Britain and the Spectre of Geopolitical Irrelevance

The following article originally appeared as a Transatlantic Take published by the German Marshall Fund on November 10, 2015. 

LONDON—It is difficult to underestimate the impact of a new James Bond movie on the British psyche. The films, released now at three- or four-year intervals, give the fleeting sense that Britain still matters on the world stage. Yet Bond has long reflected something of a geopolitical fantasy; his enduring appeal based in part on his inverse relationship with British power. In 1962 — the year that saw the release of Dr. No, the first movie in the Bond franchise — former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared that Great Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. Double O Seven’s derring-do in the 1960s and 1970s deflected from Britain’s intelligence embarrassments, including revelations about the Cambridge Five spy ring, which passed Western intelligence onto the Soviet Union. But the fiction became more untenable with time. The idea that a post-Cold War Britain, with its dwindling diplomatic, military, and broadcast budgets, could avert war on the Korean peninsula (as in Die Another Day) or prevent a water crisis in Bolivia (as in Quantum of Solace) was patently absurd.

By contrast, the latest instalment of the film franchise — Spectre — reflects the shrinking scope of British foreign policy, despite its lavish production. The existential crisis facing the realm in Bond’s 26th cinematic outing is essentially home-grown: government surveillance run amok under the baleful watch of an anti-democratic establishment (specifically “C”, a “Whitehall mandarin” who “went to school with the Home Secretary.”) The Five Eyes — the informal name given to Britain’s intelligence sharing arrangement with the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — has inexplicably evolved in Spectre into the Nine Eyes and now includes China and South Africa. The United States exists only peripherally, witness protection apparently being the only thing for which it is needed.

Spectre’s focus on domestic preoccupations, the confusion about the changing international order, and the diminishing value of the U.S. partnership all ring jarringly true. The next few years will see important debates concerning Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom’s future within the European Union. Despite its creditable handling of the economy, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has abdicated space in Europe — including on the euro, Ukraine, and refugee crises — but opted to place a premium on short-term commercial engagement with China and India. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States has been seriously undermined; although, Washington has certainly not helped matters by criticizing Britain for joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Nor is Cameron’s political opposition helping: the election of Jeremy Corbyn means that the Labour Party is led by a man who is famously sceptical of U.S. global power and, at best, lukewarm about Europe. 

Euroscepticism in Britain has many causes, both ideological and cultural. But it was also traditionally rooted in the pragmatic belief that British power is enhanced by its privileged partnership with the United States. London’s growing distance from both Brussels and Washington has put it at a severe disadvantage, decreasing its international leverage and global bargaining power. Cameron’s hosting of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s visit to China’s restive Xinjiang region were roundly criticized, including for overlooking Beijing’s human rights record. This week, Cameron is rolling out the red carpet for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose visit carries commercial and political significance for both leaders but lacks strategic substance. The fact is that Germany (with its manufacturing base) and France (with its space, defense, and nuclear industries) are now of greater relevance for India than Britain. That’s a sorry state of affairs for a country that should logically be India’s closest partner in Europe, but is instead perceived primarily as a place for wealthy Indians to invest, buy real estate, and watch cricket. China and India are often said to be in competition in Nepal and Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Africa. It would no longer be inconceivable for Britain to be added to that list.

There are few better agents than James Bond (assuming he is not a Scottish Nationalist) to ensure that Britain is stirred, and not simply shaken, by these disconcerting trends. If he is really to put Britain back on the map, perhaps 007’s next outing could see him swooping into Washington to rescue the Special Relationship. Or he could use every gadget at his disposal to forestall a Brexit. Better yet, perhaps he could pull off the implausible — and do both. – See more at: http://www.gmfus.org/blog/2015/11/10/britain-and-spectre-geopolitical-irrelevance#sthash.CQxFiu1i.dpuf