10 Feb 2011

The Decline and Fall of British influence?

“David Cameron? Who is he? Who’s even heard of William Hague? How dare they talk about Egypt like that? Who do they think they are? ” The Egyptian Foreign Ministry official was scornful

“David Cameron? Who is he? Who’s even heard of William Hague? How dare they talk about Egypt like that? Who do they think they are? ” The Egyptian Foreign Ministry official was scornful – sent out to tell me what the boss thinks before I interviewed him. When I got called in for a private chat off camera the Foreign Minister himself was a little more diplomatic, but only a little. Of course this was an urbane pillar of the regime, in the middle of a crisis, with the revolution virtually at his door. So an irritated mood would have been quite understandable. But the thing Britain’s FCO ought perhaps to worry more about was not anger, but disdain. He laughed about David Cameron and William Hague, waving off their words with a pull of his face and a shrug. I didn’t need a diplomatic decoder to work out what he was really saying : “Britain doesn’t matter, who cares what it says?” Out on the streets they don’t have a much higher opinion of Britain with our mother of parliaments and democratic history – the refusal to back the protesters, the following of the Washington line, the use of almost exactly the same phrases as Mubarak about orderly transition, the need to avoid chaos, the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood and the need for broad based government – it has not exactly left London looking like a beacon of democratic hope. So here we are – 21st century democratic revolutionary thinking spreading across the middle east and Britain isn’t much liked by anyone on any side. That’s a tricky place to be for a declining world power.

The whole point of British foreign policy is to punch above our weight. We may be a relatively small island nation, diminishing in economic importance, with limited military capabilities but for years we’ve had the diplomatic equivalent of cuban heels and big shoulder pads and hoped nobody would notice. We have a seat at the top table of the UN Security Council and one of the most important financial centres in the world. But if the decline and fall of the British Empire is complete, the decline of our diplomatic weight seems also alarmingly at hand.

It isn’t yet clear whether Britain’s foreign policy is now so focussed on trade because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats don’t believe in ‘liberal interventions’ (for fear partly of Iraq style disasters) and saying what Britain stands for in the world, or because they’re just not sure what their foreign policy should be about beyond trade. If it is the former and Britain is returning to a self interested foreign policy based on trade that is an intellectually defendable position, even though some might disagree with it and want Britain to do more to uphold its values. Huge government visits taking half the cabinet to India and China made it clear that trade is centre stage. And using diplomats and their contacts to improve business for British companies is perfectly wise. But if the government isn’t sure what it thinks its role should be that is more worrying.

On Egypt are we all clear what the position is? Do we not support regime change in Egypt because Mubarak isn’t a threat to the region? Or because we don’t really think he’s a threat to his people? Is William Hague visiting Tunisia but not Egypt because really he supports the protests, or because he doesn’t want to interfere? The fear in some quarters is that the government might be giving away rather more of our influence than needs be. And once they lose it, it is hard to get back. When it comes to David Cameron’s admission about Britain being junior partner to America he might have been stating the obvious but was it wise to go around admitting it? The PM’s undiplomatic forays into Indo-Pak relations with some harsh words about terrorism and the Af-Pak-Kashmir situation didn’t do him many favours. Indians I spoke to thought it just showed how powerful they had become that a British leader was cosying up to them. In Europe David Cameron no doubt gets on well enough with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, but it is hard to see how he can ever be very powerful. Especially when despite obvious problems with the Euro Germany is again the economic powerhouse of the continent while Britain tries to stave off double dip recession.

I’m not yet one of those who say Britain is already irrelevant on the world stage. We still have the clout of traditional alliances, our place at the UN, economic power and military forces capable of joining if not leading interventions. But if they are laughing at us in Cairo’s Ministerial Offices there might be something to worry about.