While the Germans, seconded by their French character witnesses, negotiated an ethereal Ukraine cease fire with Vladimir Putin in Minsk, Belarus, last week, Britain was kept informed by regular messages from the conference room.
It was a drip-feed from an arena of bad history in the making to a distant sideline. Call it either a gesture of consideration and respect, or a sign of the largely self-inflicted downgrading of a onetime Great Game player. Whatever, here was Britain home alone, although in no sense in the strategically assertive manner of Benjamin Disraeli 's notion of Splendid Isolation.
The Minsk deal was "terrible," a senior U.K. official told me afterward, with holes in it so gaping as to allow Russia to drive tanks unhampered through an open Ukrainian border for next to forever. There might be some regrets that London wasn't there as a "practitioner," the official said, "but the deal was so bad that we now see our distance as an advantage."
In theory, after the Obama administration outsourced the response to the Kremlin's aggression against Ukraine to Angela Merkel's Germany, only U.N. Security Council member Britain was (very theoretically) left in Europe to take sides and name names. But London chose not to press for an active role. Ms. Merkel then signaled that Germany's "strategic patience" with Mr. Putin's asymmetrical war could last for decades.
As a result, over the course of the past two weeks Mr. Putin got an up-close lesson in Western halfheartedness.
French President François Hollande, as Germany's sidekick in meetings with Mr. Putin in Moscow and Minsk-Ms. Merkel didn't want it to go down as a German-Russian deal-exclaimed, "I don't want to say anything about the responsibilities of one or the other" combatants. He added, "Will someone please explain to me what the difference is between an offensive weapon and a defensive weapon?"
Here goes. Offensive weapon: a Russian tank. Defensive: a Ukrainian soldier with an antitank guided missile, one of the kinds of arms Barack Obama is fussing about delivering to the government in Kiev.
Britain's response was a "no" to supplying Ukraine with defensive lethal weapons, coupled with a statement by Foreign Minister Phillip Hammond that, "We're happy that the Germans have taken the lead."
This isn't Britain at its bravest, cleverest or most famously resourceful. Its slide has been accelerated by a U.S. administration that hung Britain out to dry by abandoning its promised willingness to come on board with London on a more muscular approach to Syria in 2012-13. Since then, Mr. Obama's steadfastness has been regarded warily by some British officials.
A more immediate explanation for this effaced approach is the national election May 7, in which Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party sees the prospect of a fragmented vote requiring the formation of a coalition government.
His strategists don't want to wander from a single campaign message on the improvement in the British economy. Polls say that foreign affairs aren't among the top 10 issues of voter concern and that only 17% "think the United Kingdom has a moral responsibility to support popular uprisings against dictators," a negative measure of potential public engagement on Ukraine.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the British fade is that it bolsters Mr. Putin's conviction that he is succeeding in splitting apart the Atlantic Alliance. A frequently silent, self-involved, scarcely active and less goading Britain, one obviously less confident in its trans-Atlantic instincts and its trans-Atlantic ties, reinforces the Russian idea that it really can reverse the post-Soviet security order in Europe.
Britain ought to be fighting this out loud. In Germany, echoing the Gerhard Schröder years, the weekly Die Zeit made reference without particular alarm to a Europe now "wrestling" with its "emancipation" from the U.S. Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a newspaper close to the chancellor, last week referred to Ms. Merkel as a "mediator" between the U.S. and Russia, a notion she refutes but that has wide appeal in Germany.
Sueddeutsche's chief editor, Kurt Kister, wrote on Saturday that "the Americans hardly play a role anymore" in Europe and recommended its countries begin thinking of setting up a "European Treaty Organization or EUTO."
That's crackpot stuff. How could a Europe without America ever muster a credible nuclear deterrent against Russia? But there's the potential for a rewrite of Europe's security treaties lurking out there that could make for trouble. The German foreign ministry of Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Russians want "to discuss" such a rewrite. What could Britain be saying but isn't?
Malcolm Rifkind, who is on a German-appointed panel of "eminent persons" to begin that discussion, gave a glancing but interesting answer via a question to Ms. Merkel at the recent Munich Security Conference. The former Conservative foreign and defense minister asked if her no-military-solution thesis on Ukraine could ever be successful without the threat of force being attached. She dodged the essence of the question.
Mr. Rifkind, in a later conversation, saw the possibility of an altered tone from a re-elected Conservative-led government in Britain. He said, "A change can come if there's an American-led policy that's less ambiguous and unabashedly robust."
Good to hear it said. But he shouldn't hold his breath.
John Vinocur, The Wall Street Journal