The British Parliament's rejection of a motion endorsing UK participation in expected military action against Syria is nothing less than stunning – an event with a political significance that transcends the immediate debate over whether and how to respond to what appears to have been wide-scale use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces against civilians in their own country.
What explains the British vote? Viewed from afar, it seems to be the result of a lingering skepticism and, in some cases, cynicism, for all that government officials have to say, a disposition linked to the experience with claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that, in the end, did not exist. This reaction must be added to the long list of costs of that ill-advised war of choice. It is truly unfortunate, though, as those demanding intelligence to be ironclad before supporting a particular action will end up in most instances, given that intelligence is as much art as science, supporting inaction. This is a course with no less consequence than tending to support action – and one that on occasions, such as this, entails great cost.
In part, the vote also reflects an always-present anti-Americanism. And the vote reflects what former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described as "the demilitarization of Europe–where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it."
The implications of the vote for what unfolds in Syria, however, are likely to be modest. Any coalition of the willing cobbled together by the US will unavoidably be narrower without the UK. But the British decision will not deter the Obama administration from acting to underscore both the norm that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity and that its threats must be taken seriously. Nor will the vote have much impact on the military equation, as the US was always going to provide the lion's share of the capability that will be brought to bear on Syrian targets.
The British vote will almost certainly generate greater pressures within the US for Congress to vote. Such a vote, however, is not essential, as under US "war powers" legislation and decades of practice, the president enjoys great latitude when it comes to employing military force, especially for limited missions of the sort being contemplated here.
But the British decision will have far-reaching consequences. These go beyond a loss of influence in the world (and in Washington, in particular). The label "special relationship" will come in for some derision. Indeed, the UK is in danger of separating itself from both the EU and the US, an undesirable status for a medium size country that wants to play a world role but has few independent options.
The decision to opt out can be viewed still another way: as the latest signpost that the era of American foreign policy, in which the Atlantic Alliance constituted the foundation of much of what the US did in the world, is now over. To some extent this is welcome: Europe is no longer a contested theatre of international relations; this description belongs most to the Asia-Pacific and in a different way to the greater Middle East.
But to a larger extent the change reflects the reality that Britain and the rest of Europe are neither able nor willing to play a substantial role in these other regions that will define the 21st century. Instead, European politics are likely to become more parochial, focused mostly on matters of governance and economic policy on the continent.
This will all become clear over coming years and decades. In the meantime, the Obama administration will continue trying to thread a needle in Syria: undertaking a military action large enough to make the Syrians and others think twice before employing a chemical or any other weapon of mass destruction — but doing so in a manner that avoids getting involved in what has been and will remain a costly, complex, and difficult-to-influence civil war. This approach remains the least bad option available; it is unfortunate for reasons both immediate and longer-term that the British government and its armed forces will not be able to support it.
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