Foreign Policy Blogs

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 the 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.

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 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.

  • Hanna

    As always, great piece. Always humorous and relevant. British intelligence agencies, Mi5 and Mi6, are still strong, of course, if you forget the whole Iraq thing ;)

    • Maxime


      You are absolutely right about the Mi5 and Mi6. They are still very powerful and influential. Thus, PBS is airing the tv show Mi-5 almost every evening.

      You were right as well to point out Iraq. We can also add the whole question of torture and rendition. These elements undeniably affected the image of Britain. Tony Blair was a big part of it, but he was able to limit the damage. The movie Ghost Writer is a good example, even though it remains a piece of fiction.

    • Dr. S A Visotsky

      Be clear though to differentiate between the two.

      MI5: UK’s domestic security agency
      (Protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, at home and overseas, against threats to national security.)

      Ministerial Oversight: (answerable to) Home Secretary

      MI6: UK’s foreign intelligence service
      (Gathering intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence, foreign and economic policies.)

      Ministerial Oversight: (answerable to) Foreign Secretary

      They are indeed still powerful, but they are also limited in scope due to jurisdictional issues.

  • oliver barrett

    I have always had a grudging admiration for the British. Such a small country that managed to dominate the world in so many regards for such long time. However, their legacy as a supporter and beneficiary of the trans-atlantic slave trade, and other imperialistic transgressions across the globe has never sat well with me. They do indeed have a proud legacy, but they have many things NOT to be proud of. Like so many fallen empires of history the land of Kings and Queens are having quite a hard time coming to terms that they are no longer “Great”. The UK was recently overtaken by Brazil as the world’s 6th largest economy and there are other indicators that illustrate that the Brits are fast becoming a 2nd tier country. The Brits have had their time in the son, and I will always like the Beatles, but there is a new world order in place and the Union Jack does not mean as much to the rest of the world as it once did. Nice post!

    • lukas

      Of course it doesn’t. But if we take a closer look at British performance in sphere of defence and international security at global stage in past decade, quite opposite image of British power emerges.

      British military input (and financial contribution) in war of terror (including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) was second only to the US. Not only was the UK the closest American ally in terms of politics, but also a first cooperating nation on the ground. Even if British involvement had resulted in so-called overextension, which paved the way to the limitation of military capabilities, the UK’s engagement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has given a sense of being a leading power in international affairs (again). To put it simply – it was a clear “to punch above its weight” action that let the Brits once again feel like sitting at the table when major decisions concerning global security were being made (no matter how high/low its stake was). If we take into account enormous resources dedicated by British government to the compaign of war on terror (once again – second only to the US) and compare them with the vague benefits (rather in terms of elusive capabilities to influence global politics than real advantages epitomised by gas contracts) it becomes clearer that the fundamental aim of British security policy – playing (or should I write: preserving) a global role – had been achieved then by close cooperation with the US. The so-called ‘special relationship’ is a vehicle for future British status. Staying close to the US in global affairs is supposed to preserve the rest of power once possessed by the Empire.

      British global status depends on strong cooperation with the US in global affairs and the sphere of defence and security (intelligence sharing – UK/US Community, close cooperation of military-industrial complexes and British nuclear dependence on American’ s Trident and warheads – W-71) is the main field of this cooperation. In case of military abilities the UK is still the global power possesing a ‘global reach’ capabilities and equipped with the most vigourous military resources that only few states can overwhelm.

    • tony

      The “Great ” in Britain is not an adjective but a noun
      its Geographical not a political

  • BGL

    The fact that the “special relationship” is far more important to Britain than to the USA is a sign of Britain’s relative decline over the years, and it merely maintains the illusion that the clever Brits can guide the very strong (but ignorant) Yanks make their way in the world. Whenever a new American president takes office there is anxiety in Whitehall about what place in the queue they will be when the President decides to go overseas.

    Nevertheless, Britain still does punch above its weight in scientific discoveries, popular culture, and influence on financial matters worldwide. hey can take pride in what they are doing now, and hopefully try and give up on their past influence via the empire, etc.

  • Reality

    Well, though Britain is and has long been just a little 3rd world island which thinks it is only now on the decline but probably hit bottom 8 years ago, you Brits still are doing just a little bit better than the French at least. Ah but wait you don’t even own a real aircraft carrier. Never mind sorry.


Maxime H.A. Larivé
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.