In 1979 Margaret Thatcher told the BBC: “I can’t bear to see Britain in decline. I just can’t.” Just 36 years on and her political descendants may invoke her memory when it suits them, but it appears they have no such qualms about seeing Britain in decline.
Now the U.S. has warned David Cameron that he risks throwing away the special relationship between the Britain and America thanks to his willingness to diminish Britain’s armed forces, and with them, Britain’s standing on the world stage.
Ashton Carter, the U.S. defence secretary, told the BBC: “Britain has always had an independent ability to express itself and basically punch above its weight. I’d hate to see that go away because I think it’s a great loss to the world when a country of that much history and standing… takes actions which seem to indicate disengagement. We need an engaged United Kingdom.”
Mr Cameron has failed to commit to Nato defence spending targets of 2 percent of GDP. He refused to include a pledge to stick to the target in the Conservative Party manifesto, despite extensive lobbying by army chief and his backbenchers alike and his own insistence at a Nato meeting in Wales last year that other member countries stick to the target.
Mr Carter warned: “My message to my colleagues in London like to all the other capitals of the Nato countries is to stick to the pledge they all made, which was if they were below 2 per cent to achieve 3 per cent.”
A decision on Britain’s defence spending will be made within the spending review scheduled for later this year.
But Con Coughlin, the Telegraph‘s defence editor, warns that the problem is more deep seated than merely a disagreement over NATO targets. “No matter how heated [previous exchanges have] become, protocol always dictates that any disputes are resolved in private, not before the world’s media.
“So the fact that Ashton Carter, the defence secretary, has gone public with his concerns over Britain’s “disengagement” from the world, should serve as a serious wake-up call to the Government that the “special relationship” between Britain and the US is now in serious jeopardy.”
Mr Carter is not the only high profile figure to have alluded to Britain’s diminishment on the world stage in recent weeks. Last week, Britain’s ambassador to the US, Sir Peter Westmacott was obliged to appear on CNN to refute claims made by the network’s foreign policy specialist, Fareed Zakaria, that the UK has all but resigned its status as a world power.
Mr Coughlin notes: “At a time when [Cameron] wants a more detached relationship with the EU, maintaining strong ties with Washington is vital to safeguarding our long-term interests.
“Otherwise, if Britain loses its standing in Washington, as well as its ability to defend itself, then the bitter truth that we are a power in terminal decline will be apparent for all to see.”