Southeast Asia

Nudge, nudge … UK’s new role

Britain must seek friendly divorce from Europe, says Kishore Mahbubani

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at the UN Headquarters in New York

Brexit, if it finally happens, will be a disaster for Britain. There are no ifs and buts about this. The only question that remains is: can the UK carve out a new global role that adds value to it and the world? The answer for the British is: Yes, we can.

There is one vacuum in the global order that Britain can fill. What the world lacks is a first-rate middle power that can help to nudge the great powers in the right direction. The great powers, almost by definition, are focused on the other great powers. A new global contest is emerging between the world’s No 1 power, the United States, and the world’s No 1 emerging power, China. Britain will always be an ally of the US. But a good ally can speak truth to power. The UK can nudge both the US and the world order in the right direction. Three opportunities beckon for Britain.

First, the only remaining symbol of erstwhile great-powerhood that Britain retains is the UN Security Council veto. It, therefore, has a vital national interest in preserving and strengthening the United Nations. By contrast, the US has perceived its interests to lie in a weakened UN. Yet, as the US slides steadily towards becoming No 2 in the world, Bill Clinton has wisely advised his fellow Americans that they should strengthen a rules-based order ‘that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world’. In short, there could be a convergence of interests between the US and Britain in strengthening multilateralism.

The big problem here is that it is difficult to change established mindsets. Over the years, the American establishment has developed an aversion to multilateral rules and institutions. Washington DC will now have to be slowly and patiently educated that the best way to nudge China into abiding by multilateral rules and processes is for the US to adopt them first. It is manifestly absurd for Washington to call on China to abide by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea when the US itself has failed to ratify it. As a good friend, the British offer the best prospect of nudging the US to change direction.

The second opportunity is vis-à-vis Europe. Paradoxically, while it was inside the belly of the European Union, the UK had limited influence on the EU’s foreign policy direction as each decision was a compromise between German, French, British and the others national interests. This meant that the political decisions taken represented the lowest common denominator. This crippled the EU’s ability to take wise, long-term decisions.

‘The UK should carve out a role as a good friend, whispering wise advice’

For example, the EU could have anticipated and forestalled the refugee crisis and the migrant surge from North Africa by promoting vigorous economic development across the Mediterranean 30 years ago. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, prevented a surge of Mexican migrants into the US. The EU should have signed a similar free trade agreement across the Mediterranean.

While Britain was in the EU, it could not advise the EU to take bold imaginative steps. Now it can. Yes, there will be resistance, especially after a bitter Brexit divorce. But if the UK were to slowly and persistently demonstrate that it is a good friend of the EU by providing advice Brussels needs to hear, it will gradually build up valuable political capital there. Not all acrimonious divorces end up in bitter enmity. The UK should patiently carve out a role as a good friend whispering wise, long-term advice to the EU.

A third opportunity lies with the Commonwealth. Here we should have no illusions. The Commonwealth remains, by and large, a moribund organization. It cannot be woken up to play a substantive role on the world stage. But it could play an important symbolic role. There are very few clubs where the members are white and black, brown and yellow and all other shades in between.

Despite this magnificent ethnic and cultural diversity, the Commonwealth members are able to have a civilized discourse with each other. A certain Anglo-Saxon culture of openness, tolerance and respect for differences has infused the Commonwealth family and enabled people of different cultures and civilizations to live and work with each other.

This Commonwealth spirit goes against the grain of new populist trends. In this world, a symbol of hope needs to be strengthened and revitalised. The UK can do this with the Commonwealth.

If it seizes these three opportunities, the UK could well enhance its global position and role after Brexit. A quick check of other countries of similar size and weight will demonstrate that the UK is uniquely positioned to perform these roles. For centuries, Pax Britannica used to rule the waves. Now, all the accumulated political wisdom in London, which is the result of centuries of deft diplomacy and crisis management, can be used to serve global interests.

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