By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
With the EU-UK Brexit talks finally coming to a head, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning a big year for UK foreign policy. Stung by criticism of his approach, he will seek to showcase the UK’s continued international leadership with a “Global Britain” campaign.
As a down payment toward this ambition, Johnson last week pledged £16.5 billion ($22 billion) for increased defense spending in the next few years. However, his Global Britain plans go well beyond military to diplomacy, with London in 2021 chairing the UN Security Council from February, holding the rotating presidency of the G7 from January, and also hosting the UN-led 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate change.
Johnson’s defense spending announcement earlier this month came as part of what he has described as one of the most sweeping UK defense and security reviews since the end of the Cold War. The UK premier is keen to explore the potential opportunities of the post-Brexit landscape, yet the challenges are mounting too.
Two of the long-standing pillars of UK policy in the post-war period, its alliances with the US and Europe, are in flux. Not only is Johnson misaligned with US President-elect Joe Biden on a number of issues, including Northern Ireland, but he also faces tricky ties with EU neighbors post-Brexit.
This creates a major headache for London at the same time that it must also now recalibrate its foreign and defense policies, beyond Europe, in every part of the globe from Asia-Pacific to the Americas. This is a big task and what is already clear is that, while a massive amount of attention in recent years has focused on Brexit, comparatively little time has been spent focused on broader international policy.
Indeed, the last time that the nation systematically reviewed its place in the world was in 2015 with the-then National Security Strategy exercise and Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR).
So, this year’s defense and security review has been looking at Britain’s key post-Brexit foreign goals and what will be required from the armed forces, security, diplomacy, foreign aid, and intelligence communities, including in space and cyberspace, to meet those targets. Almost a half-decade on from the 2015 SDSR, with the UK having left the Brussels-based club, the new SDSR is as urgent as it is necessary.
In a previous generation, former Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd asserted that Britain had been able to “punch above its weight” in the post-war era, despite it no longer being a great power. That statement may still be true today but is under increasing scrutiny as the UK risks fading into what some have called foreign policy irrelevance, despite Johnson’s Global Britain ambitions.
Over much of the last decade Britain has been widely seen to have lost global influence, despite the fact that it retains the fifth-largest defense budget, the second-largest aid budget, and the fourth-largest diplomatic network internationally. This has happened because successive governments have moved away from the world, rather than confidently embracing it. And this at a time when the UK faces a massive range of challenges from Russia’s stridency, to a continued terrorist threat.
Post-Brexit, Johnson has said that he wants to rediscover the UK’s heritage “as a great global trading nation,” including with former parts of the British Empire and now-Commonwealth, such as India, plus other key emerging markets including China and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, and important industrialized countries such as Australia, Canada, and the US. To this end, London is agreeing to new post-Brexit UK trade deals with dozens of countries, but this process is not straightforward.
Take the example of a potential new UK-US trade deal where there may be key areas ripe for agreement, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods, and potential disagreements too. This includes over-harmonizing financial services regulations, while other possible political icebergs lie on the horizon as well, not least given Biden’s disdain for Brexit and cool relationship with Johnson.
Outside of trade, the British prime minister has reaffirmed his vision that, post-Brexit, the UK will continue to play a major role in international security, including through its membership of NATO. While he said that London would play a genuinely global role through continued membership of forums such as the UN Security Council, its continued commitment to Europe will also be very important going forward.
To be fair to Johnson, he has sought to emphasize that while the UK has departed the EU, it is not leaving Europe. And he claims that London will seek to continue, if not intensify, cooperation with EU partners in areas including crime, counterterrorism, and foreign affairs.
Ultimately, the issue of UK foreign policy is not just a key issue for Britain, but also for the rest of the world, because if London no longer punches so strongly on the international stage it is also less able to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile.
Continuing Britain’s proud traditions as a long-standing promoter of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law long into the 21st century would be best secured by a different approach to UK foreign policy which, post-review, the government should embrace.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.