British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond sounded unusually defensive during a meeting with his EU counterparts on the topic of Ukraine and the Franco-German peace initiative: "The UK is not planning on supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons." If the United States is planning on doing so, that's an individual decision. Every country is playing its own role, and the UK has always led the fight in the EU for tougher sanctions, said Hammond. "We're happy that the Germans have taken the lead with direct talks with Russia," he said, adding that this was the best channel for such discussions.
The Iraq war, the Middle East talks, the Iran nuclear negotiations: the UK was always a major player on the foreign policy stage. But on the Ukraine crisis, London seems content to leave things to Paris and Berlin.
Behind Hammond's rather restrained appearance is a nationwide controversy about the development of British foreign policy. At the end of January, a report from the House of Commons criticized the extremely modest role the country was playing in the fight against the terrorist group Islamic State. And over the weekend, tough words from former NATO supreme commander Sir Richard Shirreff about Prime Minister David Cameron's government made headlines.
"Where is Britain? Where is Cameron?"
Shirreff hit out against the state of British foreign policy. "The UK is a major NATO member, it is a major EU member, it is a member of the UN Security Council, and it is unfortunate that the weight that the British Prime Minister could bring to efforts to resolve this crisis appears to be absent," Shirreff told the BBC with regard to Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande's trip to Kyiv and Moscow. At the same time, the general painted a dramatic picture of the political situation. "This is the most serious crisis to have faced Europe, arguably, since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There is the threat of total war," he said.
Such attacks from former high-ranking military personnel are nothing unusual in London. Often sarcastically referred to as "armchair generals," they and their (sometimes) good advice have accompanied the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mission in Libya, and the cautious policies on Syria. But Shirreff's comments took aim at the entirety of British foreign policy, or rather, its absence. "Where is Britain? Where is Cameron? He is clearly a bit player. Nobody is taking any notice of him. He is now a foreign policy irrelevance," Sherriff said.
British press echoes criticism
What is new, is that the British press has picked up on the questions posed by Sherriff, and appears to largely share his opinion. "German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have gone to Moscow to mediate in the Ukraine conflict, but not David Cameron. Britain is playing a supporting role, not just in Europe, but also in the Middle East," wrote The Times, bemoaning what it called the decline of British foreign policy. The Financial Times likewise concluded that Britain has been relegated to the sidelines of foreign policy. The paper wrote that this wasn't always the case; Cameron committed fully to the military mission in Libya, even if the government now regrets the strategic consequences of that action. Now, however, there appears to be a fundamental discrepancy between Cameron's rhetoric and the duties Britain is willing to fulfill, the paper commented. After the elections in May, the government in London must give some serious thought to the type of role the country wants to play internationally in future.
Voters penalize military engagement
One of the reasons for London's new reticence: aggressive foreign policy and military action abroad has proven unpopular with voters in recent years. For decades, Britain was proud to be a heavyweight on the world stage, but there appears to be less of an interest in maintaining this presence among British citizens today. Added to this are the deep cuts in military spending imposed by the Cameron government - cuts that are set to continue after the elections. It would now be impossible for the British army to be simultaneously deployed in multiple war zones, as was once the case during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are also further uncertainties. For decades, the British saw themselves as the most important ally of the United States in Europe. But this "special relationship" seemed to be called into question after President Obama made it clear that he was interested in seeing the UK as part of the European Union. The Cameron government has distanced itself from the EU and, at the same time, slid into its current foreign policy crisis, according to Michael Emerson from the Center for European Policy in Brussels.
Emerson said this waning of British influence was noticeable even at the start of the Ukraine conflict. If unchecked, this development could even touch the "jewel in the crown of British foreign policy," the UK's permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But that's something that will more likely become an issue for the new government following the elections in May.