London regains leadership position in world politics
Britain outgrows role as junior partner to U.S.
2011 could be called the "The Year of Britain" in international politics. Five years ago, experts considered Britain little more than junior partner to the United States. The situation has changed. David Cameron government is pursuing a set of measures to reclaim Britain’s great power status, which it lost in the 1950's. Downing Street’s actions have been met with White House support for now. But UK efforts to pursue an autonomous policy could prove a corrective to the nature of relations between London and other states.
Not so great Britain …
Britain lost its great power status during the first decade after World War II. In 1943-1944, Winston Churchill’s government believed that in the postwar world there would be three superpowers: the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union. But in the mid-1940s, London lost control over its dominions: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. In 1947, Britain recognized the independence of India and Pakistan. The final blow to the British Empire was the Suez crisis in 1956. "Great Britain" was replaced in the official lexicon by "United Kingdom" or simply "Britain".
In the postwar period, Britain settled into the role of junior partner to the United States. London used military force only in conjunction with Washington, or sometimes with its approval. Since 1962 British nuclear forces have been included in the U.S. nuclear planning system. Britain has supported Washington's military actions and its initiatives in European security issues. London was skeptical of European integration, and feared that a strong EU would undermine NATO. In Paris, Berlin and Rome, Britain was seen as a vehicle of U.S. interests.
Britain’s first attempt to reclaim its great power status was taken by Margaret Thatcher’s government (1979-1992). It offered the British public the victory in the Falklands War in 1982 as a means to overcome the "Suez syndrome." But in the 1980s the remnants of the British Empire were dismanted. Canada (1982), followed by Australia and New Zealand (1986) gained the right to make changes in their national legislation without prior consultations with London. During the governments of John Major (1992-1997), Tony Blair (1997-2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010), Britain returned to its junior partner role.
David Cameron’s government, which came to power in May 2010, has made a second attempt to assume a greater leadership role in the world. At first glance Cameron appears to be copying Thatcher‘s strategy – expanding London’s autonomy through the modernization of the US-British partnership. But in the early 2010s a new window of opportunity opened for Britain – a much wider window than in the 1980s.
Cameron’s European Strategy
First, the United Kingdom formed a long-term alliance with France. On November 2, 2010, the nations signed a declaration on cooperation in defense and security for the next 50 years. They also signed an additional agreement on cooperation in military nuclear issues. In 2011, Britain and France initiated the NATO operation in Libya and the diplomatic pressure on Syria. Paris and London are also discussing the partial union of naval forces.
Second, the French -British tandem changed the balance of power inside the European Union. Since 1997, the foundation of a "European defense identity" had been based on the Western European Union (WEU). But on June 30, 2011, the WEU was dissolved. At the Ghent summit (September 2010) the EU failed to reach agreement on an EU rapid deployment force. The military-political foundation of the EU is becoming more closely tied to NATO’s French-British tandem.
This is altering Germany’s strategic position. Since 1960s the foundation of European integration was based on the union of French military power and German economic power. The formation of the French-British tandem stripped Berlin of military and political support. Germany was locked between the French-British tandem and the Vyshegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary). Both of these sub-blocks were linked with Washington, not Berlin.
Third, Britain returned to Mediterranean politics as a result of the Libyan war. In 2009, the Elysee Palace put forward an ambitious project to create a Mediterranean Union as an autonomous sphere of EU security. The Libyan war, prosecuted by NATO under French-British leadership, has suspended this process. It is not the EU or a Mediterranean Union but the French-British tandem and NATO that are pursuing a leading role in the Mediterranean. Britain, as it was in the 1940s, seeks to play an active role in the Mediterranean.
Fourth, London has become more involved in the activities of the European Union. Since 1997, Britain had been satisfied to play the role of Euroskeptic, but that changed during deliberations on ratification of the Lisbon Treaty (2007). Britain ratified it in 2008. But London, with the support of Warsaw and Prague, has made changes to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is an integral part of the Lisbon Treaty. Britain and Poland proposed the Additional Protocol to the Charter, exempting those countries from several of its provisions.
However, the problem with the Lisbon Treaty was reagrravated in 2011. At the EU summit in Brussels (8-9 December 2011) France and Germany presented an agreement on coordinating EU fiscal and tax policy. Britain refused to sign on to the agreement. Cameron's government demanded guarantees protecting the British financial sector and rejected the idea of amending the Lisbon Treaty. Other EU countries disagreed with London’s position. But a group of states (Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary) also rejected the idea of amending the Lisbon Treaty. Britain has positioned itself as the leader of the EU states seeking to prevent a stronger EU fiscal area.
