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Heiko Maas, the new German foreign minister: Germany must not expect the UK to pick up the tab for its defence (Sandro Halank, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

We British are past masters at talking ourselves into a tight spot. All but ready to give up in despair, our opinion-formers wallow in recrimination and blame. Our impending isolation looks anything but splendid, they tell us; going it alone seems reckless and morale is at rock bottom. We’re finished as a force in the world, according to the great and good: nobody cares what we do or say. “Britain is no longer an important country,” Sir Max Hastings opined on the Today programme recently. For the Economist, Britain is simply “absurd”.

Foreign leaders take us at our own valuation. For the German Chancellor, the British are fair game for Schadenfreude. At Davos Angela Merkel reportedly had trusted journalists in stitches with her imitation of an importunate Theresa May, repeating her pathetic mantra: “Make me an offer.” Even the naturally Anglophile Donald Trump, when asked about Brexit, simply says: “I would have taken a tougher stand on getting out.” The European Union, he reckons, is “not cracked up to what it’s supposed to be”. Despite his mangled syntax, the President has a point. David Cameron found that out the hard way — having cracked the EU up to be the only game in town.

Yet Britain has been in much worse situations before. Indeed, it is only when we have no alternative that we show our true mettle. To abort Brexit now, as siren voices at home and abroad repeatedly urge, really would destroy our credibility. The era of pooling sovereignty and falling into line with European policies is over. Instead, the government need to demonstrate that it is prepared to do whatever is required to make Britain a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.

The Prime Minister should entrust Boris Johnson with setting out a new foreign policy for the post-Brexit era. The Foreign Secretary is itching to leave his mark on history, so he should be encouraged to do so. We don’t need to wait until we have left the EU in order to set out the principles that should govern our conduct in the future and enable us to find our new role in the world.

In 1822, during his last interview with King George IV, the then Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh said: “It is necessary to say goodbye to Europe; you and I alone know it and have saved it.” Four days later he committed suicide. But Castlereagh was right: the British national interest did not require continental alliances, except when the threat from one or other great power became so acute as to demand it. Russia in the 1850s seemed to pose such a threat; hence the Anglo-French alliance in the Crimean War. Germany in the 1900s undoubtedly did pose such a threat; hence the Entente Cordiale and the rapprochement with Russia. It was the same story again between the world wars, with collective security based on the League of Nations. That system having failed to prevent war, the Atlantic Alliance became the cornerstone of Cold War diplomacy, right up to the present.
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