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Essay: Has the UK has found a role in international relations since the end of the Empire?

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  • Subject area(s): International relations
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  • Published: 27 September 2021*
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Dean Acheson’s frame of the position of the UK in the international system in 1962 was that, ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role’ . This oft-quoted statement has remained a characteristic view of the UK’s diminished role in the global sphere, especially as this area of study has remained dominated by realist thought. In this essay, a theoretical framework will be laid out focusing on ontological security to discuss the statement and evaluate the role of the UK in international relations since the end of Empire. It will focus on the identity of the UK and how that motivates foreign policy. The essay will then go on to explain the argument of academics in this field of study and will further explore the thesis through the use of two case studies; the 1956 Suez Crisis and the UK’s failure to join the EEC. It will explore and evaluate how the ‘ego’ of imperial Britain has remained firmly ingrained in the British psyche and how it has hindered the UK in finding a new role in international relations.
In order to discuss whether the UK has found a role in international relations since the end of Empire, we must first consider theoretical approaches. The realist approach has dominated this area of study for most of the period since the end of Empire. This theory argues there is only one motivation for states in international relations and foreign policy formation, namely survival. It is linked with actors’ pursuit of power and the struggle to balance power in the international system. This does appear to offer a reasonable framework of theory to assess whether the UK has found a role in the international system; the British Empire was the result of an ultimate pursuit of power and survival in an era when all the major European countries had powerful Empires. Thus, the transition of the Empire into the Commonwealth left a vacuum in British foreign policy and, in a new international climate, it seems the UK needs more than ever to fight for survival. Liberalism does not appear to offer in-depth analysis for the decline of the UK post-Empire; the acquisition of the British Empire was motivated almost entirely by realist foreign policy motives and thereafter appears to have been motivated by constructivism and ontological security. However, liberal theory regarding international trade and improved international institutions does relate to UK foreign policy post-Empire . For example, the UK was one of the founding members of the UN and NATO – two large and influential international organisations – and the transition from Empire to Commonwealth did improve the relationship and trade between the UK and its ex-colonies, at least initially.
The emerging theory of ontological security appears to have the most obdurate persuasive theory in this situation. This theory, as described by Steel (2005) places more focus on the idea of actors having a sense of being and self-identify , similar to the theory of constructivism concerned with personal identity and perceived identities of actors in international relations. As a result, guilt and shame motivate foreign policy actions, for example, states fear shame because they see themselves as ‘liberal’ so become involved in humanitarian crises that align with the state’s ‘liberal beliefs’ and sense of identity, hence the wave of humanitarian intervention in the 1990s. Another key factor of ontological security theory is the idea that states have identity commitments in the international system so, if they supported humanitarian intervention in one case they must support it in all similar cases. Finally, it is important to highlight that an individual actor such as a state leader must make foreign policy decisions that align with the ontology of the state; the publics’ view of the state in the international system; for example, the UK thinks itself a liberal democracy so will take part in humanitarian interventions, but still thinks itself isolationist/separate from Europe so is less willing to enter the Euro (or more recently wishes to leave the European Union all together). This theory aptly outlines the foreign policy motivations of the UK, a country that bases its identity deeply in its past, thus will be used to evaluate the thesis throughout the essay.
Overwhelmingly the argument in academia favours the idea the UK has lost an Empire and not found a role. Childs (2001), Madgwick, Williams and Steeds (1982), Aldrich (1994) and Dockrill (2002) appear to agree with this statement and suggest that the UK’s crippled economy and reduced power in the post-Empire international system has left the country without a role or position in the modern international climate; the UK sits in a grey area of power and influence. It has lost its Empire, the symbol of the UK’s naval and military might during the imperial age and it no longer has a seat at the table with superpowers following economic and foreign policy embarrassment in the late 20th century. However, it once had an Empire on which the sun never set and the memory of the power of imperial Britain remains deeply ingrained in the psyche of UK nationals. Furthermore, the legacy of Empire includes approximately 1.5 billion speaking English either as a first or second language ; it is the most commonly spoken language used to bridge between other language barriers. The influence of the UK in Commonwealth countries, though diminished, is also not something to be overlooked – strategic bases in areas such as Hong Kong were vital for intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the US during the Cold War; ‘whenever there is somewhere [the US] want to destabilise, the British have an island nearby’ . Finally, as one of only five countries globally with nuclear capability under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and as one of five permanent members on the United Nations Security Council, the UK does still retain some material power. This suggests the UK has “a new role … not as a superpower but as a pivotal power, as a power that is at the crux of the alliances and international politics which shape the world and its future.”
