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Re-thinking British foreign policy

Nick Westcott / May 2024

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Britain currently has no real foreign policy. It has plenty of policies on international issues: Ukraine, climate change, women’s education, the lot. But they do not add up to a coherent strategy for how the country deals with the world or with new crises as they arise. The world is becoming more turbulent, as both David Cameron and Rishi Sunak have recently admitted, and without a strategy to guide it, any new government is likely to be blown off-course by the relentless succession of crises that are coming down the track.

So what should a new strategy look like?

It needs to start from some hard realities, not comfortable assumptions based on rose-tinted nostalgia. The world is not a benign place, and Britain’s influence in it has shrunk steadily since Brexit. The all-too-brief unipolar moment after the fall of the Wall, when liberal multilateralism flourished, was brought to an end by western hubris, most notably in Iraq, by the financial crash of 2008 and the austerity and inequality that followed it, by the rise of China, and by the accelerating impact of climate change.

In Britain the populist revolt against austerity and uncertainty took the form of Brexit. This proved, firstly, that Britain’s decision to join the EU could be reversed – democracy worked and we left; but secondly, that it was a very costly and bad idea.

Brexit reduced Britain’s power in the world by cutting growth, discouraging investment, impeding trade, and squeezing defence spending. It lost us friends – 27 at a stoke – and lost us influence in the rest of the world because we no longer carried influence in the EU and no longer seemed to respect the rule of law. It weakened, not strengthened, British sovereignty by cutting us off from EU decisions that still influence our economy, health and freedom of travel; and it damaged our diplomacy through policy incoherence, the drastic cutting of aid and the car crash merger of FCO and DFID.

When you are in a hole, first stop digging. Then look at how to get out of it.

The objectives of our foreign policy have not changed in decades: to achieve a prosperous, peaceful and secure Britain in a world of multilateral rules and free exchange. But to achieve these, a new strategy needs to be built on four solid pillars.

Firstly, the closest possible relations with our European neighbours. We largely share interests, values and policies with them, and restoring freer economic exchange is the only way a new government can grow the economy fast enough to meet its spending needs. Our security, and the risks of a loosening of the US commitment to Europe, dictate it as well. That does not necessarily mean re-joining immediately; but it does mean a drastic overhaul of the existing arrangements. ‘Making a success of Brexit’ is meaningless. Brexit benefits proved like Saddam Hussain’s WMD: people were convinced they existed, but nobody could ever actually find them. So stop digging.

Secondly, our security depends on building strong alliances with other countries that believe in democracy. NATO will be at the heart of that, but is not enough alone. True security is political as much as military. Linking India, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria with the G7 would be a powerful geo-strategic move.

Thirdly, Britain needs to build a wholly new relationship with middle powers and emerging economies, based on global equality and partnership. This matters if we are to successfully contest the narrative that an ‘neo-colonialist West’ is continuing to exploit the ‘Global South’ whose only true friends are Russia and China. History as well as economics still weighs on Britain’s relationships, and a new start needs to begin with an act of repentance. But a more egalitarian Commonwealth could then play a useful role in rebuilding friendships across the world.

Fourthly, Britain needs to respect the international rule of law and help reform the world’s multilateral institutions to make them more reflective of the interests of the world’s population, more fit for purpose, and more effective. That is not easy: there are many at home and abroad who would like them neutered. But to make a world safe for small countries, safe for self-determination, and safe for Britain, a robust multilateral system is essential.

On these pillars, a new government can build a coherent response to the crises in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, Myanmar, or the South China Sea, and accelerate the necessary action to tackle climate change and keep the world economy from fragmenting. Without them, conflict will only spread and Britain’s position become more precarious yet.

 

This article is drawn from a lecture that the author gave at SOAS University of London on 15 May 2024.

Nick Westcott

Nick Westcott

May 2024

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