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The UK Needs to Decide What Kind of 'Big Footprint' It Wants to Leave in the World

17/06/2013 16:00 BST | Updated 17/08/2013 10:12 BST

The G8 summit in Lough Erne will probably get more attention than it deserves. Are these eight countries - the USA, Russia, Germany, Japan, France, Italy, Canada and the UK - really the most representative or relevant voices on any one issue? Shouldn't we be expanding our focus to take in China, India, Brazil and the other growing powers? Why is it that a predominantly 'First World' collective feels the need to pontificate on problems that, more often than not, are worsened by their involvement? This particular G8 will have a heavy focus on the crisis in Syria - yet no countries from the Middle East region nor any Islamic voices will be at the table for these discussions. Is this right? Probably not, but in any case there's no likelihood of a consensus being formed over Syria at these meetings, and no chance either of any concrete decisions regarding action - or inaction.

For the UK, the G8 seems to serve as a symbol of continuing angst about this country's relative position globally, the nature of our own influence and the direction in which we are heading. The idea of the G8 as a collection of twentieth-century powers with ever-diminishing relevance and power seems to fit the UK perfectly. Post-imperial decline is accompanied by a sort of national pessimism and a reluctance to assert for ourselves a definitive global role. There always seems to be a desire for the UK to go to G8, G20 or EU summits in order to show them who's boss, to lay down the law and to shove the other nations over to our position - yet at the same time there exists a fatalistic feeling that we won't be able to do any of that, and will instead sit meekly in the corner being bullied by the bigger boys. It's as if we've only half-accepted the fact that, post-empire, we can't expect to get everything our own way. We want to rule the roost - but if that's not possible, then we probably won't play at all, and let the others get on with it.

This lack of purpose damns the UK to failure at every turn, leaving various elements of society dissatisfied and causing a vacuum at the heart of our foreign policy. What's worse is that any attempt to pick a specific lane has invariably gone badly. Tony Blair's premiership started with the intention to act as a bridge between the USA and Europe, with the UK keeping its eggs in both baskets and relaying messages from chicken to chicken (although that metaphor probably wasn't on any official documentation). However, the aftermath of 9/11 caused Blair to swerve more violently towards a pro-US stance, leaving the UK as a pariah within Europe, unable to bring allies towards the US-UK cause and damaging our Eurovision prospects for a generation. Furthermore, the UK didn't seem to act as a brake on any extreme American behaviour, as Blair might have hoped. The end scenario was a diminished UK with limited influence across the Atlantic as the US pivoted towards the Pacific and a depleted relationship with our neighbours over the Channel.

What is the alternative, then? No-one seems to want the UK to embrace, wholeheartedly, the European Union. The opposite idea - the UK as the 51st state in all but name - is again only a fringe position. Total isolationism is both impossible and undesirable. An interesting suggestion regarding Britain's future global role comes, surprisingly, from UKIP, which advocates further political and economic co-operation with the Commonwealth. This is a neat idea that would certainly boost positive relations between the UK and a wider range of disparate countries, moving us away from a chiefly Western sphere of influence and instead encouraging dialogues with Asian, Caribbean and Australian voices. However, it's unlikely to replace our current system of involvement - despite the power of India, Canada and Australia, the Commonwealth is still, by and large, a group of small fish, globally speaking.

The problem with all these solutions is that they encourage a black-and-white reading of the world and a single, absolute way of determining Britain's place in it. Globalisation has linked and connected countries in ways no-one ever imagined, and this has caused a complication in the way international politics is conducted. Allies for today won't necessarily be friendly tomorrow, and it's necessary not to get too close to anyone, because we can't extricate ourselves quite so easily. In this world, hanging on the coat-tails of the States won't do - especially if they go and elect a raving right-wing nutbag as president in 2016. We can't always take the EU line either when it exhibits a tendency to vacillate and veer one way and then another. The time has come to reject the dependent foreign policy of the past few decades and to instead become a more independent nation, deciding our position on an issue-by-issue basis, not being afraid to side with different people at different times. There is a need for flexibility in our foreign relations - for too long, we've been stuck in a playground mentality, one which largely consists of, 'If you don't agree with me now then I won't be your friend.' Single-lane foreign policy is a relic for the past. David Cameron likes to describe the UK as the small island with the big footprint in the world. If he allowed the UK to walk freely where foreign relations were concerned, then perhaps that footprint might be more valuable and respected, rather than getting lost in the tracks that others leave behind.