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In 2011 a Chinese diplomat told his British counterpart, “What you have to remember is that you come from a weak and declining nation.” Two years later Vladimir Putin’s official spokesman commented in public that Britain is “just a small island . . . No one pays any attention to them”. If Henry Kissinger is to be believed, ever since Sun Tzu’s Art of War in the 5th century BC China’s realpolitik has placed a premium on gaining psychological advantage. And, judging by his first formal meeting with Angela Merkel in 2007, so does Putin. Knowing her phobia of dogs, he made sure that the door was left ajar, so that his black Labrador could nudge his way in.

 

A British soldier on patrol during the Sierra Leone civil war, 2000: Military intervention isn’t necessarily doomed to failure (©Patrick Robert/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images)


Our aggressive, authoritarian enemies are keen to talk up Britain’s decline, weakness and irrelevance, because they want us to believe it. And because they know that many of us already do. Every major political party in Britain now includes circles convinced that Britain should stop straining to be a global player. Among Labour’s Corbynistas, most Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists, and even some Conservatives the retirement-narrative prevails. Under Tony Blair in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then under David Cameron in Libya, so the story goes, Britain sought to punch above its weight and got soundly beaten for its pains. The moral of the story is therefore clear: we British must get real, forswear our lingering imperial pretensions, stop trying to live on as a global power by playing poodle to the United States, settle for the modest rank of a middle-class European power, and leave the world’s policing to the UN.

Happily, Theresa May’s view is not so defeatist. Addressing Republican leaders in Philadelphia at the end of January, she asserted that Britain “is a global nation that recognises its responsibilities to the world”, affirmed our commitment to the liberal world order that has prevailed since 1945, and called for the renewal of Anglo-American partnership in leading the free world. “When others step up as we step back,” she said, “it is bad for America, for Britain and the world.” And the following day she extracted a public statement from President Trump that the US is “one hundred per cent behind Nato”.

But the Prime Minister is not only more confident than those urging Britain’s retirement; she is also more realistic. The UN is no substitute for states. Its power to enforce international law and order is limited to the resources that states give it. And not infrequently that power is reduced to the impotent expression of indignation and moral suasion.

This is not to say that the UN is unimportant. Not at all. The UN is enormously valuable as a standing forum for international communication and as an international bar at which states are required to give an account of their actions and to suffer criticism. At its best, it’s a forum for the forging of international consensus as the basis of concerted action.

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