Back on 23rd June 2017 – Brexit referendum day – I wrote an article for The Duran in which I said that because of the rapid decline of British power whether Britain voted for or against Brexit in terms of international relations no longer mattered.
The truth about Brexit which is never spoken but which everyone outside Britain knows is that Britain no longer matters very much.
Though Britain in terms of its international rankings remains a large economy, it is an uncompetitive and declining one, running large deficits with the rest of the world and desperately over-dependent on a bloated housing market and an often corrupt financial services industry to stay afloat.
The British military, which just 70 years ago bestrode the world, is now a shadow, looked upon with contempt by its US ally as it shows itself incapable of even defending small villages against lightly armed insurgents in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly the British military today would be incapable of carrying out the kind of operation the Russian military is currently carrying out in Syria, or which Britain itself carried out 34 years ago during the 1982 war in the Falklands. Though the British parliament pompously debated a military intervention in Syria last autumn as if Britain’s military involvement there actually mattered, barely anything has been heard of it since. Apparently a couple of dozen bombs have been dropped to practically no effect.
In terms of world diplomacy, where as recently as the 1980s Margaret Thatcher cut a commanding figure, Britain’s complete marginalisation has recently become all too obvious.
One of the reasons for the current ongoing political crisis in Britain – with a disintegrating government and an incoherent opposition – is that since Brexit referendum day this terrible truth has started to hit home.
The central assumption the British made even before the vote for Brexit took place was that a British vote for Brexit would trigger a huge existential crisis within the European Union, which would make the Europeans anxious to come to terms with Britain on Britain’s terms as soon as possible.
The result was that the British indulged in fantasies that they could have whatever Brexit they wanted, including one which allow them to limit immigration from the European Union whilst retaining unrestricted access to the European Single Market.
Theresa May’s whole negotiating strategy – to the extent she has one – was based on this assumption.
In the event – and as was entirely predictable, but as the British completely failed to predict – the Europeans quickly recovered from the shock and moved on to other things, showing no willingness to make concessions to the British about anything.
The result is that the British have been left twisting in the wind, wringing their hands with no idea what to do.
The British have now been given yet another painful lesson about their own increasing irrelevance.
For the first time in history there is no British judge on the International Court of Justice – the so-called “World Court” which judges interstate disputes – even though allocation of one of the seats on its bench is normally automatic for a candidate proposed by one of the UN Security Council’s permanent members, such as Britain.
In voting at the UN the British candidate was defeated by the Indian candidate, who now takes the British candidate’s place on the World Court.
In a sense that is as it should be.
By every objective measure India – a country which unlike Britain is rapidly rising towards Great Power status – is a far more powerful country than Britain. Not only does it have a much bigger economy than Britain’s, but unlike Britain it is also a major regional power with large and powerful armed forces, and a worldwide and effective diplomatic presence.
Objectively it is India not Britain which should be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it is a major weakness of the UN system that it is not.
For the British elite this further sign of Britain’s rapidly diminishing status comes however as a bitter blow, provoking more rationalising and handwringing.
Recently Theresa May – Britain’s weak and indecisive Prime Minister – delivered a bizarre speech in which she appeared to threaten Russia because of its alleged election meddling and supposed attack on the international system
And the comprehensive new economic partnership we seek will underpin our shared commitment to open economies and free societies in the face of those who seek to undermine them.
Chief among those today, of course, is Russia.
In a recent speech President Putin said that while the interests of states do not always coincide, strategic gains cannot be made at the expense of others. When a state fails to observe universal rules of conduct and pursues its interests at any cost, it will provoke resistance and disputes will become unpredictable and dangerous.
I say to President Putin, I agree. But it is Russia’s actions which threaten the international order on which we all depend.
I want to be clear about the scale and nature of these actions.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe. Since then, Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.
It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.
So I have a very simple message for Russia.
We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.
The UK will do what is necessary to protect ourselves, and work with our allies to do likewise.
That is why we are driving reform of NATO so this vital alliance is better able to deter and counter hostile Russian activity. It is why we have stepped up our military and economic support to Ukraine.
It is why we are strengthening our cyber security and looking at how we tighten our financial regimes to ensure the profits of corruption cannot flow from Russia into the UK.
So we will take the necessary actions to counter Russian activity. But this is not where we want to be – and not the relationship with Russia we want.
We do not want to return to the Cold War, or to be in a state of perpetual confrontation.
So whilst we must beware, we also want to engage – which is why in the coming months the Foreign Secretary will be visiting Moscow.
For there is another way.
Many of us here looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope.
Because we know that a strong and prosperous Russia which plays by the rules would be in the interests of the United Kingdom, Europe and the world.
As a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, Russia has the reach and the responsibility to play a vital role in promoting international stability.
Russia can, and I hope one day will, choose this different path.
But for as long as Russia does not, we will act together to protect our interests and the international order on which they depend.
This speech, coming a few weeks before British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s planned but repeatedly delayed trip to Moscow, was remarkably ill-timed if Johnson’s trip is intended to begin the improvement in relations with Russia that Britain desperately needs.
This is not because the Russians will have been made especially angry by it. Some Russians – mainly in the media and the Duma – were offended by it. However Britain’s loss of power is now so great that it is doubtful that those in Moscow who actually shape foreign policy – Putin, Medvedev, Lavrov, Patrushev, Matviyenko and Shoigu – paid much attention to it. After all the idea of Britain threatening Russia is today a laughable one.
The real problem with Theresa May’s speech is that yet again it underlines the British elite’s inability to come to terms with the reality of Britain’s decline.
It shows that instead of the serious effort to begin a rapprochement with Russia that on any objective assessment Britain needs, all that we are going to get from Boris Johnson’s trip to Moscow is the same thing that was promised or threatened before: yet another lecture about Russian misbehaviour, which the Russians will of course ignore.
How that advances British interests at a time of British decline I am wholly unable to see.
Though a declining power, Britain still retains important assets – an important geographical position, a large though increasingly uncompetitive economy, expertise in providing financial services, and a major cultural presence – which could be used to carve out for Britain an important position which might stabilise or even reverse its decline.
However that requires a realistic understanding of Britain’s position, and the fact that it is only causing damage to itself by setting itself up as the implacable enemy of Russia, one of the world’s Great Powers and the Great Power which is physically present in Britain’s European neighbourhood.
Britain is simply throwing away trading possibilities and diplomatic manoeuvre space – both of which it needs to stay relevant – by not realising this.
Suffice to say that this strange behaviour is being copied by none of Britain’s major European allies. All three of them – Germany, France and Italy – trade with Russia actively, and engage with it diplomatically, in a way that Britain has long ceased to do.
Bismarck once said that Prussia could not afford to leave covered any squares on the chessboard of European politics. He said that in order to justify his policy of rapprochement with Russia.
Today Britain finds itself in exactly the same position.
It is time the British elite understood this and put their delusions and prejudices to one side.
Unless they do so Britain’s decline will continue and will accelerate.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.