Since 1945, Britain has successfully charted a deliberate, principled path on the world stage, helping to deliver, through NATO, the longest period of peace in Europe in living memory.
Beyond defence and security, Britain has led the world in drafting binding UN resolutions to slow climate change, helped eradicate global health threats such as Ebola, and doggedly protected the role of international development aid from populist attacks. Whilst recognising recent landmark foreign policy shortcomings, namely 2003’s botched invasion of Iraq and the abject lack of post-war planning in Libya in 2011, Britain can be proud of its reputation as a trusted defender of global peace and advocate of sustainable prosperity.
Before Brexit, two entrenched dynamics conditioned British foreign policy: an enduringly special relationship with the United States and a semi-detached, sometimes fraught connection to the European Union. 2016 saw both steadfast pillars of Britain’s foreign policy world rattled.
Indeed, the eruption of Brexit and US President Donald Trump’s capricious rise, combined with the malevolence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the sprawling ambitions of Chinese President Xi Jinping, continue to represent an ominous challenge to the UK, and the wider international order.
Just as Britain must be clear-eyed and unhindered to meet this multi-faceted challenge, civil service bandwidth is being monopolised by the challenge of untangling the Gordian knot of Brexit. The fractious nature of Brexit negotiations has also strained relations with EU member states, threatening to undermine European willingness to respond to the UK’s internal idiosyncrasies. The maelstrom of Brexit has seen the Foreign Office’s traditional responsibilities diced and spun-off to spread the load. Trade relations now rest with a separate Secretary of State, and the Government’s European policy is manifestly run by the Department for Exiting the EU.
Under former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the UK sought to rebut accusations of international withdrawal by recasting the UK as “Global Britain”. However, the uneven, sometimes inflammatory words and actions which characterised Johnson’s two years in office have dented Britain’s global standing. Johnson’s approach, coupled with the exhausting challenge of deciphering Brexit, has rendered the UK close to non-existent in foreign policy terms since 24th June 2016.
The recent appointment of former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to replace Johnson could signal a more consistent, results-orientated approach, but his lack of international experience does not augur exceptionally well. From the Sergei Skripal poisoning case to US-fermented NATO disagreement, Hunt has a weighty inbox of real and present dangers to tackle before wrenching the UK back into the leading pack to truly challenge Putin, Trump and Jinping. Hunt of course deserves time and will, at the very least, rebuild bridges charred by Johnson.
With Brexit’s challenges in mind, other figures have sought to fill. In particular, the forthright Tory chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, former lieutenant colonel Tom Tugendhat MP, thinks there is an opportunity for a “Conservative internationalism”, to provide a safety net for the collapse of international norms since Trump’s election, and, to a lesser extent, Brexit.
This vision sees the resurgence of the independent nation state over, in Tugendhat’s view, unwieldly, consensus-driven supranational bodies such as the EU. This profile of the UK as a buccaneering trading nation, leading a change in the way states interact holds water in theory, but fails to recognise the huge leaps forward only possible through our alliances with partner nations.
Amongst this melee, there is hope for optimism. The UK has not wilted in its commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international aid, and is resolute in its vow to galvanise NATO as salvos continue to land from across the Atlantic. The UK also remains a leading force driving the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change in the face of US intransigence.
There is a central goal to pursue; finding new ways to rally EU support behind British interests.
Without the EU to lean on in times of real adversity–exemplified by the hearteningly unified EU-UK response to highly probable Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning–Britain must now chart a path which brings its traditional partners with it as it forges fresh global links. By leaving the EU, we lose influence over EU cybersecurity and energy policies, just as cyber warfare and energy geopolitics exacerbate globally. But that does not mean the UK cannot still contribute, collaborate and lead in these febrile areas.
To deliver this new approach, it is critical that the FCO regains a front-and-centre Whitehall role as soon as viably possible, helping to cascade foreign policy through a unified lens. This will enable the projection of a compelling, unified British position to tangibly influence world affairs. Britain should regain a more holistic view of the world, and refuse to be blinkered by an over-focus on trading opportunities, narrowly designed to ‘make a success of Brexit’. Our history and our values compel us to go beyond economics toward human rights and good governance, issues that must rest at the heart of our renewed engagement with the world.
Prime Minister Theresa May must not only commit to working together with the EU on economic and security relations. Britain setting sail as an independent, buccaneering trading nation only plays well in romantic notions of Brexit. Instead, post-Brexit, the UK must seek to utilise its unrivalled diplomatic corps to build on its status as a global power by also acting as the world’s interlocutor for an increasingly disparate international community.
By encouraging nations to take more deliberate action in the major international forums – from the UN Security Council, UN Human Rights Council, NATO to the World Health Organization – the UK should seek to ensure the pooling of resource, insight, and experience to tackle the global challenges of today. There is simply no replacement for meaningful, non-financially driven partnerships to foster peace and deliver sustainable development.