned Europe. After working with the European powers to persuade the United States to commit to European security and form NATO in 1949, the United Kingdom failed to sign on to the European Economic Community in 1957. Belatedly, Macmillan pushed to join that group, a common market and customs union, to give a boost to an economy that was lagging behind the rest of western Europe.

But his pursuit of the special relationship with the United States jeopardized that effort. Weeks after the December 1962 missile deal with the United States in Nassau, French President Charles de Gaulle cited the agreement as evidence of the United Kingdom’s innate Atlanticism as he vetoed its application to join the European Economic Community. If the British were let in, he claimed, “there would appear a colossal Atlantic Community under American dependence and leadership, which would soon completely swallow up the European Community.” 

It took until 1973 before the United Kingdom was at last able to join the group. By then, membership was not just about economics but about foreign policy, too. U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1971 decision to end the convertibility of the dollar to gold had undermined the Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange. His withdrawal from Vietnam, meanwhile, renewed worry that the United States would shirk its alliance commitments, and indeed, Congress was angling to cut U.S. military deployments in Europe by half. On top of that, the Watergate scandal seemed to be throwing the American political system into chaos. London saw real advantages in combining with the other major European powers to form a powerful bloc that could act autonomously, free from the influence of the United States. For a while, this seemed plausible, notably when it came to the Middle East, where the Europeans took a less pro-Israeli position than the United States did. By and large, however, differences in capabilities and priorities limited the extent to which Europe spoke with one voice. 

Where the EU, the successor to the European Economic Community, did prove strategically important was when it came to progress on democracy and the rule of law. Membership allowed European countries escaping authoritarian regimes a way to confirm their commitment to liberal values. In the 1980s, Greece, Portugal, and Spain were all allowed to join after military rule in each country ended, and beginning with a round of enlargement in 2004, the same privilege was eventually afforded to eastern European countries emerging from communist rule. 

The United Kingdom applauded and encouraged this expansion, but the process changed the character of the organization. As the EU grew, decision-making slowed. Even before the influx of new members, common positions were becoming harder to find. In 1998, Blair tried to make more of the EU’s defense and security potential when he met with French President Jacques Chirac at the port of Saint-Malo. In the declaration that resulted from their summit, the two leaders called for “the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces.” Once again, the United Kingdom was hedging against the possibility that the United States was withdrawing from the world. Blair worried that the Clinton administration’s tentative response to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia reflected a nascent isolationism. The promises of Saint-Malo never materialized, in part because of tedious arguments about the appropriate division of labor between the EU and NATO, but also because of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when Blair chose to join a war that France and Germany opposed. 

Blair and Chirac at the Elysee Palace in Paris, June 2006
Blair and Chirac at the Elysee Palace in Paris, June 2006
John Schults / Reuters

But the biggest divergence between the United Kingdom and its European partners concerned the degree of integration. After German reunification, France and Germany pushed for a far closer union, something that Thatcher and her wing of the Conservative Party deeply opposed, fearing the loss of sovereignty it would entail. Her successor, Prime Minister John Major, only barely managed to overcome the “Euroskeptics” and push through Parliament the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, by which the European Economic Community became the more powerful European Union. He did so by securing a number of opt-outs from the EU’s requirements regarding justice and labor and, most important, from its economic and monetary union. Although these exceptions made the EU more politically palatable in the United Kingdom, they also led to a semidetached relationship with it—a distance that was confirmed when the otherwise pro-European government of Blair decided to stick with the pound sterling over the euro.

During the Labour years of Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, immigration into the United Kingdom from new EU member states surged, and Euroskepticism became an even more powerful force in British politics. It was thus always likely that whenever the Conservative Party returned to power, the relationship with the EU would grow even more strained. When David Cameron, a Conservative, became prime minister, in 2010, at first little changed, because he had to work in a coalition government with the pro-European Liberal Democrats. Yet after Cameron achieved an outright majority, in the 2015 election, he decided that the European issue had to be addressed once and for all, and a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the EU was scheduled. 

The Leave campaign argued that if the United Kingdom did not get out, it was bound to get drawn into an ever-closer union, a prospect that this camp claimed would even include a “European army” to which the British would have to contribute troops. Meanwhile, the Remain campaign warned of the economic costs of leaving the customs union and the single market and pointed to the opt-outs that British leaders had secured over the years. But extolling the benefits of semidetachment was hardly a rousing endorsement of membership. Few argued—as was argued in the 1970s—that the EU represented a grand geopolitical project that could enhance British influence. In fact, even if the referendum had gone the other way, the United Kingdom would likely have become increasingly marginalized in the EU, because it was not part of the main European project: creating and sustaining the eurozone.


