There is little reason for the PM to attend the Munich Security Conference

Without a developed strategy for Global Britain his presence would be wasted

February 15, 2020
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, speaks on the first day of the 56th Munich Security Conference. Photo: Tobias Hase/dpa
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, speaks on the first day of the 56th Munich Security Conference. Photo: Tobias Hase/dpa

This weekend, some of the world’s leading political and business figures travel to Germany to attend the Munich security council—an annual conference that discusses the world’s most pressing security challenges. The guest list is always impressive. This year it includes French President Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This is where Theresa May delivered her speech on UK-EU security cooperation in 2018. The then defence secretary Gavin Williamson attended in 2019.

But this year, there will be no British prime minister and no UK secretaries of state. That is sensible. Leaders will want to discuss what the UK’s global role is and where it goes next. Without a clear strategy for Global Britain, there is little reason for the prime minister to attend.

Boris Johnson coined the term Global Britain when foreign secretary in 2017. But almost three years down the line, there is still confusion about what this means. That has been compounded by the lack of debate on the future of the UK’s foreign policy since the referendum.

In the Queen’s Speech in December, the government spoke of an integrated security and defence review. This review will clarify how the government sees the future of the UK’s defence, security, development and foreign policy, what resources it has available and the spending needed to carry out its global ambition.

James Cleverly, newly appointed junior minister at the Foreign Office, will at least be attending this weekend, as will senior officials from the FCO and Ministry of Defence. Some of the best brainstorming happens in the margins. They can gauge what appetite there is for Britain to do things differently, including forming new partnerships. This will be important as the government prepares its review, whose publication, and subsequent debates in parliament, will help with scrutiny and debate over the UK’s aims.

The UK has the standing to take a strategic pause. It is regarded as an important player and, for now, Brexit has done nothing to reduce its reputation in this respect. It is a powerful convener. For example, it hosted the Nato leaders’ summit in December and is chairing the COP26 climate summit this year. It has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and is an influential member of the G7/G20, Nato and other multilateral organisations. It has embassies in almost every country in the world.

This will continue after Brexit. But the government can best exercise influence in international organisations if its aims are clear—and if it can demonstrate that it has the capabilities and resources to act on its pledges.

So far, the UK has continued to align itself with the EU and member states over foreign policy—including the decision to stick by the nuclear deal with Iran (while recognising the need for renewed dialogue) and maintaining a presence in the Middle East. But Brexit does mean the government wants to do things differently. The world needs a strong UK. The government must identify its priorities: which crises it wants to tackle, what resources it needs and who it will want to work with. Another important aspect, and one often overlooked in foreign policy debates, is how the government’s ambitions fit with public opinion. If public support is crucial for war, it is also crucial for foreign engagement.

The Munich conference offers an important platform for leaders to project their country or company’s role in tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems. But without further clarity on the UK’s aims, the prime minister can afford to remain in London.