Global Britain: an old idea, but is it ripe for a comeback?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

In just a few days’ time, the brand new United Kingdom aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, is due to depart on its maiden deployment to the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea. This 70,000 tonne pride of the Royal Navy will lead a multi-vessel task force which will also include a US destroyer and a Dutch frigate. This demonstration of British maritime power and of its global force projection capability is designed to underscore the seriousness of the UK government’s intent to turn the post-Brexit island nation into a global military and foreign policy actor.

This is a role that it has not aspired to play since the Labour government, faced with crippling balance of payments problems and a stagnant economy, abandoned the ‘East of Suez’ policy at the beginning of the 1970s. After over 40 years of European Union membership, the UK is heeding Winston Churchill’s advice to leave European integration to the continental Europeans and rediscover its freedom of action on the “deep blue sea”. Global Britain harks back nostalgically to this point in time a century ago when Britannia ruled the waves and the British Empire, covering one quarter of the land surface of the globe, was so vast that the sun never set on it. The UK had interests and responsibilities everywhere. It was a great power that could not be left out of any international issue or any negotiation; and its economic and military power were often essential in finding solutions. Yet is this global role one that the UK can re-invent for itself in the very different conditions of the 21st century?

The UK would like us to think so. Back in March, it finally published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. This was an exercise conducted across every Whitehall department with the aim of joining up and better projecting every strand of British power and influence. The Review is often seen as a reaction to the inflection point of Brexit, but in reality it started back in 2015 – well before the referendum on Britain’s EU membership – and was designed to take account of the new international landscape that was already then emerging, particularly the split of a Western-dominated international system into one where more people live in autocracies or partially free countries than in democracies. As well as the increased rivalry and competition among great powers; or the greater vulnerability of Western democracies to shocks from pandemics, climate change driven extreme weather events and resource shortages, cyber-attacks and political extremism, terrorism and violence.

Post-Brexit Britain is not lapsing into neo-Trumpian isolationism or pulling up the drawbridge on global engagement

Certainly Brexit, which was presented in London as freeing the UK from the EU shackles to pursue new opportunities and interests in the wider world, gave an extra justification and importance to the Review. Brexiteers had talked about Global Britain a lot during the referendum campaign and after, without ever defining what it actually meant. Now with the Review they had their chance to fill in the gap and give not only Whitehall civil servants but also the British public and a broader international audience a sense of the new direction of travel.

At first sight, the results of the Review are reassuring. Post-Brexit Britain is not lapsing into neo-Trumpian isolationism or pulling up the drawbridge on global engagement. Indeed, it wants to be a lynchpin of the liberal democratic order in its intensifying struggle against authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. Just this past week we saw Global Britain on display when London hosted the G7 foreign ministers. Australia, India, South Korea, South Africa and the current presidency of ASEAN were invited to participate along with the core G7 group. This foreshadows the new D10 group of democracies that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has often talked about, while highlighting the UK’s aim to focus more on the Indo-Pacific and Africa. At the G7 meeting, all the big issues of the day were discussed: solidarity in facing up to Chinese economic coercion, the military repression in Myanmar, cyber and energy security, Russia’s military intimidation of Ukraine and, of course, aid to the poorer countries to address the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the area of vaccine distribution.

This November, the UK hosts the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow. It has been fortunate for Boris Johnson that the reality of Brexit, coming into force on 1 January, has coincided with the UK’s chairmanship of these high profile international events, thereby creating the impression that British diplomacy has lost none of its momentum by no longer being embedded within the EU framework. Obviously from 2022 onwards, when the chair – and the limelight – passes to others, maintaining this mojo will become much more difficult. Yet the G7 meeting showed where Global Britain would like to be: the convenor of democracies, forming clusters of the willing on every conceivable challenge and using its diplomacy as the honest broker in setting the agenda and producing most of the good ideas. The medium-sized power that punches above its weight and that everyone likes to work with. It harks back less to the British Empire than to the ‘Cool Britannia’ of the Tony Blair years.

The Review stresses the fact that the UK has the world’s fourth largest diplomatic service

The Review maps out the capabilities that the UK will need to play this role with a degree of credibility. First, in the area of hard power. An accompanying Defence Command Paper sets the target of 2.2% of GDP for the defence budget, well above the NATO target of 2%. The army is to be cut by 10,000 troops down to 72,000, the lowest level since the 18th century. Yet the remainder are to be organised into a new commando force, merging the Royal Marines and special forces into a number of specialist and stealthy highly-mobile units that will be data-enabled, equipped with state-of-the-art technologies and multipurpose. Armaments nearing the end of their service life, including dozens of ships and aircraft, will be retired early and replaced with modern systems like Challenger 3 tanks and F35 aircraft. New frigates have also been ordered to accompany and protect the two new aircraft carriers. The UK has set up a Joint Forces Command, a Space Command, a military AI unit and a military Cyber Command for offensive operations in cyberspace.

