Britain’s Search for a Global Role
In August despite the backdrop of COVID-19 chaos and the looming end of year Brexit deadline, the Boris Johnson Government took a major step in rewiring the country’s foreign policy machine. Despite a chorus of condemnation from previous Prime Ministers, the Johnson Administration proceeded to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign Office to form the new (and supposedly all powerful) Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
The argument to bring these two Ministries together was simple; it would align Britain’s development and foreign policy ensuring a more cohesive and joined up approach to international affairs. Cynics pointed to DFID’s incredible achievements in addressing global poverty or specific challenges like helping eradicate polio across Africa. They worry that an increasingly nationalist and ‘realpolitik’ approach to foreign policy would dilute an area in which the UK has carved out a unique global role and expertise.
Brexit is already placing a new set of strains on the UK’s global role. Whereas previously the country could claim the almost unique status of having a permanent UN Security Council seat, being a lead member of NATO and a member of the EU, suddenly the UK is out of the tent when it comes to collective foreign policy decisions being made out of Brussels.
Where there can be little doubt as to the UK being a world leader it is in the field of sloganeering. Conscious perhaps of the danger of haemorrhaging influence on the international stage, the post-Brexit Conservative Governments have clung to the notion of ‘Global Britain’ without really explaining what it entails. Values wise the idea is to link the UK’s new status outside of the EU as a ‘buccaneering’ free trading nation with leadership towards defending the rules based order.
In more traditional times a pivot from the UK away from EU could be rebalanced towards a stronger UK-US relationship. However, these are not normal times and the Trump Administration has spent huge energy withdrawing from global organisations and commitments whether that be the Paris Accords, the Iran deal and so on. An isolationist second term Trump Administration would place even more pressure on the UK to carve out a more unique course towards defining its role in the world.
A major exercise in informing this decision is currently underway in the form of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. It is difficult to predict at this stage whether this exercise can effectively endure the chaos of the multiple crises happening in its backdrop or whether it will be a deep and serious look at the DNA of the British establishment or more of a cursory rebranding of the traditional set of interests and issues that the UK is focused on.
The recent UAE-Israel peace deal was a reminder that even an isolationist USA still had the convening power and influence to score a major diplomatic victory and an important time. With the United Nations increasingly gridlocked by veto wielding permanent members there is huge attraction to focusing diplomatic energies on major challenges of the day.
Could the UK become a global leader in issues of cyberwarfare and cybersecurity? Could the fusion of the different ministries bring a novel and well-resourced approach to addressing climate change, the issues of non-state armed groups or the black economy of illegal flows of weapons, drugs and people can has come to define the globalised era?
Or could the UK double down on a particular issue within international affairs? Could it leverage its relations with Saudi Arabia and Oman to bring about a new direction and hope in Yemen? Could it try and more effectively channel US energies towards rehabilitating the two-state solution that the UAE have managed to keep on life support?
So much of the UK’s political capital has been spent over the past five years on defining its identity and role in relation to the European Union that it simply hasn’t had the bandwidth and license to think more creatively about what happens next. Unfortunately, the Brexit saga shows no sign of coming to an end with the prospect of ‘no deal’ resurfacing recently. A country that struggles to form trade relations with its nearest neighbours may find it hard to find that its influence is more effective elsewhere and the reality of things is that for any Global Britain to emerge the country will have to find a way to put a full stop to the Brexit saga, something that it may find very difficult to do.
by : jamse danselow