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Timothy Garton Ash, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Timothy Garton Ash, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Timothy Garton Ash

Tallyho! Hunting for a British role Add to ...

Fox hunting may have been curbed, but some Brits are back at another of their traditional pastimes: role hunting.

It's been nearly 50 years since U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson whipped up a storm by saying Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Role hunting has been a British sport ever since. Tallyho! goes up the cry, every time they have a new government, and off they gallop, led by the prime minister and the foreign secretary. The fox usually gets away in the end - and Britain sinks back into doing whatever it does.

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Tony Blair led the last big hunt, with his 1999 Chicago speech as its most resounding Tallyho, before losing his way in the sands of Iraq. Now it's Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Foreign Secretary William Hague who are up for the chase. Unofficial master of the hounds is Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House (the most venerable of Britain's foreign policy think tanks), which held a major conference on the subject this week as part of a larger project.

The context, however, is a sobering one - perhaps the most sobering for Britain since its loss of empire after the Second World War. First of all, Britain's already stretched resources for power projection of all kinds are now threatened with a fearsome round of public spending cuts, frankly described by Defence Secretary Liam Fox at the Chatham House conference as "the mother of horrors."

Mr. Hague promises to defend the Foreign Office from the most savage cuts, but almost every aspect of Britain's power projection will be shaved back - from classical diplomacy and the armed forces, through trade and investment support, the British Council and the BBC's worldwide services, all the way to university places for foreign students and our cheap 'n' cheerful London Olympics. The one exception is spending on international development aid, which this government has promised to keep increasing toward the international target of 0.7 per cent of GDP.

Beyond this, there are fears for Britain's economic recovery, the spectre of government debt being downgraded by the ratings agencies and the associated worries about sterling. The problems of the euro zone are Britain's, too.

Meantime, unless the whole fleet of global capitalism sinks, Asia's developing economies will continue to catch up at a rate of knots. That points to the wider context - the historic power shift from west to east (China, India), to some extent from north to south (Brazil, South Africa), and from a bipolar or (fleetingly) unipolar world to a multipolar or no-polar world.

The consequence of this is that the United States is more focused on those emerging powers, as well as the wider Middle East, and therefore relatively less interested in Britain and Europe - unless they show they can be useful. The Obama administration, led by a hard-pressed, pragmatic president, less sentimentally connected to Europe than his predecessors, is not impressed by history or precedent. Washington's question is: What can you do for us today?

And that's before even mentioning global challenges such as climate change, mass migration, pandemics, environmental degradation and the threat of international terrorism (to which Britain, with its umbilical demographic connection to Pakistan, is especially vulnerable).

In short, Britain has to do more with less. The notion of finding or defining Britain's "role" is one way of trying to focus the mind on these hard choices. But is it the best way?

Roles are what actors have. The very word suggests strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage, and British elite discourse is very much about the figure they cut upon "the world stage." British ambassador-speak on this subject is a curious mixture of self-congratulation and insecurity. One moment they're talking about Britain being a global "thought leader," the next they're saying things such as "We are taking a long time to die." That quote is from one of Britain's most incisive ex-ambassadors, Jeremy Greenstock, speaking at the conference. He added "from our peak at the end of the 19th century," to explain what he meant. Irony cloaks angst.

Roles, like identities, are an amalgam of who or what you think you are and what other people take you for. I may be convinced that I'm the finest opera singer in the world, but, if no one else thinks I am, then I'm not. My hunch is that, on the whole, Britain stands neither as high in the estimation of others as foreign secretaries and ambassadors tend to assert in public, nor as low as they fear in private.

There is a persistent strand of self-delusion in British elite claims about Britain's role, nicely punctured by memorable jibes such as this one from Helmut Schmidt: "Britain's special relationship with the U.S. is so special only one side knows it exists." But there's also a strand of neurotic self-doubt, which can be equally overdone. A survey-based study presented at the conference showed how strong Britain's "brand" remains internationally, compared with that of most other countries.

Perhaps all this talk of "role" is itself part of the problem. Suppose we just talked of interests. We, the British, need to define and redefine our interests. "National interests" are not a constant, objective given, but they will surely include the people of these islands being as secure, free and prosperous as possible. I would argue, in the Gladstonian liberal tradition of which Iraq became such a travesty, that an enlightened definition of British interests should also include respect and concern for the basic interests of others around the globe.

We then have to see how Britain's modest foreign policy instruments can best be used to defend and advance these interests. Meantime, enough with the role hunting. We have nothing to lose but our illusions.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University.

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