The Review has some interesting observations on the future of warfare, predicting that smaller, stealthy and decentralised operations will replace large, highly visible armoured divisions. Yet if mass and size still matter in the future, the UK’s emphasis on hybrid warfare and influence operations via special forces rather than concentrated fire could leave it dangerously exposed. The decision to increase the ceiling of UK nuclear warheads by 80 shows a resolve to preserve its strategic nuclear deterrent and keep it credible in the face of improved adversary missile defences. This decision has been criticised as being incompatible with the UK’s championing of international non-proliferation efforts, but in view of London’s desire to maintain its leading role in a nuclear alliance like NATO and its close nuclear relationship with the United States, this survivability programme was probably inevitable.

In the domain of soft power, the Review stresses the fact that the UK has the world’s fourth largest diplomatic service. It advocates posting more military attachés around the globe to foster security cooperation and organise military training and education for local forces. It emphasises the UK’s role as a leading provider of overseas aid, although this has been cut by £5bn – from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP – because of the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The Review also foregrounds the UK’s role in promoting human rights and its recent Magnitsky legislation, allowing London to impose sanctions on state officials abusing those rights, as recently evidenced in the case of the Uighurs in China, the military junta in Myanmar or the crackdown by Lukashenko in Belarus. It clearly sees the need for the democracies to win the battle against the authoritarians by out-competing them in terms of economic prosperity and human happiness rather than through military confrontation.

The Review is a solid effort to define the challenges facing the UK in the post-Brexit world

A great deal of the Review in this respect is taken up with a rationale for the UK to build on its science and technology base as exemplified in the development of the first COVID-19 vaccine by Oxford University and the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca. The Review calls this co-creation in terms of describing the close cooperation between universities, science and industry to foster innovation. It also calls for an open Britain able to attract talent from across the world. Yet this comes with a more restrictive immigration policy when it comes to illegal migrants or those seeking asylum in Britain. In future they will need to arrive in the UK to have their claims processed, but it will be harder for them to do so. Perhaps more could have been said about the BBC World Service broadcasting and the cultural activities of the British Council which for long have been the mainstays of British public diplomacy and the medium whereby millions around the world have been connected to British life and values.

In sum, the Review is a solid effort to define the challenges facing the UK in the post-Brexit world and to rebrand the country as a defender of the law-based liberal order. Yet in its much-hyped ambition to present the UK’s current status as the opportunity for a new golden age for the Pax Britannica, it raises – unsurprisingly – far more questions than it answers.

The first is: is the new really new? For people like me who have lived through all the 46 years of the UK’s membership of the EU, it seems evident that the UK never abandoned its global role after acceding to the EU treaties and maintained many of its traditional relationships and commitments. It retained its permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), continued to host summits of the Commonwealth, participated in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement and constantly trumpeted its ‘special relationship’ with the US. Tony Blair sent British forces to Iraq alongside the US in 2003 as the only EU country to do so initially and in the face of stiff opposition from most of the UK’s European partners. The UK stayed in the EU for decades despite participating minimally in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Yet since it departed, it has followed nearly all the major EU diplomatic initiatives, such as sanctions on Russia, China, Belarus and Myanmar, and efforts to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to rescue the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). The UK’s security and defence was never totally bound-up with the EU. Like 20 other EU countries, it was a member of NATO and this gave it a commitment to defend a territory significantly larger than that covered by the EU.

What is really new about this whole exercise once we strip away the political rhetoric?

Consequently, it is difficult to think of anything that the UK has done since leaving the EU in January that it could not have done equally well while remaining in the bloc. It would still have played host to the G7 and COP26, could still have rolled out its vaccination campaign first as health is not an EU policy, and could still have increased its defence budget and sent its new aircraft carrier to the Indo-Pacific. EU countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France are also deploying ships in the region this spring, and France with its overseas territories in Tahiti and New Caledonia is arguably a more consequential Asia-Pacific power. Germany does a lot more trade with China than Britain and has never been constrained by Brussels in this regard. Indeed, just two weeks ago, the EU adopted its own Indo-Pacific strategy which shows that the bloc is just as aware of the opportunities and risks that this region represents for international trade and security as is London. The EU has concluded a trade deal with Japan and an investment agreement with China, even if Beijing’s behaviour makes the prospects for early ratification of this deal by the European Parliament slim. Neither the EU nor the UK seem likely to be able to conclude a trade agreement with the US any time soon to reduce tariffs and improve market access.

