Nicholas Westcott is a Diplomacy professor at SOAS University of London.
The state of British foreign policy is unfortunate.
Essentially, the nation lacks one, and a Labour administration would have to promptly address this issue.
In a recent publication by the Fabian Society titled “Britain Reconnected,” shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy presents a promising plan. The focus of this plan is on reconnecting, which is crucial for moving forward. However, there is a need for more consideration on the specific strategies for achieving this goal.
After the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, the government has focused on reviews and strategies related to Asia and their “Global Britain” stance. However, this has left them without direction and increasingly ignored. While prime ministers have made appearances at international events such as the G7, G20, and Commonwealth meetings, and have expressed their support for Ukraine, this alone does not create a comprehensive foreign policy. As a result, the UK is losing relevance and influence in global discussions.
Geographical inertia is a term used in geography to describe the phenomenon of towns continuing to exist even after their economic purpose has disappeared. The United Kingdom experiences both benefits and drawbacks from diplomatic inertia.
The United Kingdom’s renowned diplomatic service, known as the “Rolls Royce,” is now facing challenges due to lack of maintenance and resources. Recent ministers have also struggled with direction. However, the U.K. is capable of rising to the occasion when needed. Despite issues with productivity and Brexit, the British economy remains one of the biggest and most globally integrated. Additionally, Britain still holds its seats at the U.N. and International Financial Institutions that it gained after World War II.
For half a century, Britain’s foreign policy remained straightforward and unwavering: Form an alliance with the United States through NATO for security, be a part of the EU for economic prosperity, and hold onto the Commonwealth to uphold the remnants of imperial ties. And this strategy proved successful – for the most part. Despite the decline of its global empire and a slowdown in the 1970s, Britain continued to thrive.
However, Brexit shattered this safeguard and undermined the country’s economic stability. Choosing to withdraw from the European Council has had severe consequences because the EU makes decisions that directly affect the British economy, regardless of its membership status. Instead of regaining control, we have relinquished it.
Admitting the problem is the initial step towards recovery – a seemingly simple task, given that it was caused by consecutive Conservative administrations. However, Labour’s stance remains uncertain.
Equally significant, Brexit left Britain ill-equipped to cope with dramatically changing global geopolitics, where free trade is under threat, market access is becoming more difficult and diplomatic friends matter more than ever.
According to Mark Leonard, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, it would be incorrect to assume that we are in a new Cold War. The global political environment is now more intricate and divided, and there are still many uncertainties.
Is the United States a trustworthy protector for Europe’s security? Will China prioritize security over growth and become more aggressive externally? As authoritarian governments reject a rules-based global order, is democracy in decline? If realpolitik is becoming the dominant approach and even Lammy advocates for pragmatism, how strong is Britain and what measures can it take to safeguard its interests globally?
In essence, power is derived from three factors: financial stability, military prowess, and alliances. The UK’s departure from the EU weakened their economic and diplomatic standing, impacting their defense budget. Therefore, the Labour party should prioritize revitalizing these three sources of power in their foreign policy.
This indicates a foreign policy centered on four main principles: alliance with the United States, amity with Europe, collaboration with the Commonwealth and middle powers, and involvement with China.
It is crucial to maintain the United States’ dedication to NATO. This will necessitate a significant collaborative endeavor with other members of the alliance to reach out to all segments of American society – from Iowa to Texas, and from California to Massachusetts – to advocate for ongoing U.S. involvement.
The stability of NATO is reliant on the unwavering dedication of the United States. While the well-known Five Eyes alliance is significant, it is not as crucial as Britain’s role in European defense cooperation, which will require significant time to fully develop. It is clear that Britain cannot protect itself independently.
Due to Brexit, the U.K. has suffered a significant loss of territory, trust, and impact in Europe. It is crucial to put in significant effort to improve and solidify economic ties with the EU in order for British businesses to remain competitive. This can only be achieved by consistently fostering strong relationships with all member nations. With the inability for British ministers to attend regular councils with their EU counterparts, greater efforts must be made to safeguard British interests through more intense bilateral connections. This will require time and financial resources, but it is crucial in maintaining influence.
In the meantime, the Commonwealth has been neglected and appears to be gradually declining. However, it is still a mostly united group of countries that spans both the northern and southern hemispheres, and holds significant potential value in an increasingly fragmented world. This is especially true if all members feel that membership is beneficial, not just for the UK. India’s involvement is essential in this regard. Additionally, Britain must demonstrate to all members that they are valued as equal partners through actions such as visits, investment, and aid. Giving developing members a greater role in global governance and showing more humility towards former colonies will be more effective in restoring influence than arrogant rhetoric.
In other regions, specifically the Middle East, Britain’s impact is much weaker compared to its past. This is due to Brexit, which has caused the country to isolate itself. To regain strong alliances, it will be crucial to show mutual regard and provide tangible advantages from the partnership.
Ultimately, it is crucial for Britain to maintain a functional partnership with China. As disagreements continue to arise, both China and Russia may desire to see the U.K. become less significant. Nevertheless, it is essential to maintain open communication in order to convey external perspectives and highlight the repercussions of isolation to the Chinese Communist Party. Hopefully, this will impact Beijing’s actions.
There are numerous individual policies that cover topics such as climate change, drug enforcement, counterterrorism, development, human rights, and the rules that govern international affairs. Many of these policies are discussed in Lammy’s pamphlet. However, the key to success lies in Britain’s ability to maintain strong relationships with other nations. Rebuilding these relationships should be the top priority for Britain’s foreign policy, and strengthening ties with Europe will increase our influence on a global scale.