LONDON — As the U.S. considers launching military strikes against Syria over alleged chemical weapons use, there is much concern in Britain over the country's future role in the world after a parliamentary vote ruled out military action. In a country that has long prided itself on its ability to "punch above its weight," fears are growing that Britain’s global reputation is fading.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated Britain’s support for military action against Syria when he hosted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in London Monday.
But Britain won’t take part itself after parliament voted against it late last month.
That shock result has prompted a period of soul-searching among politicians and media over whether Britain’s treasured "special relationship" with the U.S. is finished. Chris Brown is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“We care more about the special relationship than they do because we’re the junior partner. And we’re now even more junior than we were two weeks ago; I think that’s certainly true," said Brown.
Since the turn of the century, Britain has fought alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq. Along with France, the allies worked together on the intervention in Libya in 2011.
Britain won’t take part in any strikes on Syria - but that doesn’t mean it’s doing nothing, says lawmaker Ben Wallace of the ruling coalition’s Conservative party.
“We are going to go and redouble our efforts in other ways - humanitarian, negotiated peace, and trying to get parties together. And I think Britain shouldn’t just think its power is derived from firing missiles. It has power all over the world in other areas. And, on the other side, Britain has tremendous intelligence capabilities," said Wallace.
Recent polls show only 1 in 5 British people support taking part in strikes on Syria. Parliament’s vote expressed the democratic will of the people - and that’s respected, says LSE's Chris Brown.
“It did wonders, if you like, for Britain’s soft power. It may have hurt Britain’s hard power image, but in terms of Britain’s image within Western Europe at least, it didn’t do it any harm at all," he said.
But Brown says beyond Western Europe, military cutbacks and an apparent lack of appetite for intervention are affecting Britain’s reputation.
At the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg Friday, media reported that a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed Britain as "just a small island." The spokesman denied making the remarks - but British Prime Minister David Cameron launched an impassioned defense.
“Yes, we are a small island, in fact a small group of islands. But I would challenge anyone to come up with a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart, with a greater resilience," said Cameron.
But Cameron - and future prime ministers - will find it increasingly difficult to get parliamentary backing, said Brown.
“A precedent has been set. And I think it will be very difficult to get a House of Commons majority, in future, for this sort of action," he said.
With military action off the table, Britain says it is determined to take the lead on humanitarian relief - and has pledged to boost total spending on Syria to $628 million.