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What should a British post-Brexit foreign policy look like?

Nick Westcott / Jan 2021

Image: Shutterstock

 

“Britain is a great nation. But if it tries to act as a Great Power, it will soon cease to be even a great nation.” (Sir Henry Tizard, Government Chief Scientist’s advice to the Cabinet, 1946)

It is now generally recognised that Brexit turns previous British foreign policy on its head. Having relied on three pillars – a transatlantic security alliance, European economic integration, and close links with the Commonwealth and the developing world through historic links and a generous aid programme – the Brexit process has weakened or damaged all three. What will take their place?

The government has been touting a vision of ‘Global Britain’ as its alternative. But four years on from Brexit, little flesh has been put on the bare bones of this approach, and it seems unlikely that the eagerly awaited ‘Integrated Review’ of security, defence and foreign policy, postponed from last autumn to this spring, will pull a fully-grown rabbit from this hat.

Instead, the conduct of the Brexit negotiations themselves and decisions already announced in advance of the Review give a clearer idea of where the government think they are heading. Both suggest they are inclined to put ideological and political positions ahead of any strategic assessment of the ‘British national interest’ – putting protection of ‘sovereignty’ before protection of the economy in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, and putting aid cuts and tighter immigration rules before closer relations with the Commonwealth. This suggests that there is no longer a bipartisan consensus on the national interest, just a definition that brings it closer to the political interest of the party in power.

Three things are, however, already clear about the government’s post-Brexit approach.

Firstly, Brexit represents a pivot away from Europe, our neighbours, and towards the ‘Anglosphere’, essentially North America and Australasia. The boosting of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance, the scrapping of British participation in the Erasmus and Galileo programmes and the rejection of any foreign policy coordination mechanism with the EU are relatively unequivocal. But this leaves out a lot of the world.

Secondly, the Foreign Secretary is insistent the UK will pursue a foreign policy based on principles, including the promotion of democracy and human rights through the ‘Magnitsky Act’ already introduced. The challenge comes in enforcing that without damaging the UK. If others cannot be brought on board, Britain risks being ignored, as for example its recent tough line on China has been weakened by the recent EU-China investment agreement.

Thirdly, the government is shifting resources from soft power to hard power, boosting defence spending and cutting amounts for aid, education and culture. Hard power counts, but is there for occasional use in a crisis (and its recent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be said to have enhanced Britain’s reputation or its security). Soft power has less immediate impact, but is used ever day in every place to exercise Britain’s influence. It is striking how attacks on Britain’s Parliament, judiciary, the BBC and adherence to the international rule of law in the course of the Brexit debate has been noticed overseas and weakened Britain’s reputation.

There is a risk that, despite Britain’s great international assets – its UN Security Council seat, its membership of G7, G20, IFIs, OECD – Brexit exposes its weaknesses rather than enhances its strengths. Power comes from three things: economic strength, military strength and the number of your friends and allies. The first and third of these have been weakened by Brexit. It also leaves the UK more deeply divided at home than for a generation, with the Scottish and Irish Questions unlikely to be resolved for some years to come.

There is a great deal the government can do to minimize these risks and enable Britain to continue to play an influential role in world affairs, if it is willing to recognise rather than ignore its weaknesses. Timing is on its side. As chair of both the G7 and COP26 this year it has a tremendous opportunity to play a leadership role in responding to both the Covid and climate crises and their economic consequences. But it requires a strategy and it requires effort, without which these roles are more likely to expose British weakness than reinforce its strength; and it requires an understanding that foreign policy is not purely transactional but a question of relationships.

The British diplomatic service may still be a Rolls Royce, but it needs a driver who knows where he is going if it is to deliver the goods.

This analysis suggests five priorities for Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy:

  1. Most urgently, to re-build a trusted relationship with both the EU and the incoming US Administration. It is a mistake to think foreign policy issues can be handled purely bilaterally with EU member states, through the E3 grouping or ad hoc alliances. As the Brexit negotiations proved, for all member states the EU is integral to their political priorities and their place in the world. We need a collective relationship with it as well as individual ones with its members. Sadly, because they did not believe it, the Brexiteers never understood this. With Biden, the UK starts on the back foot because of the PM’s perceived affinity for Trump, and positive steps are needed to restore close relations.
  2. Principles and actions need to be seen to match. If ‘Global Britain’ and attachment to the Commonwealth are to be seen as real (with the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting due in Kigali this June), the government need to restore the cuts to the aid budget and review its immigration policies, which will also be a topic on the agenda for the PM’s state visit to India in February. If democracy matters, there needs to be more support for countries like Malawi and Ghana as well as including Australia, South Korea and India in a D10.
  3. Britain needs to up its game in preparing for COP26, and to define a realistic and achievable outcome. This requires a global envoy of the stature of John Kerry to lead the effort and intensive contacts at Head of Government level from now until November.
  4. Britain, which has one of the few fluent Chinese-speaking Ambassadors in Beijing, needs to take a global lead on China policy to avoid being squeezed between a hard US approach and a soft European one, or simply sidelined by China itself.
  5. A little humility, rather than bombast, in its relations with the Commonwealth will also go a long way to restore trust and respect. History has both good and bad sides, and ignoring either simply stores up problems for the future.

 

Nick Westcott

Nick Westcott

January 2021

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