The Special Relationship Is Dead: Bring Back British Statecraft – Analysis


By Mohamed Amersi

(FPRI) — There was a time when the United Kingdom was regarded as the world leader in soft-power diplomacy. The British were bridge builders, called upon to settle intractable conflicts; when its foreign secretary went somewhere, they were taken seriously, its embassies and consulates were well-resourced, and the country’s diplomats were first-class.

However, since the end of World War II and the dismantling of the British Empire, the United Kingdom has failed to find its identity or a role on the global stage. It appears to be lurching from problem to problem, without any clear strategy. The only constant has been a deep, unquestioning subservience to US objectives. This must change.

Is the Relationship So “Special” After All?

The much-discussed, and often derided, “Special Relationship” has been the guiding light of UK foreign policy since Britain lost its great-power status. However, in its eagerness to be seen as America’s fiercest ally, London has lost its voice in the relationship. Since the turn of the millennium, the United Kingdom has blindly followed the United States into conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya—a series of misguided interventions that have in part contributed to the events now unfolding in the Middle East with an emboldened Iran. 

Let no one be under any doubt: The prospects of a second Trump presidency would be catastrophic for the United Kingdom. It would threaten the country’s national security, challenge the very existence of NATO, and undermine long-held concepts of collective defense.

Britain needs to begin contingency planning for a Trump victory, warned three leading former diplomats, Simon McDonald, head of the Foreign Office until 2020, and John Kerr and Sir Peter Westmacott, who both ran the UK embassy in Washington. It poses an unprecedented threat to the national interest.

So, what is Britain left with? The country has two choices: continue to hitch itself to the US bandwagon with declining influence, or reconnect with its long tradition of statecraft, putting soft power at the center of its identity and re-engaging with the world more constructively. 

Uncoupling from the United States and pursuing an independent foreign policy is long overdue and there is no better time. World order is being reshaped with the rising influence of the East, and if it does not change course, the United Kingdom will be viewed as part of Western decline. The country should take this opportunity to adapt its approach and find a way to become meaningful and relevant. 

A New Approach, Centered on Soft Power

Whilst Charles A. Ray correctly points out in his essay on this topic that the United Kingdom benefits from US security guarantees, it too often brings with it expectations of support on US-led, misguided military exercises. The United States traditionally leans heavily on their military might to achieve objectives abroad, but the United Kingdom must be realistic about its position as a middle-ranking military power and instead center its independent policy on soft power. 

Due to its unique colonial past, the United Kingdom has a global perspective and deep understanding of most of the world’s regions. It also has alliances with many of the world’s nations, both great and rising, to utilize. 

This requires a bold change in approach, though, starting with treating the position of foreign secretary as the great position of state again. David Cameron is a big beast in the political realm, but there must be a change in approach, not just personnel. 

Take the foreign secretary’s recent trip to the Middle East as an example. The United Kingdom has a historic responsibility to the region—not least because of the Balfour Declaration and its role in the creation of Israel. Yet when the foreign secretary visits, he loses his confidence and does little more than parrot the US line.

Cameron must be bolder. He must have a vision, communicate that vision, and be brave enough to announce it publicly. The goal must be to bring all sides to the table together to work towards a vision of peace, but that requires genuine leadership and a willingness to enter talks with a broad variety of voices. 

Foreign policy does not exist in a vacuum: It must take public opinion into account, assuming it is consistent with national security considerations. In February 2003, 1.5 million people protested against the impending war in Iraq. The Blair government ignored them and never recovered from that misjudgement. 

The same mistake is being made in the current conflict in the Middle East. YouGov polled UK adults, presenting them with options for what policy the United Kingdom should pursue. Thirty-three percent (the highest proportion of any option) believed the United Kingdom should oppose Israel’s military action and call for a ceasefire, with just 9 percent saying it should support Israel with no call for a ceasefire. And yet, David Cameron continues to tow the line, without meaningful diplomatic efforts. Of course, the result may be different if Israel’s right to defend itself against the atrocities of October 7 is factored in.

Re-ignite the Commonwealth

For too long, Britain has neglected the Commonwealth, to the frustration of many member states. The country needs to rekindle these relationships. The Commonwealth is potentially one of Britain’s biggest assets—it is a bloc of nations whom the United Kingdom can influence, but it can only forge common goals if it is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Instead of managing its decline London should be re-energizing the Commonwealth through trade relationships. I have proudly served as a board member of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council for nearly seven years and saw at close quarters the many bonds that tie the United Kingdom together. Ultimately, and this may be a little too bold as it has still not fully recovered from Brexit, the goal must be to create a common market of the Commonwealth member states. After all, the GDP growth projections of the Commonwealth are predicted to outperform those of the European Union.

Potentially, it will become a more significant trading bloc than the European Union, as the balance of the global economy shifts south. Hence, Britain needs to take an imaginative approach to maximize the benefits. Lower duties on goods leads to less friction between borders, creating a greater voice for members. 

The Commonwealth can be far more than a symbol of Britain’s past: it can become the cornerstone of a new foreign policy.

Reconciling Pragmatism and Principles 

The United Kingdom should also revisit the relationship between aid and foreign policy. Britain achieved world-leading status as a foreign aid donor, creating meaningful impact globally and contributing to the country’s soft power. 

Making international aid an adjunct of the Foreign Office does not work, nor is it a fair way to treat these nations. Aid should not be contingent on foreign policy objectives—it should be used to make a lasting difference and build on Britain’s reputation as an honest broker. 

Equally, foreign policy objectives, insofar as they concern granting of aid, should not be confused with human rights considerations. A nation that tries to assume the moral high ground invariably leaves itself open to charges of hypocrisy. Human rights are an important consideration, of course, but not in themselves the determining factor of a foreign policy. 

Britain’s foreign policy has become transactional at a time when it needs to nurture long-term relationships. This means understanding where an ally stands and what it needs are. Relationships cannot be built on security alone, or on arms sales and investment. 

The Medicis of World Diplomacy

There is much talk these days about countries vying to become the Medicis of the Middle East, with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar both attempting to become regional power brokers. Britain can assume a more ambitious role: the Medicis of world diplomacy. 

Lancaster House, a mansion in London managed by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, has long been the backdrop for statecraft. In May 1950 the twelve signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty met around a horseshoe table in the house to create a permanent organization for the defense of Europe and North America. Independence for countries such as Kenya, Malaya, Nigeria, and Cyprus were negotiated and agreed upon there.

Britain has lost its confidence and forgotten its soft power draw, doing their bidding without understanding the impact on its national interest. 

But there is a gap in the market for a global problem solver, an honest broker. The United Kingdom must be prepared to talk to everyone, to engage, and to arbitrate. Bombastic speeches at the United Nations solve nothing and military might rarely achieves lasting peace. Modern diplomacy demands agility and a sensitivity to global realities. 

The United Kingdom has the relationships, the history, the global standing and still the trust (but not for too long): it now just needs the bravery to chart its own course.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

  • About the author: Mohamed Amersi is the Chairman of the Amersi Foundation, which supports initiatives in education, building cohesive societies, inclusive capitalism, governance, and the futures agenda. The Foundation has also launched the Inclusive Ventures Group, a responsible profits, social impact investing platform that has invested in education, livelihood, health, and waste management in Africa and Asia.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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