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NICHOLAS BURNS

As Britain’s malaise grows, so do worries for US

Britain’s voters head to the polls for May 7’s general election.
Britain’s voters head to the polls for May 7’s general election.AFP/Getty Images

FOR 70 YEARS since the end of the Second World War, the United Kingdom has been America’s strongest, most trusted, and most dependable ally. How long that will be the case is now in question as an inward looking, weaker, and less self-confident Britain approaches a potentially transformative election on May 7.

On a visit to London last week, I was struck by the number of influential Brits who worry openly about their country’s ability to confront challenges that, if unmet, may well propel the disengagement and gradual decline of a country that has played a central role in global affairs since the 18th century.

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The most visible aspect of Britain’s malaise is the deterioration of its once world-class military. In an insightful New York Times article this week, reporter Steven Erlanger chronicled aspects of this fall from grace. The current Conservative government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, has instituted substantial military budget reductions since 2010 that have reduced Britain’s military capacity in striking ways. Defense spending has fallen below the suggested NATO minimum of 2 percent of gross domestic product.

By 2020, the British army will have fewer soldiers than at any time since the Napoleonic Wars. The once proud Royal Navy currently deploys no working aircraft carrier. The next British government may struggle to find the funds to finance the construction of four new nuclear submarines to host Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons force. If it fails to do so, Britain will lose its independent nuclear deterrent, a calamity for the country and its NATO allies.

Britain’s will to lead is also in question. During nearly all past security crises in Europe for decades now, a troika of the British prime minister, French president, and German chancellor would step up to lead. And the United States could always count on Britain. But Cameron has been curiously disengaged on major crises lately, such as countering Russian aggression in Ukraine. And he has seemingly managed to distance London from both Washington and the European Union.

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Would a Labour-led government act much differently? While Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander is widely respected in the United States, Ed Miliband, the party leader and a candidate for prime minister, barely mentioned the United States in a much anticipated foreign policy speech last week. That startling omission should concern Americans who believe our ties to Britain are vital.

All this matters for Britain’s friends, especially the United States. Britain is not done yet as a capable and consequential global force. It still wields political influence through its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its central place in NATO and the European Union, and its capable diplomatic corps. It is the most important country in connecting the United States to Europe and in helping to bridge inevitable differences between the West and increasingly assertive Russian and Chinese leaders. Its central place in the British Commonwealth gives it political reach.

But can Britain maintain this unique global role? Next week’s election, which is too close to call, may be critical in answering that question. No matter which party ends up leading the next coalition government, a central concern in the minds of Americans who trust and depend on a strong Britain is this: Will the new government in London arrest the trend of British retrenchment in global affairs? Will it find a way to rekindle the will to lead? And, most importantly for those on this side of the Atlantic, will it restore the once proud links that have made our relationship with the British so vital and indeed so special for so long?

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Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.

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