Picking Up the Broken Pieces of UK Foreign Policy

The challenge is to define a credible new role for a medium-sized international power.

Expert comment Updated 26 January 2021 Published 14 September 2020 2 minute READ

Does the UK have a foreign policy? The failures in Iraq and Afghanistan curbed our Blairite appetite for intervention. Then the Brexit referendum and the advent of Donald Trump as US president upended the European and Atlantic pillars of our strategy. The UK has been outflanked by Russian opportunism, and on China it is confused about the balance of security risk and economic opportunity. Meanwhile, the world is accelerating into a dangerous, bipolar era of geopolitics.

The claim that leaving the EU would open a highway to British global influence was always hollow. Since 2016, the UK’s influence has declined; our forces are barely present in international theatres of conflict and, as recent days have again shown, the Brexit soap opera undermines our diplomacy and soft power. So far, there are only glimmers of a new direction.

On issues such as Iran, climate change and excluding Russia from the G7, the UK has stayed close to EU positions. Elsewhere, it has taken a tougher stance on China and Hong Kong that is aligned more closely with the US and the Five Eyes intelligence community, which includes Australia, Canada and New Zealand. There is also a renewed focus on human rights.

However, this does not add up to a coherent strategy. Getting it to do so is the job of this autumn’s ‘integrated review’ of security, defence, development and foreign policy. The timing is driven by the government’s comprehensive spending review, which — bizarrely — means they will reach conclusions without knowing what sort of deal, if any, we will strike with the EU, or who will be the next US president.

The challenge is to define a credible and distinctive role for a freestanding medium power with strong traditions of diplomacy, defence, intelligence, trade and aid. Not everything has changed; although unmoored from the EU, the UK remains a significant player in Nato, the UN Security Council and other international organisations.

The review needs to start by deciding what matters most. A sensible list would include avoiding conflict between the US and China, maintaining global prosperity, preventing nuclear proliferation, addressing environmental damage and climate change, and shoring up a multilateral system of international rules. There will always be urgent problems, and it matters how we respond to them. But a foreign policy should be geared to enduring aims.

On each priority, the review must examine how the UK, outside the EU, can make a difference. Sometimes it may find a specific national role, such as convening next year’s COP26 climate conference. Nine times out of 10, however, the route to our national goals will lie, as before, through leveraging relationships with others.

Three relationships matter most. We need a plan for the US, whoever wins the election. If Boris Johnson is the European leader closest to Donald Trump, how will the British prime minister turn that to his advantage if Trump wins? On the other hand, a Joe Biden victory would better serve our wider interest in a reinvigorated Euro-Atlantic community — although, under this government, that would also weaken our hand in Washington compared with Berlin and Paris. What is the plan to counter that?

Second, we need clear thinking on China. In the new bipolar geopolitics, the UK should stand firmly with the US — although not to the extent of allowing Washington to dictate our policy, or of cutting necessary and useful links with China. We need to decide on a strategic objective. Are we preparing for lasting great-power confrontation or even conflict; or are we working for a more sophisticated global equilibrium? In either case, who will be our best international partners?

Evidently, this requires a constructive relationship with Europe, with which the UK has the most obvious shared interests. Bilateral relationships will be valuable, as will the E3 group of the UK, France and Germany. But our reluctance to negotiate a foreign policy relationship with the EU collectively is an error.

When the brainy Whitehall strategists have put down their pens, the review will then, as always, descend into a hard-nosed haggle over money. There are already large holes in Ministry of Defence procurement budgets; the COVID-induced recession will make things worse. With new priorities to fund, such as cybersecurity, the argument will be less about spending more than gouging out savings to redistribute.

Finally, the review must look at delivery. As Downing Street has disempowered ministries, Whitehall’s foreign policy machinery has become over-centralized. Trade and economic considerations should have more weight. Delivery of the new strategy should also be led by a reformed and renamed Department for International Affairs that has leadership on foreign, development and trade policy, oversees external intelligence and works closely with the Ministry of Defence.

Only with such clarity on priorities, relationships and resources can we craft the coherent foreign policy post-Brexit Britain needs. The task will be easier if the UK and EU reach a deal in December.

This article was originally published in the Financial Times.