Regardless of the challenges the UK government faces after leaving the European Union, lack of advice is not one of them. A tremendous amount has been written on Britain’s future foreign policy (Policy Exchange, 2019; Chatham House, 2021). This article summarizes some of the major debates and highlights areas that may be fertile for research. It is difficult to write balancedly about the power of Britain as a state. There is a jingoistic element in the UK media and within the Brexit movement that greatly overestimates its power in Europe and beyond. In unmasking these delusions, however, many go too far and Great Britain has – even since the loss of its empire – an extremely important country: culturally, economically, financially, politically and militarily.
In some ways the subject at hand – Britain’s relationship with the European powers, the US and the world as a whole – is not new. Since 1945 scholars have analyzed British foreign policy on the basis of Churchill’s famous paradigm of the three circles: America, Europe and the Commonwealth (Gaskarth, 2014). More recently, the latter has been reduced to the Anglosphere (the CANZUK idea) or extended to the whole world. The question of Britain’s foreign policy stance was formulated more critically in the famous saying by former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson that Britain had lost an empire but had not yet found a role (Sanders, Houghton, 2017). The idea that Britain is a “bridge” between the US and Britain has also been popular, but it has always been problematic. William Wallace wrote in 2005, after the Iraq war began, that this position collapsed when Britain became a vassal of George W. Bush’s America.
Any country that claims to be a bridge should always be viewed with healthy skepticism, and so should the UK. The implication that Germany, for example, needs Great Britain as a dialogue partner with the USA, strengthens credibility. The relative marginalization of Great Britain in recent disputes such as the Ukraine crisis has been remarkable, and Brexit has ideally closed the coffin of the “bridge” ideal. Britain has been very useful to the US as a powerful, assertive country in the EU that can be counted on to support its core policies and the centrality of NATO. Interest in the US will certainly have waned. Some new paradigms or frameworks are needed, but the term ‘Global Britain’ is not favorable in this case as it was part of the pro-Brexit movement (Daddow, 2019) and seems contradictory given the reality of Brexit. The situation in the UK offers a fascinating real-time case study for constructivist scholars of a large country trying to (re) construct its global role (Daddow, 2019).
Northern Irish historian John Bew led the UK government’s ambitious review, The Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy, due to be published in early 2021 (Cooper, 2021). The involvement of a historian is considered by many to be a good thing as it should allow for a sober analysis of Britain’s prospects. The history of Britain has been extraordinary, however, and some historians have come up with extravagant visions of Britain’s power outside the EU, failing to properly differentiate between the UK and the US or between the historical role of the UK and the current power structures in Europe (Simms, 2017) ). It is likely that this new document will be more realistic after the withdrawal. It’s billed as the most important strategic document in decades, but it will do well to keep up with such a fast-paced world. Whether any kind of “grand strategy” (as opposed to a set of principles) is still feasible in the 21st century is questionable. This last point is by no means unique to Great Britain.
One of the main issues is the extent to which the UK’s future foreign policy can become decoupled from Brexit (which is now a reality) and the fear that comes with it. To understand the UK’s future role, we must first look at Brexit, what it says about the UK and the prospects for future UK-EU relations. There is little doubt that the withdrawal process has been humiliating for Britain’s claims as a great power and that the EU has been very much dominating the process. The 2019 Take Back Agreement set a trade frontier within the UK, required the UK to pay tens of billions of pounds to the EU, and put it in a transitional period during which it had to implement all EU law without representation. This was all in return for the opportunity to negotiate a trade deal. The late 2020 trade and cooperation agreement avoids tariffs, but provides relatively poor market access for the UK (although this was mainly chosen by the UK government), so important future decisions about financial services and data remain in the hands of the EU. They did not even succeed in the symbolic task (“easy win”) of regaining full control of their fishing areas.
Could one then say that the Brexit process has “exposed” Britain as a weaker power than expected? No. Here the distinction between a rationalistic-positivistic view of the world in which reality is revealed and a more general reflective approach to things in which reality is composed is relevant. It is not that the UK has always been weak in the EU, but rather that the UK’s internal political crises have set it on the path to building its own (at least for now) lesser role in Europe. In plain English, the Brexit process simply shows that if a country decides to withdraw from an advanced regional integration project without a feasible plan, and its positions are based mainly on domestic politics and an unrealistic view of its own leverage on unfavorable terms abandoned and / or economically damaged.
More important for our purposes is the question: where is Brexit leaving Great Britain as a great power? It certainly has more opportunities now to pursue a different type of economic policy. It could be looking for trade deals with states like the US, India and China (all of which are extremely difficult prospects). On the pro-Brexit side, it could be argued that the UK’s faster COVID-19 vaccination process shows the benefits of not being tied to an EU-wide approach, but the jury is not yet sure which approach works better. In a broader sense, it is important to understand that the EU has not really constrained UK foreign policy (foreign and security policy is still “intergovernmental” rather than collectively controlled like agriculture and trade), so the benefit of leaving the EU is not clear.
