Opening Editorial: Britain in the World

By HJS

In the early 1980s the Italians were celebrating il sorpasso as their economy powered ahead of the United Kingdom’s for the first time ever.

In less than a century, Britain had been reduced from the most powerful empire in world history to a little island of economic decay, social upheaval and international impotence. The Foreign Office mandarins merely seemed to be moving the country through the final stages of its post-war foreign policy of ‘managing decline’. There was even said to be a ‘British Disease’ that was sapping the nation of all that once made it great.

Yet two decades later the situation has been completely reversed. Far from having declined, the United Kingdom seems to have gone through something of a renaissance in the past twenty years. Its economy is now buoyant, its culture is expansive, its cities are regenerating and, with the disintegration of the Soviet empire, British military strength is now second only to that of the United States. Indeed, as Nile Gardener and John Hulsman have recently remarked: ‘Britain has unquestionably emerged as the world’s second most powerful nation…In every key area, whether it be diplomatic influence, military power, or economic clout, Britain’s star is in the ascendancy relative to the other European powers’.[1] Moreover, economic and demographic projections for the United Kingdom – from institutions such as the World Bank and OECD – suggest that this new found role will persist for some time to come.

Clearly, this powerbase has and will continue to enable the British to play a leading role in the world, and above all, in Europe. The country has, in recent years, found a new role of leadership and has been instrumental in enlarging the European Union and in helping with the drafting of the Constitutional Treaty. It has also provided a new pole around which smaller states, many in Eastern Europe, can unite and muster. Equally, and perhaps most importantly, Britain has been at the forefront of plans to enhance Europe’s military capabilities and has bolstered its defence budget accordingly – two new aircraft carriers and expeditionary capacities are already under development. Moreover, the United Kingdom, since the election of Tony Blair, has pioneered a values-based foreign policy in recent years and has been instrumental in shaping the foreign and security policy of ‘liberal interventionism’. This was applied with great success in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and has seemingly caused a number of positive changes that have swept through the Middle East in the wake of the removal of Saddam Hussein and his cohorts in Iraq.

Perhaps the most succinct description of Britain has been provided by Timothy Garton Ash, who invokes ‘Janus’, the deity, who, in Roman mythology, guarded doors and entrances.[2] After all, not only does London sit at the heart of the global economy, but also the epicentre of transatlantic relations. Along with its growing influence in Europe this means that it will retain a high degree – if not the highest level – of importance in the United States. British Prime Ministers and officials will continue to be welcomed in Brussels, Washington, and in state chancelleries throughout the rest of Europe. One BBC commentator has even advocated that a new form of British ‘empire’, based on cultural attraction and world-wide influence, has now emerged, and that this will allow Britain to retain its pivotal position almost indefinitely.[3]

Therefore, with this in mind, the Britain in the World section of the Henry Jackson Society will seek to look into this profound transformation. It will provide a platform for discussion into Britain’s new found role of leadership within the European Union; the country’s growing powerbase; the continuing development of its values-based foreign policy; the nation’s vital responsibility in transatlantic relations and the role of the United Kingdom in the vast networks that underpin globalisation. We have to show why, for Britain, this must be a time of confidence and global assertiveness, not reactionary sentiment or defeatism.


[1] See Gardiner, N. and Hulsman, J. (2003), The Heritage Foundation.

[2] Garton Ash, T. (2004), Free World, London: Penguin.

[3] See Kielinger, T. (2005), BBC Magazine.

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