The London Conference: Concerns about Britain’s britain's shrinking role Don’t Don’t

Strategic shrinkage. The buzz on the margins of Chatham House’s London Conference had it that David Cameron has banned any mention of the phrase in Whitehall.

The World Today
2 minute READ

Philip Stephens

Chief Political Commentator, Financial Times

Anyone caught so much as whispering the two words, the Prime Minister reportedly told a recent meeting of the National Security Council, could expect ‘the Kim Jong Un treatment’. The North Korean leader has devised some particularly brutal ways of punishing dissent.

You can see why Cameron might be rattled. The big topics of this, the second London Conference, were clashes between established and rising powers, the shortage of international public goods, resource scarcity, and the links between economic integration and populist nationalism. But the background hum of concern about Britain’s apparent retreat from a more perilous global environment was unmistakable. 

The prospect of deeper defence cuts and the looming European Union referendum fight have persuaded friends and allies that Britain is stepping back from its international responsibilities. Cameron has ducked out of a role in Ukraine and Britain’s contribution to the fight against Islamic State in Iraq is modest. Washington no longer makes any secret of its fear that Britain risks making itself irrelevant on its own continent while losing the political will and the capacity to act globally. 

Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary, was clearly conscious of this mood. In his opening conversation with Robin Niblett, Chatham House Director, he was keen to shed the reflex Euroscepticism that was once a trademark. The referendum on EU membership, he said, should be seen as an opportunity rather than a distraction – a chance to put to rest the debilitating arguments of the past couple of decades. He dared to mention ‘shrinkage’, but without the ‘strategic’ and then only to dismiss the idea. As for defence spending, he advised we should not rush to judgment. Sharp minds saw a hint that Cameron might yet blunt the Treasury axe by insisting the government sticks to the 2 per cent NATO target for defence spending. 

Listening to the panel discussions it was hard to see how any British government could judge this the right time for retrenchment. The world is in the midst of its greatest upheaval for a couple of centuries. The post-1945 order is passing and no one is quite sure what, if anything, will replace it. Can the present system, as India’s Shashi Tharoor suggested, be recast to include the new powers? Or should we expect a patchwork of overlapping, plurilateral networks to replace one-size-fits-all multilateralism? Has China made a decisive break with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or, as Ambassador Wu Jianmin insisted, is Beijing simply building on the existing order? To make things more complicated I detected broad agreement that the governments trying to make sense of the new international landscape have themselves shed significant power to non-state actors ranging from multinational corporations to confessional movements, NGOs and, on the dark side, international criminals and terror groups. 

If there is a constant in this global kaleidoscope, it is that moments of great change are also ones of unavoidable instability. The economic integration that has promoted global prosperity has also become a driver of insecurity. Global supply chains have little respect for national employment patterns and social norms. Hence the rise of nationalism in Europe which, in the words of Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organization, has always looked to ‘foreigners’ as the source of economic misery.

As for collisions between states – and there was plenty of discussion of Russian intervention in Ukraine and the stand-off between China and its neighbours in the East and South China seas – the mood of the conference was that the priority was to establish predictability and trust in international relations. Margaret MacMillan, the historian, provided a reminder that wars are often the consequence of miscalculation. 

It was not all gloom. Lamy spoke eloquently about the way trade liberalization has lifted the life chances of  the billions once stranded in poverty. The best way to promote growth in, say, Africa  is to unify norms and standards so that a flower grower in East Africa can sell on the same terms to Europe, the US and Japan. Trade tariffs are down to 5 per cent and the same approach should be taken to unifying global rules and regulations. 

The last word, though, should probably go to MacMillan. There was nothing inevitable about war between rising and established states, she said, but the same might also be said of world peace. If there was a lesson to be drawn from history it is about the dangers of complacency.