The Sun Continues to Set on Britain


There was a time when our cousins across the Atlantic could truthfully boast that “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” But the days of their dominance on the global stage are long gone. Today, Britain is a shadow of its former self—still a significant power and an important ally—but not the hegemon it once was. Far more troubling than its loss of power, however, is Britain’s loss of will. When faced with the recent hostage crisis, the people famous for keeping “a stiff upper lip” could muster little more than quiet discontent, instead acquiescing to a national affront.

On March 23, eight sailors and seven Royal Marines from the HMS Cornwall were captured in international waters by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. There was no resistance by the captured personnel, nor any protection from the Cornwall. And little meaningful aid would be offered by London in the days to follow. The British government, whose attitude could be characterized as falling somewhere between “mildly annoyed” and “upset,” elected a path of pure diplomacy. Instead of showing the outrage one would expect from a great power whose citizens have been kidnapped, the Brits opted to employ the “soft power” so idolized in Europe. Like all of that continent’s policies towards Iran, this was merely an exercise in futility. Indeed, one should remember that these policies of engagement—without effective sanctions or the threat of military action—failed to prevent this situation from arising in the first place. It was foolish to expect such a strategy to succeed in this crisis. And while the Brits begged, the EU sat silent and the UN refused to pass a resolution “deploring” this act of piracy, instead using watered-down language noting their “concern” with the situation.

When the hostages were unexpectedly and unilaterally released on April 5, Ahmadinejad made sure to note that their release was his Easter gift to the West. The Iranian President was even thoughtful enough to bestow pistachios and vases upon his departing guests. Culminating with this final degradation, Iran had successfully managed to intimidate and toy with the once-proud British. And then, as if on cue, Prime Minister Tony Blair made sure to stress that he “bears the Iranian people no ill will.” No hard feelings from Downing Street, old chap.

This course of events has been widely and appropriately been characterized elsewhere as a British “humiliation.” The Brits’ gentle coaxing did not free the hostages, nor did the “concern” of the UN or the EU. When the conflict ended, Charles Krauthammer notes, “The quid pro quos were not terribly subtle. An Iranian “diplomat’’ who had been held for two months in Iraq is suddenly released. Equally suddenly, Iran is granted access to the five Iranian “consular officials’’—Revolutionary Guards who had been training Shiite militias to kill Americans and others—whom the U.S. had arrested in Irbil in January. There may have been other concessions we will never hear about. But the salient point is that what got this unstuck was American action.”

It can be argued that the appeasement policies once championed by Neville Chamberlain were an anomaly in British history, nothing more than a short departure corrected by Churchill. Today this trend may be reversing; contemporary British foreign policy seems influenced more by the spirit of Chamberlain than Churchill. The Iranians certainly seem to think this is the case. As the editors at Investors’ Business Daily have written, “The mullahs in Iran clearly see today’s Britain, beset at home with threats of terror, as a weak link in the war on terror. They have their own domino theory: Pry Britain away from the coalition of the willing, and it will speed up America’s decline as well.”

This is not to say that the Brits should have gone in guns blazing. Indeed, the whole incident may have been an Iranian provocation to elicit exactly that response. But prudently avoiding a rush to war does not excuse the Brits’ (and other Europeans’) unflinching refusal to consider any strategy other than multilateral engagement, especially when it is clear that it will not succeed. One wishes that London would have uttered something more than a whimper, that Europe could have stood united in condemning the kidnapping of its sons and daughters. But instead of steadfastness, hard bargaining, or threatening reprisal, Britain left itself at the mercy of those same men who excitedly promise that Israel will be wiped from the map.

The former hostages themselves behaved questionably, beginning with their quick decision to give false confessions after being subjected to “mind games.” This should be contrasted with the imprisonment of John McCain, who endured years of torture in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” When the North Vietnamese found out that their captive was the son of the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, they offered him early release; McCain refused this special treatment. Such valor seems to have been absent in the fifteen Brits. As Marina Hyde of The Guardian has stated, “It seems reasonable to at least wonder whatever happened to only divulging one’s name, rank and number.” Instead, hostage Faye Turney has partnered with British media to tell her story—perhaps with a made-for-TV-movie—personally raking in over 100,000 pounds in the process. It has also been reported that some of the hostages intend to sell their Iranian vases on eBay.

It is possible that all of this is merely an isolated incident with little real significance. But taken in a larger context, it seems to be one of many nails in Britain’s coffin; Britain as a country will likely survive, but may be little more than a hollow nation. Several months ago, Britain decided once again to cut its defense budget, dismantling nearly half of its remaining navy. The London Daily Telegraph notes that this “will turn Britain’s once-proud Navy into nothing more than a coastal defense force,” approximately equal in size to the fleet maintained by Belgium. Ironically, the HMS Cornwall is among those to be retired, apparently having seen its finest hour. And the navy is not alone in this downsizing. Investor’s Business Daily reports that Britain’s army now ranks twenty-eighth in size, despite having the world’s fifth-largest economy. Britain seems now to be lacking both the means to project power and the moral fortitude to do so.

The disappointing behavior of our European allies has been characterized by Victor Davis Hanson as follows: “Yes, the new religion of the post-Westerner is neither the Enlightenment nor Christianity, but the gospel of the Path of Least Resistance — one that must lead inevitably to gratification rather than sacrifice.” Such an attitude is especially alarming in a new era marked by global jihad. As we look upon the enormity of the challenges breaking over the horizon, one can only hope that the sun’s descent will pause just long enough for our British cousins to join us in one more battle.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review