Global mindset still in short supply“No. 10 [Downing St., the prime minister’s residence] curses, but Britain’s illusion of empire is over,” was the headline on an article by Polly Toynbee after the British Parliament voted against military action in Syria on Aug. 29. The granddaughter of the historian Arnold Toynbee and a noted columnist for the Guardian continued, “This is not a left-right shift, but a long-delayed acceptance that Britain is less powerful and poorer than it was, weary of wars and no longer proud to punch above its weight. No more pretending, no more posturing.”
The last time that the British Parliament rejected the government’s request for war powers was 231 years ago. A nation that had dozens of colonies until the mid-20th century has regarded itself as a global policeman, maintaining world order along with the United States, since World War II. The United Kingdom sent the second largest number of forces to fight in Korea and participated in the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. During the Kosovo strikes in 1999, the United Kingdom was even more active than the United States.
Britain has made the second-largest contribution to official development assistance, helping countries in need. Measured against the size of its economy, it has been even more generous than the United States. Last year, the UK offered 0.56 percent of its gross national income in assistance, far larger than the 0.19 percent of the United States and 0.14 percent from Korea.
The British people are interested in international issues and participate in Amnesty International, the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam and many other human rights, animal rights and charity organizations. When Japan was hit by a devastating tsunami in 2011, even small churches in the countryside raised money to help. International news makes up an especially large portion in the media. The BBC has more than 600 employees stationed abroad. This can only be interpreted as a habit and custom of imperialistic operations.
The British government was in an awkward position when 70 percent of its citizens opposed military action in Syria. As unemployment grew and welfare payments dwindled, the people insisted that the United Kingdom could not afford to spend money on a war in another country. The harsh economic reality of replacing outdated nuclear submarines is removing the illusion of empire.
While Polly Toynbee and an increasing number of British people agonize over its weakened strength, the United Kingdom, in fact, has benefitted from the imperial vanity. It has had a more powerful voice in the international community than France or Germany, which have similar or superior economic capacity. Britain could promote its national interests.
Unlike the United Kingdom, Korea still remains a spectator in international issues. Human rights groups operate here, but they have not commented on the use of chemical weapon in Syria. The government issued only a short statement through the foreign ministry spokesman. Our government has overlooked the killings in Egypt. Unless a Korean company is involved or the Korean economy is affected, these issues get little attention. Korea declared that it had become a global leader when we hosted the G20 summit three years ago, but it doesn’t show.
*The author is a London correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.
BY LEE SANG-EON