Cameron’s American strategy
Cameron’s European strategy has proved beneficial for the United States. British initiatives regarding the Lisbon Treaty fueled disagreements within the European Union. The British helped Washington by preventing the emergence of an EU privileged zone in the Mediterranean. The French-British tandem made the EU more susceptible to U.S. influence than the EU under French-German leadership.
But London’s European initiatives also served as a corrective to the nature of U.S.-British relations. For the first time since 1956, Britain entered into an alliance with a continental European power. Britain has also applied to participate in the "European defense identity" project. It has the opportunity to realize its Mediterranean projects. Paris and London have not forgotten about the project to create EU common nuclear forces (1989) by combining the British and French capabilities.
The British nuclear arsenal has assumed a very important role in the U.S. nuclear strategy given the reduction of Russian and U.S. strategic capabilities. British nuclear weapons are included in the U.S. system of nuclear planning, but it is not subject to the limits in the New START Treaty (2010). Nor does London participate in Russian-American INF Treaty (1987). Britain provides particular assistance to the United Stated in the efforts to preserve the U.S. nuclear presence in Europe. Support for London has allowed the Obama administration to develop a new “NATO’s strategic concept,” according to which the decision to withdraw U.S. tactical nuclear weapons must be made by the entire alliance rather than by individual members.
British foreign policy has supported a similar strategy with respect to European security. London, along with Warsaw, scuttled talks on a Russian proposal for a European Security Treaty (EST). London has blocked moves that were disagreeable to the White House, but at the same time the British have expanded their capacity for independent action in European politics.
What are the foundations of the growing assertiveness in British foreign policy? After the first oil shock of 1973, Britain became the leading energy power in Europe (excluding the USSR/Russia) due to its North Sea oil and gas resources. But since 1986 the hydrocarbons industry in the North Sea has declined. In 2007, Tony Blair's government acknowledged that this process is irreversible. Hence London has sought (1) to weaken the German-Russian energy partnership and (2) to get (or rather regain) access to Middle East energy resources. Britain’s formation of the French-British tandem, its Mediterranean policy and its maneuvering in European security policy have laid the groundwork for addressing these problems.
But a deeper motive lies beneath the policies of the Cameron government. The Obama administration has shifted focus to U.S. strategic interests in the Pacific Ocean. The eurozone crisis of 2011 created a sense in the British establishment of the limitation of German economic resources. London, by contrast, retained the status of the pound as the second global reserve currency and the procedure for determining the prices on raw materials and precious metals on the London Stock Exchnage. Is London gearing up for a fight for greater influence in the world in the 2020s after U.S. leadership declines?
Britain’s return to active European politics does not bode well for Russia. Over the past two decades, Moscow has pursued a policy of “Euro-Atlanticism”, aimed at putting limitations on the United States through a series of stabilizing pacts. These pacts were designed to restrict the use of force by the U.S. and make them consult their partners on European security issues. Moscow’s strategy was quite popular in Western Europe, especially with France and Germany. With the leadership role being taken over by the French-British tandem, Russia's possibilities to continue pursuing its Euro-Atlantic strategy are narrowed, as London is working to reinforce the military and political capabilities of NATO.
Over the past 50 years France has played a mediating role in many talks between the Soviet Union (and now Russia) and the U.S., including talks on arms control agreements. Now that it has largely abandoned “Gaullism” as its central ideology and accepted its role as a junior partner to London and Washington, Russia has lost its traditional mediator. The Syria conflict has shown that the French-British duo is more likely to cooperate with Washington than with Moscow. Germany and Italy do not yet have the required resources to replace Paris in its former role.
Energy is a separate problem. Over the past decade, it has been British diplomacy which has been the main opponent to Russian-German energy rapprochement. London has supported the efforts of the East-Central European countries to block the Nord Stream pipeline. Britain has also urged Russia to ratify the 1994 Energy Charter Treaty, and insisted that Germany strengthen its cooperation with EU institutions on energy issues. The formation of the French-British duo and the strengthening of London’s position in the Mediterranean may increase the European Union’s covert opposition to Russian energy policy.
Forging a dialogue with Britain is a new direction in Russian foreign policy. It is a difficult task. However, unless this is done, Moscow is unlikely to achieve any significant success in Europe in the next decade.
Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.