Britain’s role in the world is in question as its army retreats

The grim shadow of the British empire still lingers over many parts of the world – Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen

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This week the Guardian newspaper found space on its front page for a history lesson. The year 2015, it reported, is likely to be the first in a century in which the British armed forces will not be engaged in combat somewhere around the world. When troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Britain will truly be at peace for the first time since the outbreak of the First World War.

The names of many of the British battlegrounds of the past century are grimly familiar today – Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen. They show that the shadow of the British empire still lingers over many parts of the world. The defence of empire and then its unwinding involved a lot of conflicts, both big and small. One author has calculated that of the almost 200 countries in the world, only 22 – ranging from Guatemala to the Marshall Islands – have never suffered any kind of British armed incursion.

These imperial memories only serve to underline how much has changed in Britain over the past decade. Britain has just slipped to fifth place in the global ranking of defence spending, with the army due to be reduced from more than 100,000 to 85,000 by 2018. A country that used its navy to project force abroad for centuries has no working aircraft carriers at present. Two are being built, though they will have no aircraft until 2020.

But more important is the change of mood in the country since 2003 when the then prime minister, Tony Blair, sent troops into Iraq beside the Americans to topple Saddam Hussein. Politicians and the general public are now united in reluctance to get engaged in foreign wars.

Some cite Britain’s multicultural society, where a Muslim minority opposes sending the army to fight foreign wars of choice that in the recent past have overwhelmingly been in Islamic-majority lands.

But the stronger reason is that a generation of politicians believe their credibility has been undermined by the false pretences under which the Iraq war was launched, namely the destruction of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. A clear majority of British people now believe the Iraq war was wrong. Britain’s generals are suspected of over-promising and under-delivering in Iraq and Afghanistan, to justify their budgets.

The outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly offer no encouragement to the war party. Even the campaign to topple Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi that seemed so successful in 2011 now appears to have bequeathed only chaos and rule by tribal-based militia.

For decades, it has been a principle of foreign policy that Britain must stick with its US ally, to ensure that it would get American help when needed, as in the 1982 battle to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina. Without that assistance, the war could easily have ended in defeat.

Now, with a president in Washington who is keen to stay out of foreign entanglements, these calculations are outdated. Even more since the focus of US power is likely to be the Asia-Pacific region, where Nato allies have not much to offer.

Now that its military interventionism – more recently disguised as peace-building – is in abeyance, the question of what Britain’s role in the world is being reassessed. At the centre of the debate is the meaning of the parliamentary vote last August rejecting a motion to join the US and France in a missile strike to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons.

Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office minister in charge of the Middle East until last year, believes that the lost vote is a watershed for British foreign policy. By tradition, a British prime minister does not have to seek a vote in parliament to approve military action. By asking parliament to approve such a limited, arm’s length military action, which held no prospect of boots on the ground, he has tied the hands of all future prime ministers.

In effect, Britain will not be able to make any promises to its allies, Mr Burt says, as these will always be subject to the calculations of members of parliament. Military action may be limited to defending old colonial territories close the hearts of parliamentary backbenchers, such as Gibraltar or the Falklands.

There are many who disagree with Mr Burt. They point out that the Syria vote was a special case that, while revealing Britain as a more pacific power, at least yielded a positive result in Syria agreeing to dismantle its chemical weapons. Military intervention, however limited at the beginning, could have aggravated the war, while almost certainly failing to remove the regime.

While the debate continues, allies have drawn their own conclusions, with some praising British restraint while others see a military power tied down by the legacy of Iraq. France, meanwhile, seems to be stepping into Britain’s old place as America’s war partner of choice. The French army is intervening in Mali and the Central African Republic and the French president, Francois Hollande, has just been feted in Washington. France’s refusal to join in the Iraq war is forgotten in Washington.

For their part, British defence chiefs talk of 2015 as a “strategic pause” after a century of war. They point out that there are few European nations apart from Britain and France with the will, training and experience to intervene abroad, and their services will surely be called on again, either together or with the Americans. Germany, the richest and most populous country in Europe, has experimented with foreign intervention, but has pulled back. Sooner or later, they hope, British boots will be on the march again.

That remains to be seen. Domestic concerns – such as the break-up of the United Kingdom if Scotland votes for independence in a referendum this September – are higher up the agenda than slaying dragons abroad.

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