BRITAIN has begun to redefine its global role, with the aim of doing a better job projecting itself internationally while living within a shrinking budget.
In a series of speeches, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd has begun to warn that unless Britain reassesses foreign policy goals and is content to "punch its weight" in the world, it will lose what international clout it still possesses.
Prime Minister John Major affirmed the need for a reappraisal on his return from a Washington summit with President Clinton: "The world is changing at such a rate that we cannot afford not to examine the changes, take account of them, and see where British interest lies."
This reappraisal comes as Britain has pulled back from the full commitment to European unity envisaged in the Maastricht Treaty. It has taken on a growing role in UN peacekeeping, while reiterating its commitment to a nuclear deterrent based on its Trident submarine system.
As part of the policy reappraisal, Mr. Hurd has instructed Foreign Office diplomats to examine how British embassy posts around the world could be shared with other European Community (EC) countries. His advisers have also begun a rigorous analysis of actual and potential trouble spots in order to decide how many of them Britain can afford to take a direct interest in.
There are indications, however, that the drive to redefine foreign policy goals will stir trouble for Mr. Major's government.
Supporters of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher say Britain runs the risk of being side-lined in world diplomacy if it flinches from maintaining a high profile. Lady Thatcher, now in the House of Lords, has repeatedly urged the government to commit British troops more deeply in former Yugoslavia, where they are currently confined to a humanitarian role.
Another constraint to reshaping commitments arises from Britain's membership on the UN Security Council. The government is under pressure from Conservative Party supporters to defend Britain's retention of its permanent seat. "Giving up that seat, or sharing it with other EC countries, must not be on the government's agenda of reappraisal," a leading Conservative backbencher said.
Opening a foreign affairs debate in the House of Commons last week, Hurd said Britain was determined to keep its seat and was against Germany and Japan becoming permanent members of the Council.
There appears to be a contradiction between Hurd's idea of sharing embassies with EC countries and Britain's notoriously standoffish approach to Europe. Official sources in London say that the prime minister in his Feb. 24 meeting with President Clinton argued that it was best for Britain to stand clear of a single European currency and to refuse to accept the EC social charter on workers' rights.
US officials in London noted that Mr. Clinton, like his predecessors, favors the movement toward a united Europe.
The first signal that the Major government was preparing to reorder its priorities came on Jan. 27 in a benchmark address by Hurd entitled "The New World Disorder."
He told members of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Britain's leading foreign policy think tank, that there were strict limits to what Britain was able to achieve in the world.
"Obviously we cannot be everywhere and we cannot do everything," Hurd said. "Our diplomacy is now undermanned compared to that of our main colleagues and competitors. Our armed forces are already overstretched. There is a British interest in a safer world, but the resulting effort needs to be rigorously disciplined and constrained."
To requests for armed intervention in world trouble spots, Britain would "probably have to say `No' more often than `Yes,' " Hurd said.
He spoke as the Clinton administration was arguing for a more active British approach to the crisis in Bosnia and British Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind was preparing to increase by 3,000 the number of soldiers available for UN peacekeeping.
The government's belief that Britain should be content to focus on world affairs, and particularly in UN peacekeeping, is endorsed by Col. Michael Dewar, deputy director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Colonel Dewar says that until Britain withdraws its military garrison from Hong Kong in 1997 and thins out troops in places such as Berlin, Belize, and Brunei, its armed forces will be seriously overstretched.
"Too few soldiers will be attempting to carry out too many tasks," he said. "By 1997, however, the position should ease."