European Union

Global Britain—how to exert influence in an uncertain world

At a recent roundtable, politicians and experts including Barry Gardiner and John Whittingdale asked how we can remain a top international player

June 06, 2019

The world is in a moment of great uncertainty. The US is led by an unpredictable man with a hardline approach towards global institutions and rival powers. The US-China trade war risks destabilising the global economy. Meanwhile an emboldened Russia is seeking to expand its influence. Then there is Brexit. For good or ill, at a time of worldwide instability Britain is removing itself from a significant global bloc.

The question is how we can continue to play a leading role on the global stage going forward. Where best can Britain make a difference? What are the opportunities out there—and the risks? These were the questions discussed at a recent Prospect roundtable. The talk was chaired by Duncan Weldon and built on our recent supplement on the same themes.

For all participants, there was clear awareness of the challenges ahead. Weldon began by noting the turbulent world environment. Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North and Shadow International Trade Secretary, said “what we’ve got is huge shifts in the international tectonic plates… and we have chosen to cast ourselves adrift from one of those tectonic plates... we should have a very clear idea of how we propose to choreograph our movement.”

That is no small task for Britain. But get that choreography right and we can exert our influence.

Menna Rawlings of the Foreign Office summed up the mission. One plank “is trying to build, uphold, develop the rules-based international system.” Another is “standing up for our values of democracy, tolerance and liberty.” The third involves “maintaining an open and innovative economy” and projecting that outwards.

All three are of crucial importance and require collaboration with key partners. Yet with countries like China throwing their weight around, where exactly does Britain fit in? As John Whittingdale, former secretary of state for culture, media and sport and Conservative MP for Maldon put it, we cannot ignore the fact “they are going to be the biggest economic power in the world.”

For Gardiner, “Why do we not have a constructive offer to rival what they are doing?” Why have we not “got a response to Belt and Road,” the trillion-dollar infrastructure project? China is controversially pouring massive conditional investment into developing economies. Britain could be offering its own more ethical project albeit it on a smaller scale.

“We have to figure out what to do with China” concurred Karin Von Hippel, Rusi Director-General. “When it started expanding, and building islands in the South China Sea, everyone just watched it happen.

“You do need a consortium of countries to be able to push back on those issues. And that's what we're not getting right now. Because I don't think we have any country providing that leadership.” There is a clear gap for Britain, in collaboration with other countries, to do that.

Meanwhile Peter Haslam of the Nuclear Industry Association explained the issues surrounding the Hinkley Point C power plant, which is dependent on Chinese involvement.

It is not just China causing problems. There is also Putin. Whittingdale said “Russia, in the last 15 years, has adopted an expansionist and aggressive policy…. And the fact [is] that the west has allowed that to happen.” We must “demonstrate that international rules do stand for something.”

Again, that idea of international rules. There is a clear space for Britain to defend them through the various international forums at our disposal. Where else can we make a difference?

Trade is a vital domain and a focus of the government’s plan for a Global Britain. For Matt Grigor of Associated British Ports, we can “really try to make a positive case for international free and fair trade.”

For Gardiner, “we need to begin, through trade, to join up the issues of rights with our trading partners… The ways in which we can use trade to increase labour rights in those countries, environmental standards in those countries, is a really important way in which the UK… can take that moral leadership.”

America has vacated its leadership role. Trump has slapped punitive tariffs on Chinese goods. Helen Goodman, Shadow Foreign Office Minister, said “I think this is the most annoying thing about Trump, he picks up problems which actually are problems.”

Can Britain work with partners to find more appropriate solutions? For Ian Gorst, Jersey’s Minister for External Relations, “policymakers have not had a good multilateral response to those issues which people perceive are affecting their everyday life.” That is an urgent point.

A final issue discussed was climate change. This is as global an issue as they come. How can we lead the fight? For Goodman, “the legal underpinnings of climate change [targets] aren’t strong enough.” For Gardiner we must align “our industrial strategy with our environmental strategy. And actually putting that in the context of what Mark Carney and Michael Bloomberg have been doing with the Financial Task Force on climate-related financial risk. And if you bring those three together, then there is a real leadership role that we have to play.”

Across the spectrum there is work to be done. Von Hippel said “there are not many countries out there right now which can play a leadership role. And you don't need to be the wealthiest, most powerful country, you just need to be a significant player, you need to have ideas.”

For Whittingdale, Britain will remain a global force thanks to its soft power. “The BBC World Service is still the most powerful, objective, trusted news brand in the world, the British Council, what they do, and a lot of those things stem from the greatest asset this country has: the English language," which “does give us huge inputs.”

Britain cannot do everything. Sometimes it’s about international institutions like the UN and not individual countries. But whether within those institutions or on our own, we can and must continue to play a leading role. We can make a difference, if we grasp the challenge with both hands. On this point, all participants were in firm agreement.