David Cameron's Conservative Party unexpectedly won the British elections. This was largely a consequence of the British electoral system: Cameron's main rival on the right, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), gained merely one seat, despite getting almost 13% of the votes. Almost 4 million British voted for Nigel Farage's UKIP and its anti-EU and anti-immigration platform. What Cameron lost to UKIP on the right, however, he picked up on the center-left from the Liberal Democrats, who were the biggest losers of the elections.
Cameron also benefited from the satisfaction of the electorate with Britain's economic performance. Compared to other European nations, the British economy is booming. Last year, the United Kingdom became the world's fifth largest economy, overtaking France; this year, it is on its way to overtaking Germany's.
Despite its economic strength, however, there is something fundamentally wrong with Britain. It has lost its self-confidence. Nowhere is this more visible than in its foreign policy. Seventy years after winning the Second World War, the British are absent from the international stage.
Russia is currently redrawing the borders of Eastern Europe. France, despite its economic irrelevance and that it is being governed by one of the most incompetent presidents it has ever had, is keenly aware of the role it is expected to play as one of Europe's major nations. So is Germany. In February, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande presided over peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. Cameron was nowhere to be seen.
Who is missing from this picture?
The Economist noted that in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Britain has been "little more than a backseat driver." Britain's strategic ambition has "shriveled even more than its defense budget."
On the nuclear deal with Iran, as well, one can see the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, play a significant role and take a tough stance, while his British colleague, Philip Hammond, is almost invisible. Last February, it became painfully clear that the British hardly count anymore in international politics, when Fabius cancelled a visit to Hammond because he was too busy with the crisis in Ukraine.
Unlike other members of the European Union, Britain has not adopted the euro as its currency. Hence, the crisis over Greece does not affect it the same way as it does the members of the eurozone. Still, as one of the largest EU economies, Britain could be expected to play a larger role in the negotiations regarding Greece. Here again, however, the British Finance Minister, George Osborne, seems to be nothing more than a passive observer.
"Britain has taken leave from the world stage in an extraordinary and depressing way," says Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford University. "It's marginalized itself in Europe, and it's absented itself from most of the great issues on the world stage."
Next month, U.S. presidential candidate Jeb Bush is flying to Europe "to get a first hand view of European economic and security challenges." The Republican politician has announced that he will visit Germany, Poland and Estonia. America's traditional European ally, Britain, is not on his list. Germany is on the list where one would expect Britain to be.
Ten years ago, Britain was still playing a major role in Iraq and Afghanistan, but today, Britain has ceased to be a global leader. It seems even to have lost the ambition to be one. Two years ago, when President Bashar al-Assad of Syria used chemical weapons, David Cameron wanted the Royal Air Force to launch airstrikes, but the House of Commons, including 30 of his own Conservative parliamentarians, voted him down.
Under the previous Cameron government, Britain slipped from fourth to sixth in the global defense spending list of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), behind France, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and America. Nevertheless, Britain -- like France -- was still spending 2.2% of its GDP on defense in 2014. In their Election Manifesto, however, the Conservatives failed to commit to meeting NATO's target of spending 2% of national income on defense.
One sincerely hopes that Mr. Cameron's reelection will embolden him and encourage him to play a larger role on the world forum. Britain is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council. With this position comes the obligation not to be absent from the international scene. Britain has a long international tradition. Breaking with this tradition would be an irreparable loss.