Britain must get real about its place in the world

The UK needs a more sober and trustworthy approach if it is to reinvent its global role as a medium power ‘with extra clout’, writes John Kampfner.

The World Today
6 minute READ

John Kampfner

Former Executive Director, UK in the World Initiative

When two dozen experts from around the world gathered at a secluded venue outside London this autumn my job was to do what Brits are traditionally bad at doing: to listen. Coinciding with the dying days of Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership, the timing was hardly propitious. I gave them 15 minutes to guffaw.

The discussions ranged from security to science to ‘soft power’ and beyond. The participants included former ministers from Latin America, Hong Kong dissidents, Europeans of various stripes, an  Indian banker, younger contributions from Jamaica and Saudi Arabia, alongside policymakers and commentators from the United States and France. In all, 18 countries were represented.

This moment formed part of the research by Chatham House’s new UK in the World Initiative. The project’s aim is to imagine Britain’s role in the world in 2030 – far enough in the future for any major shift in direction to be discerned, yet not so far to be theoretical. By that point the next government will have served a full five-year term and had the chance to leave its mark. Encapsulated in one sentence, the conclusion of this group would be roughly this: if Britain looks at itself in the mirror, modernizes and changes some of its behaviours, it can still play a significant role in the world.

Within this context, Britain must come to terms with an identity fitting for its new reality of no longer enjoying an influential position within the European Union. 

A ‘medium power’ with extra clout 

One term doing the rounds is ‘medium power’. Comparisons are drawn with the likes of Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, South Africa or Poland. Another is Turkey, which has assumed an outsized role across the Middle East and into the Russia/Ukraine conflict. 

A muscular global foreign agenda requires an economy that can lift the weight of its ambitions

‘Medium power’ invites the idea of agility and flexibility, something ministers are fond of post-Brexit. Yet it may not reflect Britain’s post-war role based in its permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Nor does it represent its recognition as a nuclear power or its leading role in the G7, G20, the Commonwealth and Nato. These positions have given Britain a leverage far greater than it would otherwise have enjoyed. Call it a medium power with extra clout. 

But a muscular global foreign and security agenda requires an economy that can lift the weight of its ambitions. Already the pledge to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP looks shaky.

Every five years, the government embarks on its own future-scoping. Called the Integrated Review, it sets out foreign policy, security and defence strategy. Although the current review, published in March 2021, produced a prescient prediction of the dangers posed by Russia, it was broadly optimistic, emphasizing the strengths and assets of the UK, with a stress on science. Littered with hubristic language such as ‘world-beating’, it was designed to demonstrate that, post-Brexit, ‘Global Britain’ was just that, a global power.

In the time it has taken to lurch from Boris Johnson to Rishi Sunak via Liz Truss a greater sense of reality appears to have set in. The civil servants who wrote the original document are in the midst of a ‘refresh’. The key issues are: the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; China’s increasing strategic challenge; migration; public health and fears of a new pandemic; and the twin challenges of the climate emergency and energy resilience. 

These problems require international cooperation, yet come at a time of increased great power rivalry. In an environment in which autocracy is on the rise, populism an ever-present danger and democracy is under intense pressure – not least in the US –  it is important to ask how the UK can wield most influence and maximize impact.  

Britain’s support for Ukraine has earned it plaudits. In the words of one Nordic diplomat, the UK ‘is in a league of its own’ when it comes to security across northern Europe. The role it can play beyond the continent as the western gaze turns eastward needs to be more clearly defined. 

Last year’s trilateral defence capability partnership between the US, Australia and the UK – known as Aukus –  provides a mechanism for joint investment in innovations such as in artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. There are discussions about extending this arrangement to other countries such as Japan. And the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada is as robust as ever. Yet so far Britain’s ‘tilt’ could be criticized as being performative, such as the deployment in 2021 of the first carrier strike group, led by the new aircraft carrier HMS Elizabeth.

Britain has lurched from embracing China to seeing it as a military, diplomatic and economic threat

Another criticism is its inconsistency towards China. Over the past decade it has gone from welcoming it with open arms, encouraging investment including in critical infrastructure such as nuclear power stations, to seeing Beijing as a potential military, diplomatic and economic threat. 

The realization is finally dawning at Westminster that the country will struggle to maximize what influence is has while relations with the European Union are  shaky. 

The starting point is sorting the Northern Ireland Protocol, the trading arrangement negotiated during Brexit talks. Britain’s decision to introduce legislation to override a deal it had entered into has infuriated Brussels and frustrated the Biden White House. If, and it remains an if, a deal can be found, a number of related partnerships can be secured and other tensions allayed. 