Moreover, other EU countries have also maintained their global power ambitions. France is an obvious case with its extensive interests and military interventions in Africa, its role in Lebanon, its francophone community and its UNSC permanent seat. Spain has extensive diplomatic and commercial ties to Latin America. Germany has been a major diplomatic player in the Middle East and Italy has maintained a close watch on Libya and North Africa, to give just a few examples. Even small Denmark patrols Greenland with its special forces and sends its frigates to police shipping in the Gulf. All this makes the narrative of the Brexiteers in London, that it was necessary for the UK to leave the EU in order to become Global Britain, hollow and unconvincing.

The Review, despite the attention it gives to the Indo-Pacific, also underlines that the UK still sees Russia, not China, as its main threat, and its primary defence commitment is to NATO’s collective defence in Eastern Europe. This will be reassuring to Britain’s NATO allies, but with so much continuity on display, it begs the question: what is really new about this whole exercise once we strip away the political rhetoric?

Another question concerns sovereignty. One of the more successful slogans of the ‘Leave’ camp during the 2016 EU referendum campaign was “Take Back Control”. Recovering British sovereignty over all government policy and restoring democratic accountability through the Westminster parliament, were, along with stopping illegal immigration and freedom of movement, the main issues driving voters to put their crosses in the ‘Leave’ box. In negotiating its withdrawal from the EU, the UK was at pains to avoid anything that might compromise this absolute freedom of action, even when it harmed its own economic interests. So the UK refused to remain in the customs union and single market and rejected for a long time any jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. For a while it refused to grant full diplomatic status to the EU ambassador in London for fear of having to recognise the EU as a diplomatic actor in its own right and separate from its member countries.

Sovereignty is like money in the modern world

Yet the Review also recognises the need for the UK to act multilaterally, as well as with partners and coalitions. London is aiming to replace its former trading relationships as part of the EU with a whole series of new bilateral agreements with its new partners, particularly in the Asia-Pacific. Several of these have already been concluded although for the most part they are carbon copies or carry-overs of the EU-country agreements. In the case of the recent UK-India agreement on trade and security, it is a framework, level-of-ambition pact where the details still need to be filled in.

The point here is that the UK cannot re-engage in multilateralism without giving up some of its newfound sovereignty. It is part of the give and take of international negotiation. As the US has found, it is hard to persuade others to give up part of their sovereignty in order to be embedded in a multilateral order if one is not willing to set the example and do the same. Already in withdrawing from the EU, the UK has been forced to grant the EU a maritime border in the Irish Sea in order to prevent a hard land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Delaying its full implementation has already led to the threat of legal proceedings from the European Commission. In NATO too, the UK has put its nuclear deterrent and deployed forces in Estonia at the service of the alliance based on the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. This is not a legally binding treaty commitment, but the UK has put itself in such a central position that it could hardly back out of its solidarity commitment in the event of a conflict. It has taken on this extra risk precisely because it believes that collective burden-sharing increases the security of all allies, thereby providing a positive return on individual investment.

In sum, sovereignty is like money in the modern world. It has no intrinsic value if we are never willing to exchange it for something else, such as a product or service. The advantage of the EU pooling of sovereignty was that the UK had a full share in decision-making and the weight of the EU in negotiations helped to ensure that its members’ interests were protected. Will this be the case when the UK is on its own and up against giants, like the US or China, or regional trading blocs?

The hint is that the UK post-Brexit is now free to take on everything, everywhere

A third question revolves around the Indo-Pacific. This region is now the powerhouse of global growth and trade, but it is also the region where catastrophic conflicts could break out in the years ahead. So it is not surprising that the UK should want to engage more in this region by joining regional trade pacts and stepping up its security cooperation with the Indo-Pacific Quad composed of the US, India, Japan and Australia. But an aircraft carrier does not make a strategy.

On the one hand, the deployment of the Queen Elizabeth and plans to keep a frigate on station in Singapore suggest an ambition to take on a long-term security role alongside the US in balancing Chinese naval power and upholding freedom of navigation. On the other hand, the Review is quite mild and moderate on China and clearly does not want to alienate it as an economic partner, particularly thinking about inward Chinese investment in the UK’s nuclear power industry and high speed rail network. In this respect the UK’s stance on China is very much in line with the EU’s approach, which is to push back against Chinese bullying and human rights abuses but to seek cooperation on trade and investments and on global issues like climate change whenever possible – and on a reciprocal basis.

Indo-Pacific strategy is complex as it means balancing a large number of competing priorities and policy instruments across a large number of countries – some friendly, some adversaries and many in the middle. No one can go it alone, least of all a middle-sized power such as the UK. The US and the EU will be the major outside players and London has to interact with both of them. Yet how will London position itself and in pursuit of which objectives and priorities – essentially with or against China? How many hard commitments beyond the occasional show of the flag is the UK willing and able to take on, given the enduring priority of NATO against a resurgent Russia? These are questions that still need answers.

