Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

The Anglosphere's influence is diminished, but not destroyed

For so long the guardians of English-speaking global power, the UK and the US have alienated old allies and made themselves look ridiculous. However, they can still save their reputations

Prime Minister Theresa May and her government's shambolic approach to Brexit have done great reputational damage to the UK. AFP
Prime Minister Theresa May and her government's shambolic approach to Brexit have done great reputational damage to the UK. AFP

Although intangible, global goodwill is an extremely precious asset. Few countries are as blessed in this regard as Anglophone-nations such as Britain and the United States.

After the tumultuous events of 2018, the question must be if the widespread trust that sustained both the prosperity and international influence of the world’s most powerful English-speaking nations is in danger of being lost. If it is, the dangers to the rest of the world are immense.

It has certainly been a tough year for allies of the Anglosphere. Nations that were once looked up to by others around the globe appear to be throwing much of that good faith back in the faces of its benefactors.

Back in 2016, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, observed that Britain relied on the “kindness of strangers” to finance its considerable current account deficit with the rest of the world. Ever since deficit spending became a feature of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, experts have warned of a similar situation in the US.

However, the past couple of months have had a greater and more immediate impact on global perceptions of America. The volatility of US markets has been nerve-shredding. The deaths of two children this month in federal migration detention centres have been widely cited as a moral outrage. The Trump administration’s abrupt, game-changing withdrawal from Syria has also caused lasting damage.

The UK, meanwhile, treated the world to an almost comedic display of its own decline, thanks to its humiliation in negotiations with the EU and its own shambolic approach to formulating a workable Brexit deal. This led to a confidence vote against Prime Minister Theresa May by her own ministers. Then, to cap it all, for three days this month, the eyes of the world focused on yet another fiasco, when reported drone sightings shut down the country’s second-biggest airport, affecting more than 100,000 passengers over the holiday period. Now, in an almost expectedly preposterous turn of events, the authorities are squabbling about whether there was any drone activity in the first place.

The question many are asking as we head into 2019 is what kind of reckoning the UK and US will face now that the scale of the damage they have done to their own reputations is clear.

Historical pedigree – both recent and time-honoured – has, up until now, been a big selling point for both nations. British transparency and rule of law has for centuries drawn myriad foreign interests to its shores. Throughout this time, the nation’s schools and universities have functioned as the respected training grounds of the global ruling class. In a 2016 speech on soft power, Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, estimated that one in seven world leaders had been educated in Britain.

Two years later, much of that advantage has been ceded. What was previously a Rolls-Royce reputation for public service, political elan and diplomatic prowess has been traded in for the equivalent of second-hand Ford Focus – particularly in Europe.

This is not a sudden thing, though. Many see Britain’s current predicament as just the latest chapter in a story that has been unfolding for some time. Certainly, an appreciable percentage of the economic growth enjoyed by the UK in recent decades is directly linked to a reckless willingness to act as a repository of wealth and playground for Russian oligarchs.

However, after the Novichok poisonings of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, which took place in the cathedral city of Salisbury in March, even the British government could no longer turn a blind eye to flagrant Russian interference on its soil. Now a squeeze on the UK’s more suspect Russian guests is picking up steam.

Other countries have, of course, been quick to seize on the UK’s decline, in order to promote their own interests. China’s debt-fuelled expansion in Africa and South Asia has coloured large areas of the global map a new shade of red.

After Donald Trump was elected US president, many Americans took solace in the fact that the US operates a system of limited presidential terms. By this reckoning, they believed that Mr Trump was only going to be a problem for four years, or eight at the worst.

However, the sheer volatility of US policy and its recent poor treatment of longstanding allies has created a new suspicion of the US that will long outlive Mr Trump’s office. These misgivings come from America’s friends as much as its detractors.

It is easy to imagine this bleak outlook continuing for another year, but the flipside is that nowhere else is doing much better. Our old allies would do well to note that the current failings of the rules-based world order have shown our rivals to be both ill-equipped and unsuitable for international leadership. Russia is geared toward maximum self-interest and sure-fire wins. China has been cornered over trade, and may still acquiesce to Mr Trump’s brinkmanship. Iran is contained by US sanctions. Meanwhile, France and Germany are engaged in the kind of low-level bickering over the future of Europe that is immobilising the whole project.

It is clear from this that the influence of the Anglosphere is dangerously depleted, but not yet exhausted.

Updated: December 29, 2018 03:11 PM

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