The UK could feel freer (after ending its free movement with EU countries) to liberalize travel with a wider range of countries or move on with the five-eyed group of Anglophone secret service allies. An important question is to what extent one aligns oneself with the foreign policy positions of the EU or differs from them. It is noteworthy that, as part of the Partnership Council with the EU, the UK has rejected structured cooperation on foreign policy issues. It shouldn’t read too much as the UK could continue to work together at its own discretion, including on issues such as sanctions. Even in the Trump era, it was remarkable that Britain stuck to the “European” mainstream on issues such as the Iran deal, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and climate change. Brexit offers a glimpse into the enduring power – or not – of the liberal (and especially the European) West. Can these common core values overcome economic and political rivalries?
Post-Brexit UK could prove to be a fascinating case study of the usefulness (or not) of the soft power concept. Soft power is often criticized as essentially empty, although its popular usage is somewhat simplified compared to Joseph Nye’s original formulation (2004). Obviously, the popularity of the Premier League or Sherlock does not mean any political influence for the British government. The wide-ranging role of British universities or the prestige of British science can be seen as a kind of long-term impact for the whole of the UK. Overall, Brand Britain was badly damaged by Brexit, widely portrayed by the international media as an act of vanity and self-harm. Such reputational damage could be overcome over time.
Britain’s raw skills are still impressive. It is a nuclear power with extensive intelligence capabilities and military resources. It is still a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Its economy is one of the largest in the world and its scientific resources are exceptional, as is its cultural and educational influence in many ways. Yet it is not big enough to guide or force other countries to do its will through tough economic or military might. A recent paper by Chatham House argues that it should be a global broker rather than a great power (2019). It should seek to take a leading role in coordinating and networking in the pursuit of key objectives such as “protecting liberal democracy; Promoting international peace and security; Combating climate change; Promote global tax transparency and fair economic growth. “In this context, the recent lowering of the UK aid target (from 0.7 to now 0.5 percent of GDP) is a terrible message in this year of global crisis. However, the UK is still on its way to giving proportionally more than other large countries. The report, which is controversial for some, stresses that the UK should work the closest with the EU and should not waste time distinguishing its role from the EU. Attention is drawn to the strain on the UK’s diplomatic resources due to the need to step up activities in Europe (now that it is no longer a main body) and in the WTO.
Britain also has significant weaknesses. The various overseas territories (including Gibraltar, British Virgin Islands and Falkland Islands) have been appalled by the economic and political impact of Brexit, which they have exposed in different ways. The government’s interest in the Indo-Pacific is understandable, but given the UK’s location and the stress on its resources, it’s hard to know how sustainable this is. In general, doing something about it is not a good idea and the UK should be wary of where efforts to redeem its pride and status might lead. This is the kind of thing the Chatham House newspaper warns of, but this humble claim of being a “global broker” may not satisfy the wounded pride of UK post-Brexit. There are concerns that increased military involvement in the Pacific will only pose problems without Britain having an important role in shaping US policy in the region (which will be the determining factor). The role of psychology has increasingly been incorporated into the study of IR (Lebow, 2018), and after Brexit the UK will offer a fascinating case study.
The greatest threat is the internal threat to Britain’s integrity from a hard Brexit, which is not supported by Scottish or Northern Irish voters. Add to this the consequences of poor management of the pandemic and how this can exacerbate tensions over Brexit. Irish unity is something that has long been accepted in principle as a possibility by British elites, but the loss of Scotland would be a severe blow to the claims of the British great power and could even jeopardize its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Chatham House (2021) Global Britain Global Broker, January 21, 2021 https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/01/global-britain-global-broker
Cooper, c. (2021) “The Man Who Knows What Global Britain Means”, Politico, January 14, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/john-bew-global-britain-uk-eu/
Daddow, O (2019), ‘GlobalBritain ™: The Discursive Construction of the Role of Britain After Brexit’, Global Affairs Vol 5, No. 1, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/23340460.2019. 1599297
Gaskarth, J. (2013) British Foreign Policy: Crises, Conflicts, and Future Challenges, Polity Press.
Lebow, R. N. (2016) Key Texts in Political Psychology and Theory of International Relations, Springer.
Nye: J. (2004) Soft power: the means to success in world politics, New York: Public Affairs.
Policy Exchange (2019) To make Global Britain work, https://policyexchange.org.uk/publication/making-global-britain-work/
Sanders, D and D. P. Houghton (2017) Losing an Empire, Finding a Role: British Foreign Policy since 1945, Palgrave.
Simms, B. (2017) ‘The world after Brexit: The decisive variable is not British power, but Europe’s weakness.’ New Statesman, March 1, 2017, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/2017/ 03 / World after Brexit
Further reading on E-International Relations