David Cameron's government, although pulled to the centre by coalition with the Liberal Democrats, seems bent on pursuing a traditional Conservative foreign policy: cosy up to the US while giving Europe short shrift.
This approach may be comforting to the Tory faithful, for whom the European Union is a no-go zone, but the effort to reclaim the US-UK “special relationship” as the foundation of British statecraft promises to leave Britain in a geopolitical no-man's land and marginalise its international influence. The UK will enjoy far greater sway over transatlantic and global affairs by becoming a leading voice within the EU than by investing in an Anglo-American coupling that has lost much of its raison d'être.
Although the government has thus far held its fire on the EU, William Hague, the foreign secretary, had been in office only three days before crossing the Atlantic to meet Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, and affirm that the US “is without doubt the most important ally” of the UK.
Mr Hague and George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, have impressive pedigrees as Eurosceptics. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, did make clear during the election campaign that the Lib Dems understood the importance of aligning Britain more closely with the EU. But he has gone silent on the issue since joining the government; Mr Clegg appears to have shelved such aspirations in making the compromises needed to sustain a coalition with the Conservatives.
For three main reasons, however, the attempt to refurbish Britain as the link between the US and Europe is to invest in a bridge to nowhere.
First, Britain can ably serve as a bridge between the US and Europe only if Washington needs one. But it no longer does. Washington now has in Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy two Atlanticist leaders, and France has rejoined Nato's military structure. Berlin and Paris are enthusiastic champions of teamwork with the US, making Washington less reliant on London as it fashions transatlantic co-operation.
Second, America's strategic priorities have shifted away from the Euro-Atlantic zone to the Middle East and Asia, leaving Washington keenly sensitive to Europe's ability to share global burdens. To be sure, Britain is Europe's leading state when it comes to projecting hard power. But Britain's defence establishment, like those of other individual EU members, is simply not sizeable enough to sustain its allure in Washington.
Only if EU member states aggregate their hard power and enhance their readiness to make joint decisions about its use will Europe emerge as the more capable partner that Washington is seeking.
Third, Europe needs Britain as much as Britain needs Europe. The project of European integration is facing perhaps its most serious crisis since it began in the late 1940s. The financial turmoil is testing the durability of the eurozone. The challenges of immigration and domestic economic reform are polarising electorates and producing weak governments. Meanwhile, a new populism is fuelling the renationalisation of politics across Europe, hindering efforts to create EU institutions capable of giving the Union greater coherence and clout.
British leadership is sorely needed to help lead the EU out of its doldrums. Having liberalised its economy, Britain can facilitate economic reforms on the continent. If Europe is to make progress in forging a more collective approach to foreign and security policy, then surely Britain must be front and centre. And Britain's preference for a looser but more effective EU may help broker an institutional compromise between European federalists and those with more modest ambitions for the EU's future.
If the British government stands by its anachronistic plan to cleave to the US while shunning the EU, it may well consign Britain, along with Europe, to geopolitical irrelevance. In contrast, if London plays a leading role in forging a more capable EU, Europe as a whole, and Britain along with it, will enjoy rising prominence in Washington – and in global affairs. Although an easy decision, the Cameron government, at least for now, seems determined to make the wrong choice.
The writer is professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and is the author of How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace
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