Thus, even before the twin blows to the pillars of British foreign policy in 2016—the Brexit referendum in June and the election of Trump in November—those pillars were already weak. The United Kingdom was neither part of the eurozone nor sharing a grand project with the United States. It was already showing a declining interest in foreign affairs, as evidenced by Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary support for strikes against Syria in the summer of 2013 and then his absence during the Ukraine diplomacy of 2014–15, leaving President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to take the initiative.

It took until the end of January 2020 for the United Kingdom to actually withdraw from the EU, after over three years of protracted parliamentary wrangling that did little for the country’s standing abroad and encouraged further introversion at home. Now, the United Kingdom must work out the details of its future relationship with the EU, a process that will be dominated by questions of trade and thus drain energy away from other areas of policymaking. There is no reason why the current arrangements concerning security cannot continue, including tracking criminals and terrorists and working together on minor military operations. The problem is that difficulties in the wider negotiations may make it harder to sustain these other forms of cooperation. The government will also need to cope with the dislocation at home resulting from the break with the EU, including revived demands for Scottish independence and even pressure for Irish unification.

Brexit might affect British foreign policy less than is commonly supposed.

Nonetheless, Brexit might affect British foreign policy less than is commonly supposed. The United Kingdom will obviously have far less influence over developments within the EU—including, for example, rising authoritarianism in a number of member countries. But precisely because the EU never lived up to the early hopes about its foreign policy potential, the overall effect will be limited. Europe’s international influence has always depended as much on cooperation among individual European countries as on European institutions. Consider how close London has stayed to Paris and Berlin in the Trump era. Not only have the three governments worked together to try to preserve something of the Iran nuclear deal after Trump’s withdrawal from it; they have also stuck with the Paris agreement on climate change and opposed the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

Paradoxically, although the United Kingdom is not part of the drive toward ever-closer union in Europe, it does share at least one big project with the continent: coping with the impact of the Trump administration. Some observers contend that Trump’s enthusiasm for Brexit and a new bilateral trade deal will push London closer to Washington, but this has yet to happen. Although Johnson is keen to push ahead with trade negotiations with Trump, he is well aware of the potential pitfalls, not to mention the president’s unpopularity among British voters. Trump, for his part, has cooled toward Johnson since the prime minister defied U.S. entreaties and allowed the Chinese company Huawei to help develop the United Kingdom’s 5G wireless network.

It is the problems of Trump as much as those of Europe that will dominate the major review of British foreign and defense policy that Johnson announced after Brexit. The biggest challenge involves NATO, whose purpose Trump has questioned and whose members he has spurned. Unlike the EU, the alliance is something the United Kingdom helped found, and the country has always seen it as its main contribution to European security. Even with a friendlier U.S. president, the American public will still question why European countries that individually have GDPs far greater than that of Russia need the United States to provide security in their neighborhood. If the Americans are to be persuaded to continue in their current role, European countries will need to step up—increasing their defense spending and the efficiency with which it is applied and enhancing their capacity to manage the regional crises to which Washington is paying little attention. 

A British submarine near Glasgow, Scotland, November 2009
A British submarine near Glasgow, Scotland, November 2009
David Moir / Reuters

Without going as far as French President Emmanuel Macron in announcing the alliance’s “brain death,” Ben Wallace, the United Kingdom’s defense secretary, has publicly doubted the reliability of the United States, saying in a January interview, “We need to diversify our assets.” Providing European security with a less attentive United States, or even a completely absent United States, raises hard questions. Can NATO continue without Washington playing a leadership role? Continental Europeans support the alliance in principle, but they are less enthusiastic about the prospect of actually fighting to defend one of its members. When the Pew Research Center asked people whether their country should use force to defend a NATO ally against a hypothetical attack from Russia, only 41 percent of French, 34 percent of Germans, and 25 percent of Italians surveyed said that it should. What does that tell countries that are more exposed to Russia? Then there is the question of how to replace the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. The United Kingdom has pledged that its nuclear deterrent extends to all NATO members, but that pledge depends on it supplementing the American deterrent. By itself, or even with a corresponding French commitment, the promise hardly seems credible. 

Even if the United Kingdom sincerely wanted to stress a new security relationship with Europe, making the shift would not be straightforward. British intelligence and defense capabilities are deeply intertwined with American ones, and it would not be easy to disentangle them in short order. The most substantial recent investments, including in Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines, Queen Elizabeth–class aircraft carriers, and F-35 fighter jets, all rely on U.S. technology and facilities. Furthermore, within NATO, the United Kingdom has tended to focus on northern Europe. Although it has been involved in a number of air campaigns in the Middle East and still has a military base in Cyprus, it has offered only modest contributions to ground operations in North Africa, where southern European countries have taken the lead. 


