When the seven leaders of Britain's bigger parties met for their only televised debate of the campaign for the 7 May general election, foreign affairs barely received a mention, other than the usual back and forth about the EU and the munificence of the foreign aid budget at a time of economic austerity.
Vladimir Putin was ignored, even though national security officials fear that one of the gravest threats to the UK right now comes from Russian spy planes testing British airspace, which they fear could result in a calamitous mid-air collision with a passenger jet. Iraq went unmentioned, despite the flow of British young men and women heading to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS, and the participation of RAF bombers in the US-led coalition.
When foreign affairs and Britain's place in the world have been discussed it has tended to be in the context of domestic politics, and the haggling that might follow an election unlikely to produce a clear winner. The future of Britain's nuclear deterrent has become enmeshed in the discussion of whether the Labour Party would be forced into an informal alliance with the Scottish National Party, which wants to scrap the Trident nuclear submarine fleet. David Cameron's promise of a referendum on Europe was intended to blunt the challenge on the right from the UK Independence Party, which is demanding a complete withdrawal from the EU. The European question is primarily a discussion about immigration.
What made the silence on foreign affairs all the more noticeable was that it came just days after The Economist, the parish pump of the international commentariat, published a stinging piece on Britain's shrunken role in the world entitled 'Little Britain.' 'For a country that has long been respected for the skills of its diplomats, the professionalism and dash of its armed forces,' The Economist noted disapprovingly, 'the global outlook of its political leaders and its ability to punch above its weight, the decline has been unmistakable.'
The critique also included a rebuke from Senator John McCain who stated that cuts in the defence budget — which is expected to drop below the 2% of GDP mark expected of NATO members — 'diminishes Britain's ability to influence events'.
Britons watch their prime ministers attend commemorative events for the two world wars, and see them at summits like the G7, and tend to assume that the country's traditional lead role in global affairs is assured. But there's been a noticeable slippage. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is viewed by the Obama Administration as the dominant European leader. The French, rather than the British, have become the most interventionist European power, deploying troops in the Central African Republic and Mali. When it came to negotiating the Ukraine ceasefire between Moscow and Kiev, it was Merkel and Francois Hollande who brokered the deal rather than David Cameron, a notable absentee. As its failed campaign to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker to the presidency of the European Commission demonstrated, Britain is often isolated in Europe.
Moreover, Britain remains an Atlantic power in an ever more Pacific world. The Cameron Government has sought to remedy this by improving relations with China and beefing up its diplomatic footprint in the region. As part of its Asian pivot, it has elevated the importance of the Commonwealth and the diplomatic relationship with Australia, making the AUKMIN talks an annual affair.
However, courting China in a purposefully trade-driven foreign policy has irked the US. After Britain signed up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a senior Administration official bemoaned the UK's 'constant accommodation' of Beijing. That unusually barbed comment would have reverberated in Whitehall, because it implied that the much-vaunted special relationship is no longer quite so special. It speaks again of a shrunken international standing.
If Ed Miliband becomes prime minister, it is hard to imagine him pursuing a more interventionist foreign policy. In August 2013 he opposed David Cameron's attempt to gain parliamentary approval for military action in Syria, consigning the vote to defeat in the House of Commons. He has also distanced himself from the military adventurism of the Blair years. Besides, his focus and background is in domestic affairs.
The fractured state of British politics, with its coalitions and deal-making, may also militate against boldness in foreign affairs. Prime ministers have to look beyond their own backbenches for parliamentary support, and coalitions tend to be more unwilling.
That may well be in line with the cautious mood of the British electorate. Commemorative events for the two world wars still produce a massive public response, as evidenced by the enormous popularity of the haunting poppy installation at the Tower of London to mark the centenary of the Great War. But after Afghanistan and Iraq, there's no appetite for new conflicts. National self-esteem is buoyed by past glories, and British politicians are preoccupied with problems closer to home.