LONDON — Less than two weeks before British elections, the race remains wide open, with half a dozen or more plausible permutations of what this country’s next government could look like.
And for Washington, which has gazed across the Atlantic with growing alarm in recent years as its closest ally has slipped back from the world it once dominated, none of them are good.
Regardless of who ends up governing after May 7, analysts say that Britain is likely to continue to turn inward. The process could even accelerate as austerity-starved defense budgets face further cuts, freshly empowered Scottish nationalists renew their push for independence and the country reckons with the fundamental choice of whether to stay in the European Union.
“Is Britain going to be taking on tough challenges in the Middle East? Is it going to be a leader in security? Is it going to play the role in world affairs we traditionally expect Britain to play?” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London-based foreign affairs think tank. “No matter who wins, I think we’re unlikely to see that.”
Britain’s drift away from global affairs has been decades in the making, ever since the empire was lost. But this spring’s campaign has offered vivid illustrations of just how little events beyond this country’s borders seem to register here. The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean caused barely a ripple. In the campaign’s only debate, a two-hour spectacle featuring seven contenders that reflected the increasingly fractured nature of British politics, foreign affairs was nowhere on the agenda.
Although it is not unusual for British elections to focus tightly on domestic issues such as health care and taxes, this vote comes against the backdrop of an unusually large and ever-growing tally of crises for Europe: a broken refugee system; the Russian dismemberment of Ukraine; a possible default on Greek debt; and a tide of European fighters enlisting with the Islamic State. Not one received more than a passing mention on the campaign trail.
The only two international issues that occasionally break through are being pushed by the political fringe and are both aimed at reducing Britain’s global role, not expanding it: The far-right U.K. Independence Party wants to slash immigration by getting out of the E.U., and the leftist Scottish National Party is seeking to scrap Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines.
The paucity of foreign policy debate, Niblett said, probably foreshadows a period of at least three or four years in which “Britain will be out of the picture” when it comes to global leadership.
But the reasons will differ depending on who comes out on top in the election.
There are two realistic options for prime minister once the votes are cast: the incumbent David Cameron, leader of the center-right Conservative Party; or his challenger, Ed Miliband, who leads the center-left Labor Party.
The two parties, which together have dominated British politics for a century, are running neck-and-neck in the latest polls. But neither looks likely to secure an outright majority, meaning that smaller parties will be vital to any attempt to form a government. That was also true after the last election, in 2010. But the politics of coalition-building could be far messier this time around, with the separatist SNP likely to displace the centrist Liberal Democrats as the third-largest party.
Another Cameron-led coalition would perhaps represent the most stable government among the myriad possibilities. But it would also force Britain to confront a question at the core of its identity: E.U. membership.
Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s role in the 28-nation bloc in advance of a 2017 E.U. referendum, meaning that Britain would probably face two years of acrimonious talks with its European partners followed by a potentially vexing debate at home. Neither process is likely to leave room for other foreign policy priorities.
“If the government has to renegotiate, then it’s a high-stakes game and it will consume a huge amount of attention,” said Mark Leonard, co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There will be very little bandwidth for anything else.”
If the election swings Miliband’s way, meanwhile, it will elevate a leader who has shown little apparent interest in international affairs. He waited until Friday to give his campaign’s first substantive foreign policy speech, one in which he attacked Cameron for having “presided over the biggest loss of influence for our country in a generation.”
Miliband has suffered at home from a perception that he lacks the gravitas necessary for the job. Even if he winds up living at 10 Downing Street, he may be undercut by a reliance for votes on the SNP, which has called for Britain to eliminate its Trident nuclear defense program.
Miliband’s two most notable forays into foreign policy both involved bucking the will of Washington: He helped scuttle a 2013 vote authorizing the use of military force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a move that ultimately helped derail plans for a U.S.-led bombing campaign — and he joined Labor colleagues in the fall in a symbolic vote to recognize a Palestinian state.
When challenged by interviewer Jeremy Paxman last month on whether he had the toughness to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Miliband said, “Hell, yes” — then offered his experience defying President Obama on the Syria vote as proof.
The comments suggest Miliband may try to stake out greater foreign policy independence for Britain than has customarily existed in the “special relationship” between Washington and London. But Cameron has already started well down that path. When the United States launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in the summer, it took Britain weeks to join — and even then, it limited its contributions to Iraq.
With British defense spending falling under Cameron’s austerity policies, U.S. officials took the unusual step this year of speaking out publicly to express their dismay. But Cameron has resisted a push to hold Britain to the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, and there is every indication that whoever wins, military spending will be cut further to pay down a still-burdensome deficit.
Those are cuts that defense experts say Britain can ill afford and that are fast pushing the country out of the circle of elite global powers.
“What’s worrying is that our capacity to support any substantial overseas operation has already been diminished significantly,” said John Gearson, a former government adviser on defense who teaches at King’s College London.
Gearson and others say they doubt the SNP will ultimately succeed in derailing Trident because the nuclear program enjoys support from both Labor and the Tories. But the SNP could use its newfound leverage after the election to reawaken the Scottish independence debate after losing a referendum on the issue just last year.
There’s also a distinct possibility that the election will produce no clear winner, and no sustainable government, an outcome that could trigger a second vote before the year is out.
With Britain focused inward for the foreseeable future, the United States has been forced to look elsewhere for allies, especially to Berlin. The best Washington can hope for from London, analysts say, may be a continuation of a status quo in which Britain plays an important role on certain issues but with both sides recognizing the limitations.
“The special relationship is already over,” Leonard said. “I don’t think it’s going to get any worse.”