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Britain’s sorry return to imperial ignorance

By Tim Abington. Tim is currently pursuing an undegraduate degree in International Relations at the University of Birmingham. 

The partition of India is of one of Britain’s most monumental colonial blunders. It is an overwhelming testament to the horror that can be caused by a state’s lack of foresight; lack of knowledge and lack of understanding.

So it is somewhat ironic that in the same year as the atrocities’ 70th anniversary, one of Britain’s greatest assets in tackling ‘imperial ignorance’ is to lose yet another chunk of funding. 

Savings targets in one country, sectarian violence in another

The BBC Monitoring service seeks out, identifies and analyses information from foreign (and often obscure) news outlets across the globe with an aim of providing its beneficiaries (including both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) with ‘a wider understanding of the world’.

Government funding for the service ended in 2013, a decision that at the time was criticised as woefully short sighted and ill-thought out. This year the service is to lose a further £4 million.

The results of Britain’s past ignorance have already left the globe with social scars and sectarian violence, it appears that there is a determination to add to them in a bid to meet savings targets.

It was on these pages a year ago that Cat Tully argued for long-term thinking in the face of uncertainty. It has been the more subtle signals acquired from a BBC Monitoring analysis of foreign local media, that have provided the knowledge that allowed the FCO to respond.

Despite providing this critical service, the financial pressure that has been piled on under the guise of ‘efficiency savings’ continues into a fifth year.

A steady, slow decline in UK influence abroad

The news that Britain had fallen in its position on the Soft Power index was unfortunately, unsurprising. Two years ago the UK led this particular index, it fell first to the United States and it has now been usurped by the French Republic.

HM Government appears to have an apparent determination to continue this trend of decline.

In 2016 the index publishers, Portland Communications, noted that the FCO had recorded funding losses of 41% in the department’s budget since 2010. The British Council, another vanguard of British influence across the globe recorded similar funding cuts, a loss of a quarter of its budget.

There have been convincing cases (indeed, several have been put forward by PS21 panelists) that have dismissed soft power as a purely academic pursuit. After all, it is machine guns and mortars that win wars, not foreign language television shows.

Yet, the face of conventional warfare has changed. Several years ago a missile fired across the airspace of a key American ally would most likely have justified retaliation beyond a strongly worded condemnation.

Moreover, the world (at the time of writing) has not yet descended into thermonuclear warfare, leaving media outlets and foreign services the main frontmen for a nation’s interests abroad.

Shots across the bows, gun boats and cannonfire are no longer what determines a nation’s influence. Gone are the days where an imperial empire could use a man-of-war to force a treaty upon a minor state.

In June the UK suffered an embarrassing and humiliating defeat at the United Nations.  By a margin of 94 to 15 countries, delegates supported a Mauritian-backed resolution to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal status of the Chagos Islands. 22 EU member states, including France and Germany, abstained.

Although it was an impressive victory for the tiny nation, the outcome of the United Nations resolution is far from certain, given the UK’s opposition to the involvement of the ICJ. But it must act as a warning. An indication that Britain can no longer assume to be secure in its international standing abroad.

Today, any article touching on UK international relations can not fail to mention Brexit at least once. Prior to the Brexit vote, such a result would have been unprecedented. Mauritius’ total GDP is less than Birmingham, Bradford or even Brighton. The loss of the support of fellow Europeans in the debating chamber will inevitably create more embarrassment for Britain.

Never has it been more necessary to reinforce the image of the UK abroad.

It has been scorned by Europe, belittled by the BRICs and is now becoming irrelevant across much of the globe. Britain must re-envisage the way it operates abroad. As conventional ‘big gun’ warfare begins to decline, different forms of influence are required for the UK to remain at the top table. Soft power offers a way for Britain to continue to operate globally; it must not try and undermine it in the name of austerity.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

 

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