• Hard Power or Soft Power - Can The British Bulldog Still Bark?


    The British parliament recently rejected a government proposal to explore military action in Syria. The action proposed was in response to a chemical weapons attack, allegedly carried out by the Syrian military against rebel soldiers and civilians. The reaction was partly due to the ‘dark shadow of Iraq’ when Britain went to war in 2003 on the basis of faulty intelligence.

    Apart from humanitarian and political issues, one of the questions raised, by British and foreign commentators is this. Does this rejection signify another slide in Britain’s authority and position in the world? Let’s look at the chronology of Britain’s supposed decline.


    The days of Britain as a leading military and political power are long over. The final major ‘end of empire’ moment was in 1947 when India, its leading colony, became independent.

    But partly as a result of its alliance with the USA in two World Wars, Britain formed ‘a special relationship’ with the US, based on common language and common interest – and, following agreement in 1946 – intelligence exchange.


    Britain’s ‘end of great power’ moment came in 1956 when, with France, Britain invaded Egypt to liberate the Suez Canal, nationalised by President Colonel Nasser. Under pressure from the USA, Britain and France were forced to withdraw. The former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, famously said in 1962 , ‘Great Britain has lost an empire but has not yet found a role’ and that her role as an independent power was ‘about played out.’


    In 1962 President Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan agreed that the UK would host a US missile base in Scotland (Holy Loch). This cemented and extended the special relationship. However, when President Lyndon Johnson asked for British military support in the Vietnam War later in the decade, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, refused.


    In the meantime, British prime ministers wanted to move closer to Europe, while keeping the special relationship with the US alive. This was something Dean Acheson had suggested in his 1962 speech. Despite France’s General De Gaulle exercising his veto not once but twice, in 1962 and 1967, Britain finally entered the EU in 1973. However, Britain never joined the Eurozone, which started in 1999.

    1979- 1990

    Mrs Thatcher’s government believed in close relationships with the US and famously formed a close personal relationship with President Ronald Reagan.

    1997 – 2008

    Tony Blair, as labour prime minister continued this policy, supporting George Bush Senior and Junior as their closest ally in the invasions of Iraq and later Afghanistan. There is no question, however, that the US was the leader.

    Bulldog or Teddy Bear?

    Most thoughtful British commentators recognise that the US interests have diversified with the rise of China and India as leading economies. Many feel that the intelligence link is the key element which keeps Britain close to the US, as well as Britain’s role as a gateway to Europe. Nevertheless, it hurt when Secretary of State John Kerry referred to France as America’s ‘oldest ally’. (True. France supported America in the War of Independence against Britain from 1776-1783.)

    A soft power influence

    Joseph Nye, identified the difference between ‘hard power’ (military power and economic influence) and ‘soft power’ (political and cultural influence.) It is interesting that following Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to submit the proposal for military action to Parliament, both Barack Obama in the US and Francois Hollande in France, have done the same. Britain may no longer have the ‘hard power’ but because of its language, history and culture it still has international political influence and ‘soft power.’ Maybe that is Britain’s future.


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