It is against this unpromising backdrop that the British government is reconsidering its foreign policy. In the past, British governments relished the challenges of multilateralism and took pride in their diplomatic prowess. In recent years, those attempting to identify the country’s distinctive role have similarly pointed to its mastery of multilateralism—an ability to build bridges across the Atlantic and uphold a rules-based order. But there are now fewer opportunities for multilateralism as a natural consequence of a United States with little interest in playing the liberal hegemon. The Trump administration’s distrust of international organizations has diminished their effectiveness.

Brexit is also part of the trend away from multilateralism. The British government has stepped up its rhetoric of independence as it sorts out its new relationship with the EU, and in this, it is aided by the United Kingdom’s fortunate location. The country enjoys relative security as an island at the more tranquil end of the Eurasian landmass, with a decent economy, a moderate climate, and a high standard of living. Because of this, the case for a quiet life, for steering clear of trouble elsewhere, is not so unreasonable that it can be dismissed out of hand.

As a helpful problem solver, the United Kingdom still has much to offer.

Yet despite all the talk about sovereign decision-making encouraged by Brexit, in practice, the United Kingdom still has to work with other countries. If getting favorable trade agreements is a priority, for example, then British negotiators will need to be solicitous about the concerns of others. To get its exports accepted into the EU, it will still need to be a rule-taker as much as its own rule-maker. One can add that it will also have to be a crisis-taker. In the age of climate change, cyberattacks, and pandemics, the United Kingdom can be buffeted by events elsewhere. It will still be affected by the stresses and strains in the EU, for example, if there is another financial crisis in the eurozone. The novel coronavirus has provided a tough lesson in global interdependence.

The challenge for Johnson is to manage the tension between independence and interdependence. On the one hand, he wishes to project an image of a confident country enjoying its newfound liberation from an overbearing supranational organization. On the other, he has denied that Brexit represents an inward-looking turn and an embrace of nationalist populism, eschewing any talk of “Britain first” in favor of “global Britain.” The latter slogan is intended to show that the United Kingdom is broadening its focus beyond its backyard, looking for more sources of high-quality trade and immigration rather than just putting up barriers. So somewhat incongruously for a leader in the process of complicating trade relations with his country’s most substantial economic partner, Johnson has spoken of the United Kingdom as a force for good in the world and as a “superhero champion” of free trade.

But to get past the slogans, Johnson will need to offer a realistic assessment of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy options. The case for international engagement has to be made—it cannot be taken for granted. The context has changed. The British Empire represented a moment in international history that was passing at the time of Acheson’s 1962 gibe. The strategic imperatives that the empire generated were getting harder and harder to meet. The Cold War then created its own imperatives, which were easier to meet. Now, the imperatives are less clear and more contested. One consequence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the British public has little appetite for more military expeditions to help sort out the quarrels and misfortunes of others; another is that it is unlikely to be swayed by alarmists’ talk of future threats.

In an encouraging sign, the British government may have found a formula that allows it to evade Acheson’s challenge. Although it nodded in Acheson’s direction by framing the foreign policy review as an attempt to “define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world,” it also offered a more modest description of the country as “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation.” This opens up the possibility of focusing on capabilities more than objectives, suggesting a pragmatic, constructive approach to working with others that avoids grandiosity and any suggestion of a grand strategy. A capabilities-based review is about keeping options for a wider range of contingencies, with a stress on flexibility and adaptability; it is not about trying to gear everything toward specific strategic imperatives that have yet to materialize.

As a helpful problem solver, the United Kingdom still has much to offer. The country has a good record of adapting its national security tools to new circumstances. Its GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), for example, used to be associated solely with signals intelligence and code-breaking, but it now deals with most of the challenges of the digital age, including cyberattacks, electronic fraud, and child sexual abuse. The country has a long experience with counterterrorism. Its contributions to economic development have been substantial and innovative. In November, in Glasgow, it is set to host the next major international conference on climate change. It remains a significant military power, with only France in a comparable position in Europe.

The “role” Acheson had in mind was a position within an international system that was ordered and stable, but that no longer exists. Instead, the world is beset by anxiety, with much in flux internationally. Power balances are shifting, and disruptive behavior is becoming the norm. In this world, the United Kingdom has much to contribute, so long as it accepts the limits of independence and, above all, abandons the quest for a unique, exceptional role.

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