Five Foreign Policy Questions for the UK’s Next Prime Minister

Even if most don’t get to vote in the Conservative leadership election, the public deserves serious answers on the foreign policy plans of those who want to lead the country.

Expert comment Published 18 June 2019 Updated 16 July 2019 4 minute READ

Thomas Raines

Former Director, Europe Programme

10 Downing Street. Photo: Getty Images.

10 Downing Street. Photo: Getty Images.

In a month’s time, the UK will have a new prime minister. The campaign has been dominated by candidates’ views on how to deliver Britain’s withdrawal from the EU by October, alongside some discussion of domestic issues.

But relatively little has been said about international affairs, despite the fact that foreign policy questions are becoming a more partisan issue and Britain is facing crucial questions around Brexit and the wider international context. These will be waiting for whoever finds themselves in Number 10 on 22 July.

1. How can Britain influence Europe from outside the EU?

Theresa May was fond of saying that Britain is leaving the EU but not leaving Europe. Britain cannot change its geography. It will continue to share many strategic and security interests with the rest of the continent, but it will be outside of Europe’s central political and economic project. A new PM will not only have to negotiate Britain’s new relationship with the EU, but also think about how to influence it as a third country.

An aspect of this will be finding a new way to work with the EU on foreign, security and defence policy that meets the need for autonomy on both sides. How deep this relationship is or how institutionalized it will be is yet to be negotiated and can be shaped by the next PM.

The UK needs to decide how ambitiously it wants to engage with the new defence agenda in the EU (particularly its industrial components), and how to balance these with key bilateral relationships like France and Germany. Amid uncertainty about American security guarantees and Russian aggression, the next PM must also consider what Britain’s security role in Europe should be and NATO’s place within that.

Beyond conventional foreign policy issues, Britain is also going to be heavily shaped and influenced by the rule-making power of the EU, and how the world’s largest market regulates itself, from energy to financial services, consumer products and the environment.

The UK will need a strategy to influence the EU from the outside – something Swiss, Norwegians and Americans will acknowledge is no easy feat. This could include significantly increasing its diplomatic footprint across Europe, working closely with the UK’s private and non-profit sectors, utilizing Britain’s technical expertise in areas like sanctions, and creating new ad hoc groupings to share perspectives and ideas, building on examples like the Northern Future Forum.

2. Should Britain do business with President Trump?

President Trump represents a fundamental challenge to Britain: an American president whose belligerent unilateralism runs counter to many of Britain’s foreign policy objectives. His frequent and often shameless diplomatic faux pas – from proposing Nigel Farage be the British ambassador to his dog-whistle attacks on the mayor of London – are compounded by real differences of substance on issues like trade, climate change and nuclear non-proliferation.

A new prime minister must decide how to manage relations with the US administration, whether to challenge or condemn a US president when he acts against Britain’s interests, or use flattery or quieter diplomacy to seek to influence him. Theresa May’s strategy of staying politically close to the president and playing to his ego has yielded little in policy terms, though other world leaders have fared little better.

A new PM will face some uncomfortable choices. Will they continue to defend the Iran nuclear deal alongside European allies while the US continues to undermine it? Do they believe a trade deal with America is desirable or achievable with the current administration, and what are they willing to sacrifice to achieve it? Is the American security guarantee for Europe secure with Donald Trump as president? Judgements on these questions should inform Britain’s wider strategy, and its objectives for a future relationship with the European Union.

3. Should Britain prioritize economics or security in its relations with China?

Britain faces its own version of the challenge that many countries face – how to balance the economic and investment benefits of a positive relationship with China with concerns about repressive domestic politics and a more assertive Chinese role regionally and globally. This tension has become more acute for two reasons.

First, the economic dislocation of leaving the EU may create a greater reliance on Chinese trade and investment. China is already a major investor in the UK. If Brexit proves to be disorderly, Britain’s need may be all the greater (though China faces economic headwinds as well). Some in Brussels even fear that the economic difficulties of Brexit may make the UK a soft touch for emerging powers from which it seeks inward investment and market access.

Second, the deterioration in US–China relations means the UK may come under increasing pressure from the United States to take a tough line with China. The controversy over Huawei’s role in delivering 5G networks may become a more regular feature of transatlantic debates, with Britain facing Chinese economic pressure on one side and a squeeze from America over security issues on the other, without the weight of the EU behind it.

A new prime minister should consider whether the UK’s interests are served by a security role in east Asia, and whether it has the capability to play one.

The UK remains a party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements. The Royal Navy has conducted freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, prompting a rebuke from Beijing. It has also taken steps to deepen security ties with Japan.

But the UK government has struggled to present a coherent position. Some cabinet ministers have sought to open doors to the Chinese market at the same time as others announced their intentions to send aircraft carriers to the Pacific. The next PM will need to find a balance between China and the US, or accept the consequences of more directly taking sides on disputes about trade, technology, and security.

4. How can the contradictions between UK foreign and domestic policy be reconciled?

One of the many problems with the vague and unhelpful slogan ‘Global Britain’ is how it jars with many aspects of domestic policy. This incoherence reduces Britain’s foreign policy credibility and effectiveness.

Britain has actively supported the UN-led Yemen peace process while continuing to support Saudi Arabia’s military campaign through arms sales. Britain wants to build a new ambitious independent trade policy while restricting the migration that is crucial for services trade. British foreign secretaries trumpet the UK’s soft power while the Home Office deports members of the Windrush generation, bungles EU citizenship applications and sets unreasonable burdens for many people seeking visas simply to visit the country.

Global universities are celebrated while international students had their post-study visas cut (a policy that sensibly is likely to be reversed). Britain advocates international tax compliance and transparency while not taking robust steps to regulate the tax haven role played by crown dependencies and overseas territories.

A new prime minister has the chance to get to grips with these inconsistencies and develop foreign and domestic policies which are more coherent and self-re-enforcing.

5. At what level should Britain’s international ambitions be funded?

Successive governments have celebrated the fact the UK is the only Western country to spend 2% of GDP on defence and 0.7% on development. However, this masks some real pressures in the system.

There are significant problems in the defence budget and a growing gap between commitments and committed funds. Meanwhile, the funding of Britain’s diplomacy has been cut by successive governments – Labour, Conservative and coalition – for much of the last 20 years. Numerous bodies have highlighted the problems facing the overstretched and underfunded Foreign Office. Where would defence and diplomacy sit in the new prime minister’s hierarchy of priorities?

The problem is not purely one of funding, but the gap between ambitions, rhetoric and resources. It is not sustainable for British ministers to trumpet Britain’s global ambitions while not properly funding the tools of its influence abroad.

It would be reasonable and understandable for a new prime minister to adjust that ambition and tone down the rhetoric, or alternatively to address resource pressures by investing in diplomacy and defence. But that choice should be informed by a sober reflection on Britain’s international position and interests as it leaves the EU. Brexit offers a chance to revisit assumptions that have guided British policy for a generation. A new prime minister should seize this opportunity.

A realistic vision for the future

All these issues will be more pronounced if the UK leaves the EU with no deal at the end of October. ‘No deal’ would be not simply an economic shock but a diplomatic rupture that will colour the UK’s capacity to negotiate a new relationship with the EU, which will be the first order of business after a ‘no deal’ exit. Trust will be in short supply.

Even if they don’t get to vote on the new prime minister, the public deserves serious answers to these and other questions from the men who want to lead the country. Not the platitudes of ‘Global Britain’ or a reflexive and unexamined British exceptionalism, but a serious, realistic assessment of how Britain will cope with the disruptions of leaving the EU and how it might thrive outside the regional bloc it has been a part of for more than 45 years.