Britain’s image is taking a pounding

(First Published in The Times of London)

By Edward Lucas

International engagement can overwrite the dispiriting narrative of a chaotic and declining country

It is not just the credit-rating agencies. Our closest foreign friends are reassessing our political stability and the strength of our institutions. The verdict is biting. A country that used to be a byword for pragmatism is run by fantasists. Germany’s Der Spiegel calls us “Banana Island”, explaining how we became the “laughingstock of Europe”. The French daily Libération chronicles the latest instalment “in a high-powered exercise of self-destruction” that began with Brexit.

Only recently the world was gawping admiringly at the Queen’s funeral ceremonies. Those days in September now look like the end of an impressive era, not its continuation. “The Queen is gone, you might get Johnson back, we can’t believe it” laments Annette Dittert, a long-serving German television correspondent in London. Russia and China gloat at our discomfort: proof that democracy is a sham. Anglophobes snigger. But for most outsiders, Britain’s meltdown prompts pity, mixed with concern. Our self-deprecating humour is no longer funny.

Yet doom and gloom are only part of the story. I recently chaired a panel of international bigwigs at a conference in Washington, DC. These sprawling discussions can test even a seasoned moderator’s skill and when I learned of a last-minute addition, in the form of Boris Johnson, I groaned. But as we mulled the origins and possible outcomes of the war in Ukraine, the British guest visibly dazzled the politicians and pundits present. I had to pinch myself. They were taking my country, and my former prime minister, seriously.

It was partly personal: none of the other decision-makers on the panel had been to Kyiv so early or so often, or spoken to President Volodymyr Zelensky so much. Johnson’s quips raised laughs, too. But this was no comic turn. What really sticks in foreigners’ minds is not the well-thumbed charge sheet surrounding his departure from office, but that faced with the greatest crisis in European security in living memory, Johnson masterminded what in retrospect may be seen as Britain’s most successful defence intervention since the Falklands.

As Russia’s onslaught loomed, British and American intelligence worked together, with unprecedentedly speedy declassification of secret material, to expose Putin’s plans. When the offensive started, no other country in Europe provided such speedy and effective help, notably £2.3 billion worth of weapons and other equipment, plus financial aid, humanitarian assistance, intelligence, and a highly effective crash training programme for thousands of Ukrainian troops Admittedly, our efforts pale beside the US contribution, roughly seven times as much. Small European countries such as the Baltics have done proportionately more. But Britain’s efforts contrast sharply with German shilly-shallying and France’s empty grandstanding. Ukrainians are hugely grateful. Bate Toms of the British-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce likens Johnson to Winston Churchill and the Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington in standing up to continental tyrants.

The response to the Ukraine crisis has also underlined Britain’s role as the one big country in Europe that the Americans can really trust. Radek Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister and member of the European Parliament, says post-Brexit Britain has found an “honourable role”, which is “to do the right thing before the EU has a chance to come to a consensus.”

Some continental friends, like Johnson’s domestic critics, overlook this or doubt his sincerity. The Ukraine policy was just grandstanding. Britain acts as America’s poodle in order not to descend into complete irrelevance. Johnson’s past record on standing up to Russia, especially to dodgy rich Russians, is lamentable. The refugee programme was badly administered. It is also true that Britain’s armed forces are grievously overstretched: deploying even one brigade to Europe for six months would test us to the utmost.

But however skinny the underlying capabilities, and however questionable the motives, in practice Britain has made and is making a profound difference. It is worth reflecting how different things might have been had the peacenik Jeremy Corbyn won the 2019 election. That would truly have had our friends worried.

The lesson from this is that the underlying strengths in Britain’s international capabilities and reputation provide the next prime minister with the means to overwrite the decline-and-fall narrative now filling the headlines. It will require cherishing our clout in global security and wielding it decisively, from boosting cyber-defences to curbing illicit finance and countering disinformation, as well as the decisive exercise of hard military power.

This comes at a price. Part of this is financial. It will be tempting, but mistaken, for example, to cut the overseas aid budget: this spending is justified not only on humanitarian but on pragmatic, influence-boosting grounds. I am less convinced about the headline-grabbing pledge to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP, especially when we find it so hard to spend the existing budget wisely. More effective than splurging money would be to curb our more far-flung aspirations, such as creating a marginal presence in the Indo-Pacific region, and to focus on doing fewer things better. The chief task should be maintaining the security of Europe. This is now in flux, immediately because of a belated awakening to the threat from Russia, and soon because of Germany’s potentially destabilising, but welcome, rearmament. The cost here is political: trimming our ambitions and accepting the realities of geography.

The reputational damage of the past weeks, months and years will be lasting, just as hard slog of recovering our economic strength and political stability is unavoidable. But it need not be fatal.

Edward Lucas writes a column for The Times of London.