Last week David Cameron had what a lot of people are calling a ‘Love Actually’ moment. Dmitry Peskov, a Putin press aide, purportedly dismissed Britain as a small island that no one pays any attention to and, in response, David Cameron launched into a passionate defence, citing One Direction and Shakespeare as evidence of Britain’s past and present glory. This has resulted in a bit of soul searching on the part of the British media and a reflection on where Britain really stands on the international stage.
Despite Cameron’s florid prose, it’s a pretty undeniable fact that Britain’s importance and influence as an international power has significantly waned since the World Wars. During the Second World War, Britain accumulated huge debts while maintaining an imperial policy that was well beyond its means. Keeping large-scale military presences in the Middle and Far East pushed Britain into economic disaster domestically, increasing Britain’s dependence on the economic juggernaut that was the US. The Suez Crisis, an Anglo-French intervention in response to Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, is often cited as a key indication of how delicate Britain’s financial situation had become and how much Britain depended on US support. The US was against action in Egypt and Britain was pushed to the brink of financial collapse as a result of the intervention.
Britain’s decline is, of course, in no way unique. The Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in human history, crumbled due to wars of succession between the grandchildren of Genghis Khan. In the 14th century, China was the world forerunner in science, mathematics and engineering. Yet by the early Ming period a form of technical stagnation had set in. China abandoned maritime ventures in the 1420s, just when the European powers were starting to explore the world and establish the empires that still shape the world today.
So if Dmitry Peskov’s comments sting, at least we can take solace in the fact that we are not unique in our decline. And yet, when looking at the relatively recent decline of Britain (and Europe in general), I can’t help but think that there is, perhaps, something different this time around. When the Roman Empire collapsed, despite the Romans' innovation in infrastructure, politics and intellectual thought, Europe was pushed into a period of intellectual deterioration and economic regression. This has clearly not happened this time (although I guess it could just be a matter of time).
While Europe’s importance has diminished, the influence of her history, her legal systems and her political theory are still unavoidably evident in the world today. The framework of international relations, the schemas with which we understand the political world, have been forged by the centuries-long dominance of the European powers over the rest of the world. These conceptual frameworks dictate how we think about the world and how states interact with other on the international state.
Democracy was originally just a name for the form of government devise by Kleisthenes in Athens. By the time of the French Revolution, it has accrued a deeper meaning and was linked to a number of political values such as liberty, equality and justice. Now, it is widely considered the only really plausible or legitimate form of government. Similarly, the Human Rights Agenda, so often invoked in discussions of the recent violence against civilian in Egypt and Syria, was born out of the European Natural Rights tradition. The words we use to describe, and the concepts we use to understand, the world around us are largely rooted in the European intellectual tradition.
So Britain may very well be a small nation that no one pays any attention to. But when the US is arguing with Russia over the fate of Syria, it is doing so using the terminology, the legal framework and the international organisations that wouldn’t exist without Britain’s centuries of global dominance.
NB: this article argues that Europe and Britain are still influential conceptually and legally despite their waning importance on the world stage. This article doesn't look at whether or not that influence is a good thing. If you're interested in that though, here's some good places to look:
Fraser A (2005) Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers: Now Who Calls the Shots?
Ake C (1993) The Unique Case of African Democracy