Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Britain’s Hung Foreign Policy

Whoever prevails in the parliamentary power struggle, the country's role in world affairs will be diminished.

569201_cameron_32.jpg
569201_cameron_32.jpg
British Conservative Party leader David Cameron waves as he prepares to address the media in London, on May 7, 2010. Cameron said Friday he wants to forge a "big, open and comprehensive" power-sharing deal with the third-placed Liberal Democrats, after indecisive general elections. AFP PHOTO/Carl de Souza (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time in 36 years, Britain's political parties are in the unusual position of not knowing who will form the next government. As I write, David Cameron's Conservatives are in pole position to form either a minority administration or a formal coalition with the third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, after Thursday's inconclusive election.

But one thing is certainly clear: The next British government is going to be leaner and less interventionist than the last, with broad implications for its global allies. Whoever moves into No. 10 Downing Street will be faced by a daunting in-tray, including a huge budget deficit that all parties agree must be drastically reduced over the next few years.

This will mean deep cuts in public spending, which -- almost all observers agree -- will inevitably affect Britain's global role, dependent as it is on a large diplomatic service and relatively large armed forces capable of expeditionary missions such as the current Afghan deployment, where British forces are the second-largest international contingent after the United States. A new government will probably just not be able to afford to maintain Britain's current foreign policy, already a diminished one.

For the first time in 36 years, Britain’s political parties are in the unusual position of not knowing who will form the next government. As I write, David Cameron’s Conservatives are in pole position to form either a minority administration or a formal coalition with the third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, after Thursday’s inconclusive election.

But one thing is certainly clear: The next British government is going to be leaner and less interventionist than the last, with broad implications for its global allies. Whoever moves into No. 10 Downing Street will be faced by a daunting in-tray, including a huge budget deficit that all parties agree must be drastically reduced over the next few years.

This will mean deep cuts in public spending, which — almost all observers agree — will inevitably affect Britain’s global role, dependent as it is on a large diplomatic service and relatively large armed forces capable of expeditionary missions such as the current Afghan deployment, where British forces are the second-largest international contingent after the United States. A new government will probably just not be able to afford to maintain Britain’s current foreign policy, already a diminished one.

Despite the serious global impact of a smaller-pocketed Britain, foreign policy was barely an issue during the campaign. Politicians warned the voters that tough choices would need to be made because of the financial crisis, but they hardly touched on what this might mean beyond the domestic.

The campaign, particularly Clegg’s candidacy, may have been energized by the first-ever television debates between the three main party leaders in British history — it only took British politicians 60 years after the United States invented the idea to agree to this innovation — but the question of Britain’s role in the world hardly arose in the discussions.

Even in the second debate, which was nominally devoted to foreign policy, precious time was taken up discussing a question from the audience on whether the pope should be allowed to visit Britain later this year — the answer from all leaders was, unsurprisingly, yes — rather than the difficult global choices that the country will be making in upcoming years.

With the budget deficit now standing at around 12 percent of GDP, most experts argue that Britain can no longer afford the military and diplomatic resources required to be an international player — something it has tried to be since 1945, despite the country’s relative decline since the end of World War II.

Currently, Britain is pulled between a desire to play a central role in bulking up the European Union on the world’s diplomatic and military stage, and its traditional role bridging the divide between Europe and the United States through its "special relationship" with Washington.

Which way will the new government go?

If Cameron does form a government — either a minority administration with Lib Dem support or a more formal coalition — relations with the rest of the European Union and the United States will be interesting to watch.

The two parties have very different policies toward Europe, which could end up tolling the death knell of any partnership. During the campaign, the Lib Dems argued that the Tories were too closely allied with minor right-wing parties from Eastern and Central Europe, instead of the main center-right group, to do any serious business for Britain in the E.U.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have sought to keep their distance from Europe. They opposed the Lisbon Treaty, which is designed to provide the EU with a stronger voice on the world stage, and Cameron is against any closer integration in the  Union. Given that the Euro’s current crisis could soon necessitate closer integration between the members of the Eurozone, a British government could be forced to choose between becoming closer to — or more distant from —  other major EU states like France and Germany. If this happens, a Tory-Lib Dem alliance could also face its own crisis before long.  

When it comes to relations with Washington, the pairing is similarly fraught. President Barack Obama’s administration has welcomed the Lisbon Treaty, and Washington’s clear preference is for a Britain that plays a leading role in the European Union. So a Conservative-led government, moving away from the European mainstream, could strain the U.S.-Britain relationship. Cameron and his candidate for foreign secretary, William Hague, have both said they would want "solid, not slavish" relations with the United States, so they might not be willing to listen to Washington’s counsel on this issue.

It might be some time before we can make out precisely where the new government decides to take Britain. The main parties are all committed to holding a Strategic Defence Review that would include a reassessment of foreign-policy priorities to help determine where the budget cuts will fall in the diplomatic service and the armed forces.

One thing seems certain from Washington’s perspective, though. Whoever takes power in Britain in the next few days, the country will have less capacity, and perhaps less willingness, to support any future U.S.-led interventions of the kind we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade.

Alistair Burnett is editor of BBC News' The World Tonight.

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