“Global Britain” has become a government slogan—but there's little strategy to back it up

A recent House of Lords report provides clues on how to fill the strategic void

January 09, 2019
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

The government’s idea of “Global Britain” as the concept for UK foreign policy after Brexit has so far amounted more to a slogan than to a strategy. The new Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has made speeches about it, most recently in Singapore, but he has only added to the fog by inventing a further slogan—Britain as the “invisible chain”—without adding much in the way of strategy.

However, the recent report of the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations entitled “UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order” goes quite some way towards filling the void. It puts forward a solid analysis of the many forces of change that are now affecting international relations, and makes many helpful recommendations on how UK foreign policy should respond to them. As well as covering the obvious foreign policy topics such as the US, Russia, China, India, the major international institutions such as the UN, NATO and the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, the report also makes a serious attempt to analyse the technological challenges to international relations. The report makes specific recommendations for British policy towards all of these issues. And it puts forward some fundamental principles for policy such as the importance of the UK continuing to uphold the rules-based international order and the rule of law, human and civil rights and western democratic values.

Nevertheless, the Lords’ report falls short of offering a full prescription for a “Global Britain” strategy in two main ways. First, the report avoids any analysis of the implications of Brexit for UK foreign policy and, presumably for the same reason, also avoids any analysis of the political shifts taking place in Europe, such as the widening struggle between the proponents of pro-European liberalism and the growing numbers of practitioners of populist nationalism. In short, the report has nothing to say about future UK policy towards our closest neighbours and most like-minded partners.

But the first priority for the Global Britain strategy must surely be to restore trust and influence with these European partners. In the early years after Brexit we shall need to go out of our way to show EU countries that we share their problems—migration, global warming, Russian pressure on Eastern Europe—and are ready to contribute to dealing with them, whether on the ground, in our bilateral relations or at the UN and other multilateral institutions.

At the same time we need to draw the lessons of the Brexit negotiation, above all that the EU will generally give priority to protecting the integrity of its legal order and the mutual solidarity of its member states. Britain must get used to the idea that we are no longer in the club. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have influence in the EU. But it does mean that we have to work harder than in the past to have useful things to say at the formative stages of EU policy thinking and to stay in close touch with policy makers in the 27 capitals. British ministers, not just officials, will need to make sure that they keep their EU opposite numbers on speed dial and that they keep their links open and active.

Second, the Lords’ report suffers from the common fallacy that foreign policy is about foreigners. It is also about us. British foreign policy will depend on some important conditioning factors at home if it is to succeed abroad. Most important, Britain must regain its economic performance, not only to keep the respect of our partners and adversaries but also to generate the public revenue needed to support an active foreign policy. We must continue to fund our aid programme at 0.7 per cent of GDP (to retreat from this now would be a terrible admission of weakness); we must rebuild the capabilities of our armed forces; and we must fund an ambitious and active diplomatic capability.

Furthermore, the government must give substance to its repeated pledges to remain open to the world by establishing a post-Brexit immigration policy that sustains our open business, academic and cultural life. Of course we must decide for ourselves who should come into Britain, for how long and under what conditions, and we should enforce what we decide. But the system that we set in place needs to meet the needs of all the important actors and institutions in Britain to nourish our national life with a full diet of imported ideas, talents and skills. Furthermore, from tourists to business tycoons, foreign visitors must be treated with more respect, flexibility and humanity than has recently been the practice. We can’t win friends abroad if we make a hostile environment for them at home.

If post-Brexit Britain falls short on these conditioning factors, which are essentially in our own gift, our foreign policy will be less credible as a result.

The Lords’ report puts forward many good ideas for British foreign policy in the new age, but they could do with some prioritisation. For example, it is right to argue that Britain must continue to support international institutions including their reform and modernisation. But we should think about the cases that matter most to us and where reform may be most achievable.

Two good candidates for early attention could be NATO and the WTO. In NATO the UK is well placed as a major defence contributor to show the US that it is not shouldering the burden alone and to encourage the Europeans that it’s worth their while to take more responsibility for the continent’s security. NATO will also be a good operating base for the UK in its future dealings with the EU on security and defence issues.

For its part, the WTO will be a crucial forum for a future UK independent trade policy. But it is not working well now. It needs to adapt further to the new global importance of trade in services by building on the very basic agreements on services achieved nearly 30 years ago. And it needs to find new and faster ways of handling trade disputes that have the confidence of all the major trading blocs ie the USA as well as China and the EU. Britain cannot achieve these things on its own. But, given sufficient effort and high level attention on our part, it can galvanise effort, generate ideas and help to build consensus.

The Lords’ report is also right to draw attention to the importance of Britain’s “soft power” (indeed it places the UK at the head of the international league table). This is not a traditional field for governmental activity and any official role to promote Britain’s soft power would need to be very delicately managed for fear of inadvertently turning gold into clay. But the time has come for UK foreign policy to recognise Britain’s strengths in this field and think about how it can support national success, rather than simply continuing to leave it to the private sector, the universities and the arts. The promised government strategy for soft power needs to be pushed forward and the Foreign Office in particular needs to think carefully about how it can project and reinforce soft power overseas.

The report rightly argues that the UK must continue to stand up for the rule of law and human and civil rights in international affairs. It recognises that this can present awkward dilemmas for policy towards important countries. Traditionally, UK policy makers have addressed these dilemmas pragmatically and this will no doubt continue. But these dilemmas risk becoming more acute as post-Brexit Britain becomes more vulnerable to retaliation from upset partners (cf Saudi Arabia’s recent punitive actions against Canada in retaliation for criticisms of the human rights record). There is a case for thinking through these issues more systematically in order to elaborate some guiding principles for policy makers and for parliamentary debate.

The Lords’ report supports the Foreign Office’s efforts to build up the diplomatic skills of its staff, but comments specifically only on language skills. A broader agenda is needed. It should develop “country studies” to accompany language teaching so that staff can go to their posts with a fuller understanding of the cultural, economic and historical backgrounds to current realities. Second, after Brexit the FCO needs to rebuild its expertise in international trade and economic policy. And thirdly, the FCO needs to develop its in-house expertise in international Faith issues (primarily but not exclusively Islam) given their proven role as a driving force in the 21st century for cultural identities, conflict and policy issues.

And finally, ministers need to be ready to travel more energetically than in the past to keep up with the competition from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and others in promoting the government’s policies, building bilateral relationships and winning trade opportunities. Inevitably, ministers are subject to parliamentary commitments as well as their departmental ones, and the size of the government’s majority in the Commons is critical. But even parliament cannot be immune to innovation, and there must be scope for better pairing arrangements in the national interest as well as greater roles for the chairs of relevant select committees, trade ambassadors and cross-party interest groups of parliamentarians to represent the country abroad.

Stephen Wright is a former diplomat who served as Ambassador to Spain from 2003-07