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The outlines of Britain’s post-Brexit place in the world begin to emerge

Posted by hkarner - 24. Juli 2016

Date: 23-07-2016
Source: The Economist: Bagehot
Subject: In the map room with Theresa May

IF EVER you find yourself at a dinner party with British establishment types, ask them about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Jokes about gin-swilling, oikophobe globetrotters in linen suits will spill forth. The more chauvinistic may tut about that diplomat’s disease: “going native”, or sympathising more with foreigners than with folk back home. To sound clever, someone will decree that every prime minister since Thatcher has been his or her “own foreign secretary” (as if Churchill and Eden were remembered today for their education policies) and that the FCO these days is just a venue for formalities.

This image riles diplomats, and rightly. The essence of the grandest department on Whitehall is not that it deals with the world outside Britain. Practically every government body does that: the business department frets about foreign takeovers, the Ministry of Defence is hardwired into NATO, 10 Downing Street co-ordinates big summits. The point of the FCO is to go beyond the transactional focus of these branches, of fleeting political moods and fads, of narrow, immediate readings of the national interest. Its embassies are a nervous system conveying information, cultivating influence and generally providing a strategy for the country’s global role that transcends the next photo opportunity or crisis. Its goal is an influential Britain in an orderly world. Or, as Ernest Bevin, the post-war foreign secretary, put it: the preservation of every Briton’s ability to “take a ticket at Victoria Station and go anywhere I damn well please!”
It is in this context that the sudden and brutal humiliation of the FCO following Britain’s vote for Brexit should be understood. The swingeing budget cuts and departmental turf wars of recent years have been tough enough. But none of this compares with the indignities visited upon it in recent weeks.

Johnson cc3Most colourful among them is Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. The former mayor of London, who campaigned for Brexit, is affable and intelligent. But he is also unscrupulous and unserious. In Brussels he is loathed for his myth-making about the EU and for comparing the union to the Third Reich. German news readers struggled to stifle laughter when they read out the news of his promotion on July 14th. In Washington the reaction was no better: five days later the new foreign secretary grinned his way sheepishly through a press conference as American journalists read from his litany of undiplomatic remarks. In 2007 he compared Hillary Clinton to a sadistic mental health nurse, for example; the following year he described Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.

What possessed Mrs May? It seems the prime minister wants to pack Mr Johnson off to parts foreign, welcoming him back in London only to help her, a Remainer before the referendum, to sell an eventual Brexit deal with the EU to Eurosceptics. That is dismal. It treats the FCO, a giant national asset, as a tool of domestic political management and thus suggests a drastic downgrade of Britain’s ambitions on the world stage.

So too does the prime minister’s creation of two new departments: one for Brexit and one for international trade. The former, in particular, will be composed from chunks of the FCO, including some of its brightest staff. Both are led by uncompromising Eurosceptics, David Davis and Liam Fox, who seem determined to nab further turf from the (in their eyes) all-too internationalist diplomats. Thus the FCO will now have to share facilities—like Chevening, the foreign secretary’s country retreat—and battle for influence with two rival outfits programmed to see other countries less as partners than as negotiating opponents.

A hint of what is to come came on July 20th, when Mrs May travelled to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel. The prime minister received military honours and exchanged warm words with her German counterpart. Yet insiders detected a shift. For all the talk of co-operation on Turkey and the refugee crisis, in the German capital Britain is now seen less as a solution than a problem. As one local diplomat put it to Bagehot: “Here Britain now means Brexit.” For the foreseeable future, then, the country’s scope to play the expansive, agenda-setting role for which the FCO is designed is limited. Brexit talks will drain energy from other fields. The fragmentation of Britain’s diplomatic arsenal will Balkanise policymaking. Doors will close which once were open. Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, reckons the country could end up as “a bit player in support of policies developed in Berlin, DC and other places.”

The new Westphalianism
Too gloomy, say some, pointing to Britain’s ongoing NATO membership, UN Security Council seat, Commonwealth links and economic and military heft. These things matter, of course. But quitting the EU denies Britain opportunities to make the most of them (consider its leadership, alongside France and Germany, in the Iran nuclear talks). The country’s temperamental and institutional tilt in a more zero-sum, nation-state-centric, sovereignty-first direction makes its existing strengths less valuable: a less open and collaborative ally to its friends. Mr Leonard calls this “strategic shrinkage on steroids”. He sees Britain taking a more craven stance towards economic powers like China and Russia, whose cash might help it plug the economic gap left by Brexit.

Not everything about this is preordained. Perhaps Mrs May can play off her three sort-of foreign secretaries against each other. Abroad she has opportunities to shore up some of Britain’s influence, says Brendan Simms, a historian of the country’s place in Europe: by striving to remain a useful ally to Germany, by amplifying Britain’s voice on defence and security matters (it is still a major player in NATO’s defences in the Baltics, for example) and by throwing herself into debates about the future integration of continental Europe. Britain’s stature in the world is shrinking. By how much is up to its leaders.

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