The illusion of quick and easy trade deals 

One of the illusory promises of Brexit was the ability of the UK to cut quick-and-easy trade deals. It has not happened with the EU, by far its largest partner, nor the US. Considerable effort, and resource, has been expended on devising an independent trade policy. Once again, the results are limited. Joining the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership is unlikely to add much, especially as countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Japan are already covered by bilateral accords.

The government’s own figures estimate the potential boost to GDP at less than a tenth of one per cent. Deals such as these, many of which have been roll-overs from Britain’s time in the EU, are more a demonstration of alliance-building. Mercantilism is not a new phenomenon in foreign policy. For Britain it is now essential, with trade deals acting as a means of leveraging influence with countries it had not prioritized before Brexit. 

Much of Brexit’s Global Britain dream was based on reviving deeper relationships with the Commonwealth. Again, this is proving harder than originally envisaged. On March 2, barely a week after the invasion of Ukraine, the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia was passed by an overwhelming majority. However, it received 35 abstentions, among them three important Commonwealth states – India, Pakistan and South Africa.

British influence was seen that day to have very clear limits. There may well have been specific failures of western diplomacy that led to the abstentions. A number of Global South countries complained their vote was being taken for granted, that they were being strong-armed into voting for the ‘good’ side.  

Yet there is a more important longer-term question that the West, and Britain in particular, has to face. Countries in this nascent non-aligned movement are making it clear they do not belong to one camp. They will give all suitors a dose of their own realpolitik medicine, and they will respond when their needs are not met.

Hence, the West’s failure to raise adequate funding for the Covax facility and its blocking of attempts to share vaccine technologies have played into China’s hands. The cut in the international development budget, from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, has further harmed credibility. It is hardly surprising that when it comes to telling Commonwealth partners to fight the good fight for democracy against authoritarianism, it struggles to get a hearing.

Britain’s special influence in the Global South 

Our two-day gathering paid particular attention to the increasing importance of major powers from the Global South. They noted that Britain’s role in the Commonwealth gives it special influence. This may have waned with the Queen’s death, but what will matter over the next decade, some argued, will be a different expression of symbolism. One intriguing suggestion was of the business case for a parliamentary apology for colonization, just as the Australians have done. There was little chance, I countered, that either a Tory or Labour leader would take the political risk. To which the response was: economics and foreign policy might just force them to do it. 

Issues of history and race are multi-faceted. On the debit side, Britain’s handling of migration has enraged countries as disparate as India and Albania. On the credit side, Sunak’s arrival at No 10 has reinforced a belief broadly held that Britain ‘does diversity’ reasonably well.

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Asked to list Britain’s key assets, our group focused on two areas: defence and security, and ‘soft power’. The UK continues to be associated predominantly with its strengths in science, technology, the university sector and culture. Paradoxically, its own government has often failed to appreciate this; indeed, a number of recent actions have undermined this strength. 

Britain is hardly enhanced by its absence from the US-EU Trade and Technology Council, the Horizon research partnership or the Erasmus student exchange. The creative industries provide more than £100 billion, but rarely get a look in. All these selling points are helped by the good fortune of the English language. 

The consistent de-funding of the BBC diminishes British influence just when it is most needed

The consistent de-funding of the BBC is a strategic error, diminishing British influence just when it is most needed to counter disinformation from authoritarian states such as China and Russia. Fixing problems such as these are within the government’s grasp. The case is not hard to make.

At a different gathering of the UK in the World project, I asked David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary, to offer thoughts on how Britain could develop a new way of engaging internationally. Britain, he said, must find a new way of engagement that avoids both self-delusion and declinism. This sums it up well.

Britain could still play a significant world role in this era of upheaval. To do so, it needs to start feeling comfortable with what it is: a post-colonial European nation, but one with a certain global role. There is nothing ignoble in that. 

At our international gathering there was a discernible optimism. Many spoke of a goodwill that has diminished thanks to Brexit and to more recent political and economic turmoil. But, they insisted, this goodwill had in no way died. 

When defining if there were a single role the UK could play, one participant said it could yet be ‘the world’s preferred partner’; another, ‘the leading defender of democracy in the world’.  A particularly beguiling formulation was this: the world’s informer and educator, the world’s convenor, the champion for law and global order. And what was needed to get there? 

The responses were almost unanimous: a reputation for reliability and trustworthiness, to be more sober about what it can do − and what it can’t.

Read more: the EU and Britain can still be friends, says Catherine Fieschi