This is part of a broader issue which is about setting priorities. The world is a big place and the challenges and problems that it throws our way every day are almost endless. The Review provides good and relevant analysis about scores of old and new threats, opportunities on multiple continents and tips for building stronger and more resilient democracies. The hint is that the UK post-Brexit is now free to take on everything, everywhere. Even a superpower like the US might find this too much of an overload. Yet Brexit has not increased the size of the British economy, even if this is a future hope of Brexiteers, nor increased British power and influence simply through the act of separating from Europe.

Domestic politics will always constrain foreign policy options and global ambitions

On the contrary, many in both the UK and mainland Europe fear that it will diminish that power over time. Middle-sized powers generally succeed by selecting certain issues and engagements, like Canada on land mines, Norway on the Middle East peace process or France on the Sahel. Priorities are about what we should do, but also what we can do within our means and capabilities. The corollary of the Review is that the UK needs to narrow down the spectrum into a more concise strategy of where the country needs to go over the next decade. The ‘global’ label is frankly unhelpful here as it almost commits the UK in advance to stick its nose into every issue that jumps to the top of the media agenda, temporary or otherwise.

All this said, what has struck most European readers of the Review is the almost total absence of references to the EU institutions. The UK’s departure from the EU does not in itself delegitimise Brussels or make it suddenly irrelevant. As my colleague at Friends of Europe, Paul Taylor, has written, it seems absurd for London to give the impression that “it has mates everywhere except in Brussels”, and all the more so as the EU institutions are keen to pursue cooperation with the UK, particularly in the foreign policy, sanctions and regional security areas.

The Review makes clear that London is an adept of de Gaulle’s Europe des Patries and will pursue first and foremost cooperation bilaterally, especially with France and Germany or in regional, ad hoc frameworks like Macron’s European Intervention Initiative. All this can be helpful in keeping the UK closely enmeshed in Europe and preserving both physical and intellectual interoperability with its main continental partners. Yet the freezing out of the EU institutions seems odd and leaves the reader with the impression that it was dictated by ideology and a burning need to present Brexit as win-win on every issue rather than inevitably as a more nuanced affair. This is in sharp contrast to the other parts of the Review where the authors have shown intellectual rigour and a realistic, sober analysis. Yet the EU hole in the middle, clearly driven by the imperative of not upsetting the Brexiteers in the Conservative Party or the anti-EU segments of the press, risks undermining the credibility of the entire effort by giving it an ideological, domestic politics gloss. All the more so at a time when partners that the UK hopes to reach out to, such as the US, Canada and Norway, are joining the EU’s defence capabilities programmes such as PESCO.

In the final analysis, domestic politics will always constrain foreign policy options and global ambitions, as Winston Churchill found out when he was turfed out of office by Labour in the July 1945 general election. Asked to choose between the Pax Britannica abroad and the New Jerusalem at home, the voters did not hesitate for a moment. Today Boris Johnson has to contend with last week’s Scottish election result which saw the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) returned to power for a fourth time with a mandate to push for a second referendum.

The UK is more fragmented today than it has been in a long time

It is one of the great ironies of history that we are now hearing Johnson use all the arguments to keep Scotland in the Union that he vigorously opposed when he led the ‘Leave’ campaign during the EU referendum. ‘Better together’, ‘think of the economic damage’, ‘you are too small to count on your own’, and so on. But if a dose of ‘take back control’ and secessionism can be good for English nationalists, then why not also for Scottish nationalists? Wales has stayed red while England has turned increasingly Tory blue. Northern Ireland has been fragilised by Brexit with Loyalist commitments feeling forgotten and Republican communities looking more hopefully towards a united Ireland. Vis-a-vis the EU, Northern Ireland has a different status to the rest of the UK, so full Brexit has remained incomplete.

In sum, the UK is more fragmented today than it has been in a long time. Boris Johnson owes his political success to former Labour voters in the Midlands and northern England, attracted by his promises to level up their economic condition compared to the more prosperous south. This will need massive investment in jobs and infrastructure in an economy already in the red through state spending to get the country through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In conclusion, Global Britain may soon end up just being about Britain itself: keeping the country together in the midst of the political and social convulsions within its four nations. Back in 2016, 52% of British voters thought that it was a good idea to separate from 27 of their closest friends and partners 22 miles away on the other side of the Strait of Dover. Being part of the EU may not have been the panacea for all of the UK’s problems and challenges, yet it is difficult to identify an instance where it has been better off on the outside and more likely to face its challenges successfully.

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