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London Comment: Relative Decline

This week I learned that Britain has just slipped from fourth to fifth in the table of the world's nuclear powers -- to be replaced by Pakistan. I received that information courtesy of American intelligence assessments published in your newspapers. I'm not sure our lot will have noticed. And what the report underlines is not just the growing threat posed by Pakistan -- but also Britain's lack of threat and indeed lack of influence on anyone at all. I am not going to argue about the rights and wrongs of nuclear weapons or military intervention abroad. But the fact is that Britain has been a largely positive influence in international affairs for decades. We were on the side of the good in two world wars, we did manage to dismantle a vast empire without too many problems, and we have generally stood beside America ever since. But what struck me as I watched the turmoil in Egypt and other Arab states is that it's nothing to do with us any more. We are no longer interested. All that matters here is the economy (stupid), and the government's savage spending cuts which have left us without any aircraft to put on our aircraft carriers. We keep our nuclear weapon system for now, but the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said he won't make any decision about renewing it for six years, which is a neat way of letting someone else do the dirty deed. Other defence spending has, of course, been deeply cut. Last week the government even announced drastic reductions to the BBC's international radio broadcasts. Arabic programmes will be reduced and moved from shortwave radio onto the Internet. And what happened last week when the trouble started in Egypt? Oh yes, they cut off the internet. But we're not really that bothered. We seem to have returned to a political process which has quietly dominated this country ever since I was born -- a process of managing our decline. When we finally do extricate ourselves from Afghanistan, I doubt very much that we will volunteer for further such adventures -- or whether we will even have defence forces capable of doing so. We have simply stopped looking outwards while we concentrate on our own affairs. And all this at a time when the nuclear dangers are growing -- not just in Pakistan but also in Iran -- when the world will need the good guys to stand together. So, sorry Mr President. A new crisis in the Middle East? I think we'll sit this one out. This is Peter Allen for CBS News in London.
Peter Allen