On August 29 of this year the United Kingdom shocked the world. With the defeat of a government motion by the vote of 285-272, the British Parliament not only prevented the country from participating in a U.S.-led intervention in Syria, it put the final nail in the coffin of the UK as an actor of first response on the world stage. Although the military power of Great Britain has been in decline for some time, it had previously been willing to ride into battle alongside the United States, and to add its capabilities -- however limited -- to the mission at hand. The motion's defeat is an indicator of the UK's growing fatigue, and the all but complete erosion of its self-identity as a leading world power.
For centuries, Great Britain was a world power of the highest order, possessing unchallenged domination at sea and an empire that spanned the world. During that time, a long succession of British statesmen grew accustomed to a certain approach to international affairs befitting a leading great power. Even decades after that empire's end that approach persisted. Attempting to hold on to the past, government after government attempted to preserve capabilities and undertook responsibilities that kept Britain at the forefront of international politics.
Today the British military has become a shell of its former self. The Royal Navy, from a postwar height of 607 ships, today has only 19 surface combatants, not one of them an aircraft carrier. According to the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review -- a document that many already think is too optimistic -- in an absolute crisis the British Armed Forces will be able to commit only 30,000 troops with maritime and air support for a one-off intervention, two-thirds of the force the UK sent to Iraq in 2003. Although some point to the 2011 Libya war as a case of continued British geostrategic relevance, the hard reality is that both British and French forces were completely dependent on U.S. military assets, both for the suppression of Libyan air defenses and for logistical support.
However, what is truly remarkable about Parliament's refusal to join the rush to war is not that Britain is no longer capable of independent action. After all, that decline of capability has been ongoing since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, some might argue that the UK can still contribute meaningfully to allied operations: British forces are highly trained and mobile, and are unparalleled at counterinsurgency tactics, attributes that make them valuable to any U.S.-led coalition. But the hard truth is that even continued capability does not matter if the national energy and will to use it do not exist. In voting against military action, Parliament, and the people it represents, extinguished the remaining embers of the United Kingdom's great power identity that had previously fuelled its continued involvement in international crisis management.
Self-identities are powerful things, and national self-identities are more powerful still. They dictate how leaders view the challenges and opportunities facing them and determine whether a government feels it has a right and responsibility to involve itself in other nations' affairs. Successive British leaders have maintained their attempts to play an active role in global affairs even in the face of increasing economic and military stagnation. They kept pushing their country to the limits of its power because they had an enduring conception that they could and should do so. The "should" is by far the more important of the two, since it cuts to the core of the UK's relationship with the world. This conception, and the will to give it meaning, persisted long after the underlying wellspring of British power had either dried up or changed beyond recognition. However, the British people and legislature, disillusioned by over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, have told their government in no uncertain terms that they are no longer willing to pay the price necessary for the maintenance of that facade.
Some would say that this view of events is too dramatic, and that the recent vote is just a sign of a cyclical turn away from international involvement, as have been seen many times before in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Those arguments, though, ignore the sheer gravity of the British decision to stay out of Syria. Since before the Napoleonic Wars, there have been few true international crises the UK stayed out of, especially one the magnitude of Syria. To stay out now, especially when their strongest ally plainly needed their support, is a bridge too far for a merely cyclical effect. The British people have drawn a line in the sand, and the country cannot easily go farther.
Although the United Kingdom will remain a vital partner for the United States on a host of issues, the "special relationship" is no longer as special as it once was. The government's defeat in the House of Commons will tie the hands of not only Prime Minister David Cameron but those who come after him, casting doubt on the once unshakeable assumption that the United States can always count on Great Britain to fight alongside it. As a consequence, the UK has effectively removed itself from the top table of international politics, and seems all but destined to follow the rest of Europe into mounting military stagnation and weakness.
For observers of this shift in the United States, there are two key takeaways. First, America will have to face the ongoing shifts in the international system without confidence of British support in a crisis. This weakens U.S. ability to bring together international coalitions, and puts a premium on diplomatic efforts to recruit and strengthen new allies elsewhere. Second, U.S. presidents and policymakers should take care to husband America's energy and will against the same fate. While the current neo-isolationist sentiment sweeping the country is undoubtedly cyclical, reckless action and unwise policy could sap the strength of even the American colossus, and put a future president in David Cameron's shoes.