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From Movies to Reality: Is Britain still a Great Power?

From Movies to Reality: Is Britain still a Great Power?These last couple weeks I have been watching numerous movies on British politics. Coincidence or calculations? Yesterday night, it was Tinker, Tailor, Sailor, Spy, the night before Page Eight (which by the way is one of my favorite spy movies), tonight most likely the Iron Lady. Prior to this triple hat, I saw the Queen, The Special Relationship, Ghost Writer, the King Speech and the Deal among many others. So I cannot help thinking: why has Britain always shaped imagination? Is there such thing as a British myth? And, what kind of power will Britain be in the 21st century?

All these movies – and I am missing a lot of them – prove that Britain’s soft power – or the power of attraction as defined by Joseph Nye – is more than ever alive and powerful. British cinema and music, such as Coldplay, are still doing very well and truly influence the artistic world to a certain extent. But has British soft power been an overall success? Not really. British soft power is also progressively eroding with the considerable cuts of the British diplomatic services, one of the most powerful in the world, by almost 20 percent. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), diplomatic corps, has seen a reduction of its staff from 4,300 to 3,900, which will affect the influence of Britain in less relevant and strategic regions as well as the gathering of information. Furthermore, many radio programs of the BBC have already been cancelled. These moves will undeniably hurt British soft power in the long run. Looking at the domestic politics of Britain, the economic crisis has been pretty violent and led to the appointment of Mr. Cameron, a conservative, to Downing Street. Mr. Cameron’s job and approach have been to cut public programs in order to lower the overall budget deficit, an obsession among conservatives. The budget cuts have been considerable across the board, even the military did not escape it.

Talking of the military, defender of hard power, critics have claimed that defense budget cuts have been made without a clear overall strategy. Many believe that these defense cuts will affect the type of power Britain will be in the 21st century. Some have argued that the defense cuts of “the annual $58 billion Ministry of Defense budget might have to be cut by almost a quarter.” The Franco-British treaty of 2010 illustrates the new approach of cooperation in theFrom Movies to Reality: Is Britain still a Great Power? very opaque world of military and defense. A year later, France and Britain sought to protect Libyan civilians from their leader Colonel Qaddafi. Both European military powerhouses knew that without NATO they would not be able to act and sustain their military strategies without the intervention of the U.S. Even though the mission was described as a success and a possible template for future missions, it did show that France and Britain cannot finance military operations at regional and international scales. Furthermore, these defense cuts have sent a wrong message across the pond. The Americans fear that it could affect the role of Britain in the Afghan counter-insurgency. Britain is the second largest force in Afghanistan after the U.S. Former U.S Secretary of Defense, Mr. Gates, expressed his concerns back in June 2011 about the large defense cuts taking place in Europe and their impact on the relevance of NATO. Robert Gates declared that “If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” Following the cuts, Defense Minister, Liam Fox declared in order to reassure his American counterpart, “We would be able to maintain a moderate deployable force for a considerable length of time, if required,” Mr. Fox added. “Maybe not exactly at the level we have now, but at still a respectable and useful level.” This remains to be seen.

From Movies to Reality: Is Britain still a Great Power?So is Britain a Great Power? I would answer yes and no. No, Britain has never fully recovered from the crisis of 1929. At the time, Britain was a hegemon with overwhelming military, financial and economic power. The famous say “the sun never sets on the British Empire” illustrated the power and influence of the British empire around the globe as well as its exceptional nature. Since then, Britain has remained a very relevant power in the world thanks to its strategic positioning on many issues; historical heritage; membership of the EU and NATO; and its ‘special relationship.’ Multilateral institutions, such as the EU, NATO, the UN, the IMF, G-20, wherein Britain holds powerful seat and/or important shares can allow Britain to remain influential in the high sphere of politics and international security.

However, British power is undeniably declining as illustrated by the domestic turmoil such as the 2011 summer riots, the problem of radicalization among the communities of immigrants, and the erosion of the welfare state. Domestic signs as well as revision of ambition downwards are clear symbol of the decline of British power. The dispute with European counterparts on the protection of the British financial sector, the famous City, which has contributed to maintaining the world status of Britain, is considerable. The shift of power of the financial system will progressively move to Asia and impact the financial power of Britain. Following the election, Mr. Cameron declared in an From Movies to Reality: Is Britain still a Great Power?interview:
What does it mean to be British in the 21st century? This is still a great country. Being British is being part of a successful multi-racial country that has traditional beliefs in liberty, supporting the underdog, and having a role that punches above our weight in the world. All those things still matter. We’re going to have a tough time for a couple of years. We’ll come through it, and we’ll be even stronger.

The decline of a great state of such preeminent power has already started and has had a considerable effect on the moral of the country. Let’s face it, movies will always be around to remind us how powerful Britain used to be.



Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.