In some eyes, but most notably its own, the British government will be in the driving seat of world events this week. Today, G7 finance ministers will be in London to discuss international banking reform and the transaction tax, and – in the claim that the City minister, Paul Myners, makes on our comment pages today – the UK will be "leading international efforts". On Wednesday, diplomats from around the world will meet here to discuss the threat to Yemen from al-Qaida. A day later, attention shifts to another international conference in London, this time on the imperilled future of Afghanistan. Quite a week.
Every country likes to be taken seriously around the world. Lots of nations like to feel they are punching their weight, or even above it. Only a few, however, seem to feel the need to promote themselves as the one the others all look to for leadership. It is one thing – though never uncontroversial, and in some contexts increasingly implausible – for the United States to see itself in this role. As the world's largest economic and military power, the US remains even now the necessary nation in international affairs. It is quite another thing for Britain to pretend to such a status.
The continuing pre-eminence of American clout has been starkly shown by what has happened in banking over the last several days. Domestic political pressures spurred President Obama into declaring a war on the money men, and markets worldwide immediately trembled, as they grasped that his plan could unleash a global drive to split retail and investment banking. There should be no shame for London in wholeheartedly welcoming the initiative while admitting that Britain could never have made such a move on its own. Instead, however, the government carries on as if its own detailed plans for banks' living wills, and its distant dreams of a Tobin tax, are framing the debate.
Britain is a very important country. The sixth-largest economy in the world. The fifth-largest military power. Its claim to what the former prime minister Lord Home used to call a seat at the top table is beyond dispute, though it would be a still more influential one if we sometimes ceded it to the European Union. And yet, more than half a century after the loss of empire, our political culture still seems racked by the need to be the leading nation, not just one of them. Such delusions are most associated with the political right, but Gordon Brown can also seem peculiarly ensnared by them. His Britain must always be first, always at the forefront, must always show the way to the rest. Even in the G7, the G8 or the G20 – never mind the UN – a mere share of the action is never enough, and it must always be Britain that is leading the effort, whether in Yemen or Afghanistan. But this way hubris lies. Mr Brown immodestly let slip to MPs in 2008 that he had saved the world. And as he arrived in Copenhagen for the ill-fated climate change summit last month he announced that "There are many outstanding issues which I'm here to resolve."
In reality, of course, no single nation can resolve the world's problems alone. Only the United States and China, separately or together, can even aspire to set the agenda for the rest. If the US raises its commitment to Afghanistan then other nations are likely to follow. If the US penalises the banks, others soon fall into line.
Britain has no such potency. Yet we still struggle to adjust to our reality. We can propose, as we shall be doing in three important London meetings this week, but we cannot dispose. Every day, the descant of the Chilcot inquiry reminds us of where the refusal to recognise this truth can humiliatingly lead. Our national interest should be to play our important role as a true, trusted and committed European partner on the world stage. No longer the greatest. Just one great among others. Good enough ought to be good enough. The people get it. If only the politicians did too.
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