Reading John Le Carre's latest book, Our Kind of Traitor (and living in England for the past few months), has set me thinking a little about Britain's current place in the world.
Back in the first decades of the twentieth century, atlases depicted much of the land surface of the globe in pink, the color of the British Empire and its dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and much of east and west Africa, Oceania, the Caribbean, the Middle East, etc.). Today politicians and economists say the country is in the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. There are across-the-board budget cuts, a major trade deficit, severe unemployment and declining industries and services. Even in Europe, Britain plays second or third fiddle, its economy lagging behind, or way behind, Germany's and France's.
In Traitor, Le Carre has his hero, Peregrine ("Perry") Makepiece, a disenchanted Oxford don, ask an MI6 officer: "How does it grab you, representing a country that can't pay its bills? … Good intelligence being about the only thing that gets us a seat at the international top table these days, I read somewhere ….Punching above one's weight." I'm not sure that Le Carre is right about this, that it is Britain's intelligence capabilities or performance that underpin the country's still prominent role in world affairs.
Among the defense cuts recently announced was a massive prospective reduction of Britain's combat air strength, from 230 Harrier jump jets to 107 Typhoon fighters by 2020—making Britain's future air force smaller than Sweden's (currently with 121 Saab Gripen fighters in service), not to mention the Egyptian air force, with some 400 combat aircraft.
Yet British forces continue to play—despite growing public disaffection - major roles in two distant wars, in Afghanistan and Libya. And it was only last week that Britain pulled out its last military personnel—naval officers and non-coms who were training Iraqis—from Basra after a decade of heavy engagement in the Iraqi swamp.
It's probably a rule of thumb that declining world powers are constitutionally reluctant to withdraw from the world's center court. Britain is no exception. At one point in Traitor, Le Carre writes that the British seem to have an "addiction" for foreign wars. Maybe. Or maybe it's a matter of something deeper in the national psyche, like a collective Pavlovian reflex.
Be that as it may, psychology seems, meanwhile, to be trumping economic limitations and inhibitions. And this is true about both Labor and Conservative governments (vide Tony Blair and the Iraq War of 2003). To judge by the voices emanating from the current Conservative administration, the country can be expected to continue to "punch above its weight" in the coming years.