The realignment that is implicit in that vote leaves the UK with two choices. It can decide also to reject Europe—all that would take is reelection for the Conservatives at the next general election and then a “no” vote at the planned 2017 referendum on EU membership. That would set Britain on the path toward a politically dangerous and economically harmful isolationism. Or the UK can finally acknowledge that its real future lies with Europe. Taking that step is long overdue and would hugely benefit both the British people and the rest of Europe.
A bruised U.K-U.S relationship
Ever since 1945, successive British governments set enormous store by the durability and importance of London’s relationship with Washington at the expense of Europe. But this almost mythical alliance has had several profoundly negative consequences for Britain’s foreign policy and Europe’s strategic ambitions.The first consequence is that Cameron failed to consider how much Britain (and his own Tory party) has changed since the Iraq War.
Ten years ago, then prime minister Tony Blair was still able to bring the British into the U.S. campaign in Iraq despite the lack of a UN mandate. Even the fact that Britain’s military top brass was highly critical of both the legal base and the actual conduct of the war didn’t stop the UK’s participation.Today, however, most voters in Britain consider the Iraq War to have been a mistake. The Afghanistan campaign, in hindsight, doesn’t seem that worthwhile, either.
These wars have scarred British public opinion to the extent that a solid majority opposes using force against Syria. Even if it could be proved beyond doubt that President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a poison gas attack that killed many hundreds of civilians, they would remain skeptical of military intervention.
The second cost of the UK-U.S. relationship is that Cameron failed to take into account U.S. President Barack Obama's strategic shift away from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region. Cameron just didn’t take this pivot seriously enough, despite the fact that Obama warned him when he visited the White House last May about turning his back on Europe.
The third impact is the fallout from the U.S. National Security Agency spying affair. As revelations seep out about how Washington and London snooped on their own citizens and allies, the British public has grown suspicious and indeed disgusted with UK-U.S. relations.
The bar for future British military intervention therefore appears to have been raised. After the 1956 Suez Crisis, British decision makers drew the conclusion that the UK’s international strength was not sufficient for it to go to war without US support. Now many parliamentarians seem to feel they need overwhelming public support as well, and possibly even a Security Council resolution, which would essentially give Russia and China a veto over future British military action. Some of the arguments laid down in Parliament were remarkable in their rejection of a British global role or responsibility, or in their determination that because there was no option without risk, or without perfect knowledge of the consequences, the best option was to do nothing.
In its major review of national security strategy in 2010, the UK government highlighted the threats of WMD and radicalism emanating from the Middle East. Last month's vote will have a real impact on its capacity to act decisively against those threats. The impression Parliament has given the region is that Britain no longer sees itself as responsible for addressing the threats emerging from it. It will leave the job to someone else. The position of all the major parties in the UK, that the military option must remain on the table when it comes to stopping Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, now lacks credibility.
The UK’s standing in the region, and that of its leaders, is bound to be adversely affected, and it remains to be seen how much and for how long. The Commons vote was in part a backlash against the perception that Britain followed too slavishly American foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a desire not to repeat the experience. But UK global influence, including in the Middle East, has benefitted from the perceived closeness of the UK to the US, and the UK influence in Washington. The wedge that has now been placed between Britain and the US, and the British Parliament’s willingness to leave the US isolated, will change this perception.
Turning to Europe?
The most nefarious effect of the Anglo-American relationship, however, was that it allowed London not to take Europe seriously as a genuine partner. There was no need for Britain to think about its future with Europe, or about Europe’s own future, as long as the London-Washington axis endured.
That was one reason why the growing euroskepticism in Britain could flourish. Now it might be the time for Britain to turn to Europe.
The advantages for both sides of the UK engaging more with the rest of the EU would be huge.
The existence of the internal market, of competition, and of an EU capable of defending its trade interests (when the member states do not undermine it) has benefited Britain enormously.
Militarily and politically, too, the UK can no longer afford to go it alone. Britain’s immense military experience and standing would give the EU’s fledgling security and defense ambitions a much-needed boost. The UK, in turn, would enjoy a big say in shaping such a policy. There are other advantages for a British foreign policy that looks toward Europe.
The EU sorely needs British diplomats to give it a strategic dimension to Europe’s relations with Turkey and Russia. Against its better judgment, given the immense challenges facing Europe in the Middle East and the Caucasus, Brussels has allowed the relationship with Ankara to stagnate. A Britain that was fully engaged in Europe’s foreign, security, and defense policy could change that.
The UK parliament’s Syria vote, which came as a big surprise not only to the United States but also to Britain itself, offers a proud, old nation an unsought opportunity to reappraise its position in the world.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit: AFP-US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron