Too many times have I heard the argument that our nation should constrain its actions for the simple reason that we are not as great as we were. It is true that there is no longer a world-spanning British Empire, but this self deprecating mindset would not simply maintain the status quo but actively retreat from world affairs and abandon any possibility for improvement.
Britain as it currently exists is still a powerful nation, and although much of our influence now lies in soft power – derived in large part from a legacy of greatness, and a robust financial sector – we still retain a large number of overseas commitments. In addition to the Commonwealth of nations, of which Britain is the head, there remain ten overseas territories in need of defence and support, and a multitude of alliances and friendly nations which we are obligated to support.
This is not to say that mindless intervention in all foreign affairs is the right course of action; tactless interventions in recent years have done much to damage British prestige and encourage the aforementioned mindset of constraining national ambition, but to allow past mistakes to govern our future would be tantamount to announcing to the world our unworthiness to continue as a leading player.
Britain enjoyed a rare privilege among the empires of history: whilst most fell to outside invasion and the scattering of its people before a mightier foe, the British Empire faded from the scenes as a result of its greatest triumph – the victories of the World Wars. It was by virtue of this great rolling back of the empire that Britain was able to retain friendly relations across the globe, and not squander remaining resources on costly struggles to hold on to subject provinces. The process was not smooth, but was largely successful.
The withdrawal from empire demonstrated that Britain could retain her position on the world stage without the need to rule the world, and the Cold War that evolved throughout the same period demonstrated the need for her to do so.
It was the end of the Cold War that was to begin the sudden change of opinions towards British action overseas – the lack of a clear threat to our security saw people begin to question the need for a strong defence, as the old adage that ‘those who desire peace should prepare for war’ was forgotten. As the years have passed since the end of the Cold War, and many of those who served throughout it retired, the institutional memory of the need for strength was likewise forgotten. Heavy-handed Western interventions soured public perception of the military, as budgets were quietly cut to curry favour with voters.
It is necessary to remember the human cost of war; conflict should never be the first response, but extreme problems sometimes require extreme solutions. The respect held in this nation for the service personnel lost in combat is great, but much of that remembrance forgets the cause. It is well that we remember that war bears a heavy price, but sometimes it is a price that may be necessary to prevent greater atrocity. When the US withdrew from Somalia, it was largely a result of their having lost 18 soldiers in the battle of Mogadishu – this was deemed too high a price to pay to stabilise the famine-wracked country, and it was left to a civil war that still continues today, 13 years later.
Since 2010 the British government has radically downsized the military, although this trend appears to have reached its lowest ebb and in recent years has shown signs of reversal. Despite the hammering taken by the British forces, however, they retain an ability act overseas, and whilst they are still able to act the government must be prepared to allow them to do so.
We should not forget our proud military in this nation; it is true that there have been some terrible things done in the past, but so too have great things been achieved; from eradicating the international slave trade to preventing the conquest of Europe on several occasions the British military has been used to achieve great things. The greatest dangers faced by many nations have often emerged during periods in which the use of military force has been looked down upon, and it is best to be mindful that peace today does not guarantee security tomorrow.
By approaching the world with an attitude not of meek acceptance but as a nation proud of its heritage and ready to meet its obligations, Britain could not only live up to her past but act as a force for good in the future. This piece is not intended to advocate for a militaristic foreign policy, but one willing to use all means at our disposal to achieve the ends not only of our own nation but the world as a whole. Soft power is just as capable of achieving great ends as hard, but a strong bedrock for both is a powerful military and a will to use it.