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UK's world role:
Punching above our weight

British troops in Macedonia
British troops in Macedonia in August 2001: their task, to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels
Like the under-dog in the boxing ring, Britain punches above its weight on the world stage.

It's long since ceased to have super-power status, so why does Britain remain a force to be reckoned with?

One of the recurring themes of Foreign Policy over the years has been the notion that Britain "punches above its weight". This boxing metaphor says much about Britain's sense of identity: national pride is tinged with a suspicion that we don't quite deserve our place at the top table of world affairs.

Audio Clip AUDIO
BBC Ten O'Clock News:
Ben Brown reports on the arrival of British troops in Kosovo, in 1999

Britain's economy is the fourth largest in the world - but per head, incomes are far lower than in other countries such as Germany or Japan. And yet, Britain continues to play a larger role than either of those countries, both militarily and diplomatically.

During the last decade, British troops have been deployed in various policing and peace-keeping roles across the world.

British forces in Sierra Leone
British troops in Sierra Leone, making the airport safe for UN peace-keeping operations.
*In 1991, 45,000 British forces personnel were sent to join American forces in the Gulf War.

*In 1994 around 3,000 British troops joined UN forces in Bosnia.

*In 1999, 13,000 British troops went to Kosovo - the largest single national contribution to the United Nations peace-keeping force, KFOR.

*In 2000: 800 British paratroops were sent to the West African state of Sierra Leone, to evacuate British citizens and help UN peace-keepers secure the airport.

*In August 2001, British troops were again deployed for peace-keeping duties: this time in Macedonia, where they oversaw the collection of weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels.

*And, just before Christmas 2001, one and a half thousand British troops were deployed to Afghanistan, to lead the international peace-keeping force there in the wake of the defeat of the Taleban.

Douglas Hurd
Former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd coined the phrase "punching above our weight"
The phrase "punching above our weight" was coined by Douglas Hurd during a lecture at Chatham House - the headquarters of the Royal Institute for International Affairs and one of the most respected of the Foreign Policy think tanks.

It's an independent research organisation which has gained a reputation as place where the establishment can get together and exchange ideas - if necessary, under what's become known as Chatham House Rules of confidentiality.

Since Labour came to power in 1997, the phrase has been heard less often. But the Foreign Office itself still points to Britain's unique place in foreign affairs.

Quote Mark NATO is one of the principal props which have allowed Britain to punch above its weight in the world. Quote Mark

Douglas Hurd, The Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) 1993
But many would still consider Britain's role in Kosovo to be a prime example of a small country punching above its weight.

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair is credited with pushing Bill Clinton into taking military action to safeguard the human rights of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Quote Mark The United Kingdom occupies a unique position in global affairs. It is the only state which is a member of the G8, the EU, NATO, and the Commonwealth, and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The UK is also a member of the OSCE and Council of Europe. Quote Mark

Official Foreign Office Website
After 34,000 high-level bombing sorties, conducted largely by American planes, President Milosevic agreed to let an allied army into Kosovo.

Britain contributed the greatest number of troops to this force (13,000 out of just over 50,000 in total) which was led by a British commander, General Mike Jackson.

Britain's unique ability to act as a bridge between Europe and America, and between East and West, came into its own in 2001 following the September 11 terrorist attacks on America.

British troops in Kosovo
British troops made up the lion's share of the peacekeeping force in Kosovo
While President Bush confined himself to one overseas visit in that time (he went to China and the Far East), in the space of two months, Tony Blair embarked on a gruelling round of international diplomacy including an impromptu summit of European leaders at Downing Street, talks with the Russian President Vladimir Putin and an uncomfortable public lecture from the new President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

The United Nations

Much of Britain's influence today can be traced back to the Second World War.

Following the defeat of the axis powers, the United Nations officially came into being in October 1945. As one of the victorious allies, Britain was given a permanent place on the UN Security Council, which it retains to this day.
The United Nations Security Council
Britain has a permanent place on the United Nations Security Council

Today, 189 countries belong to the UN. The Security Council is the key decision making body becaue it is responsible for maintaining international peace and security - and can convene at any time, day or night, whenever peace is threatened.

The Council has 15 members. Britain, France, China, the US and the Russian Federation are permanent members. The other ten are elected for two year terms by the General Assembly. Any permanent Security Council member can veto any decision.

This gives Britain a permanent voice at the centre of the UN's decision-making - and a permanent veto over any policy it does not like


Britain was also in at the start of the creation of NATO, in 1949. As state after state in Eastern Europe fell to the Communists, NATO provided, for the first time, a formal guarantee that America would come to to the aid of Western Europe, in the event of a military attack.
The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin
The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin signs the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. Picture courtesy of NATO.

The British Foreign Secretary of the time, Ernest Bevin, described it as a roof stretching over the Atlantic Ocean. Since the end of the cold war, three former Eastern block countries have joined: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.

In the wake of the World Trade Center attack, NATO and Russia have been making moves towards greater co-operation. One of the challenges facing NATO is how to build co-operation with the new European Defence Force.

Click here to find out more on the European Defence Force.


The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (the OSCE) has 55 member states, including the United Kingdom. Despite its name, OSCE membership stretches across Eastern Europe, Central Asia and North America. Its headquarters is in Vienna and it also has offices and institutions in Copenhagen, Geneva, The Hague, Prague and Warsaw

The OSCE's largest operation at the moment is in Kosovo, where it works as an integral part of the United Nations operation there. In the Autumn of 2001, the OSCE organised the Kosovan elections.


This began in the mid-1970s as an informal group of leading industrialised countries which met to discuss economic and political issues.

G8 simply stands for Group of Eight. The original group consisted of Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the US - the G5. They were later joined by Italy, Canada and the President of the European Commission, to become the G7. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has joined, making the current group G8.

The group comes together each year for a summit, but has no formal administration which could implement joint decisions.

Council of Europe

This is a completely separate organisation from the European Union - any European state can become a member provided it accepts the principal of the rule of law and guarantees human rights and fundamental freedoms to everyone under its jurisdiction.

It was set up in 1949 by the United Kingdom and currently has 43 member states. It's best known for the European Convention on Human Rights, which has now been incorporated into English and Scottish law.

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