Some academics including Wallace (2005) suggest that the UK does not have a confident position in the international system, but UK influence can be rebuilt if certain foreign policy decisions are made, that is, if the UK places less importance on the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’. Wallace also argues, however, that the reason the UK has not yet found a role is that the UK is unsure of its own identity . Since the Second World War, it does appear that the UK’s identity is somewhat capricious with continual conflicts over the special relationship with the US, the issue of Northern Ireland and membership to the EU among politicians and the public alike. The recent EU referendum has thrown the UK into a period of political turmoil and identity crisis, but the underlying mood across the UK of patriotism, harking back to the success of the UK when it had an Empire, one world cup and two world war victories is timeless. The UK defines itself as a state with ‘Blitz spirit’, an attitude of make-do-and-mend and fearlessness in the face of uncertainty which has motivated foreign policy for decades. In addition, the UK has an identity of self-improvement and liberal values. This too has motivated UK foreign policy and can explain why the UK
was able to adapt the Empire into the modern Commonwealth and remain, largely, on good terms with its ex-colonies; with the exception of conflicts such as the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya and the conflict in Malaya, the UK gave up its Empire with relative ease, especially in comparison with the bloody conflicts in Africa experienced by France and Belgium as colonies fought viciously for independence, notably in Algeria. Therefore, while Wallace’s argument regarding the UK’s ability to regain a role in international society is strong, his argument regarding the UK’s crisis of identity holds much less sway. This suggests the UK has not found a role for itself in international relations because it has been stunted in foreign policy making by its ontological security and sense of identity.
The 1956 Suez Crisis is generally cited as one of the most significant reasons for the UK’s decline as a world power. Eden’s miscalculation was humiliating for the UK and ended his political career; however, his actions were not motivated by ontological security or national identity, but his own individual agenda. This crisis made it obvious in the international system the UK was dependent on the US. Although, the UK’s relationship with its formal and informal Empire was changing before the crisis and ‘the turn from the commonwealth to Europe owed little to Suez’ . ‘Examination of policy reviews in Whitehall before and after the Suez crisis shows that the Foreign Office, Commonwealth Relations Office and Colonial Office were slow to accept the need for change in Britain’s world role’ suggesting that the UK’s imperial identity hindered the foreign policy decisions post-Empire at the expense of its position in international relations today.
The steadfast imperial identity of the UK is adaptable to the modern global sphere; responsibly letting its colonies gain independence while maintaining an inflated sense of power has cost the UK and has had a negative impact on the UK’s attempt to find a new role. The UK was the only European country involved in the war that had not been invaded or defeated which meant it was in a position of power, both economically and politically. Failure to join the EEC at its start was a fatal oversight; had the UK joined ‘the Six’ in initial negotiations, the state could have risen to the top of the EEC and become the most influential actor. By the time the UK became interested in joining, the power vacuum left by UK indifference to the community was filled by West Germany and France – a balance of power that remains to this day. This suggests the UK has been hindered by its inflated imperial ‘ego’, resulting in missed opportunities that leave the country without a role in international relations. Wallace argues the UK must disentangle its national identity from the past in order to regain a role in international relations . He argues the state is confused between whether a European and an Anglo-Saxon identity is predominant today. However, in light of the 2016 EU referendum, it seems the UK is finally deciding to identify with its Anglo-Saxon identity over its European identity.
Regarding the foreseeable future, the UK’s position in the international system is not static and the influence Brexit is going to have on the UK’s standing in international relations is unknown; it could give the UK the role it has been missing for over 60 years or leave the country floundering, even more lost than before. As outlined in this essay, the UK has a strong sense of national identity based in its imperial past that has hindered, not helped, the UK in finding a new role in the international system since the end of Empire. The theory of ontological security has been, to varying extents, at the core of UK foreign policy decisions throughout the period and has played a significant part in the UK’s apparent lack of position in the international system.

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