Today, the United Kingdom (UK) finds itself under a new government. Yesterday, Boris Johnson, the new Prime Minister, gave a forceful and ambitious speech outside 10 Downing Street. In terms of foreign policy, he promised to make good on withdrawing from the European Union (EU) and re-establishing Britain’s global reputation. But the transition from the failed premiership of Theresa May will not be easy. The new government finds itself leading a gloomy country, lacking strategic vision and direction. This is compounded by domestic political polarisation and a small parliamentary majority – a majority made possible only because of an agreement between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party.
In terms of foreign policy, the new government has a massive in-tray, filled with issues as different as upholding freedom of navigation in the Gulf, re-establishing relations with the United States (US) after the leaking of diplomatic cables, leaving the EU within a few months, and rekindling closer ties with countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, among others, under the concept of ‘Global Britain’.
Will the new government prevail, or be swept aside by events? Here are some ideas that might help it regain the initiative over Britain’s international strategic direction:
1. Re-assert British power
Since the end of the Soviet Union, the UK’s foreign policy has been steadily ‘securitised’ and ‘commercialised’: security and trade have been prioritised. Consequently, Britain has become too predictable, too reactive, and too passive – in short, an international punch-bag. In an age of geopolitics and great power competition – the kind of world that is now emerging, as identified by the 2018 National Security Capability Review – this approach must change.
Britain is greatly loved, but to be effective, it also needs to be respected, even feared. The UK’s approach to international relations should become less security- and trade-driven. Britain needs to be less predictable, more proactive, and less passive. To use the phrase of Francis Urquhart in House of Cards, the UK needs to learn once again to ‘put a bit of stick about.’
If the rules-based international system is to be upheld, the UK needs to provide resolute and determined leadership. Too many allies are shirking, placing undue burden on the UK and US. Many are failing to meet their defence spending commitments, fail to support the UK on important strategic issues, or agree to refuel enemy warships in their own ports.
Likewise, competitors like Iran, Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – countries ruled by unruly, authoritarian, and/or revisionist regimes – believe they can either ignore British interests or attack UK assets, whether through hijacking British ships, poisoning British residents on British streets, or delivering fiery ambassadorial rebukes through the pages of British newspapers.
If Britain is to uphold its global power and authority, these actions must be dissuaded and deterred. The new government should therefore begin to punish foreign actions that are hostile to British interests. The response should of course be carefully tailored and fully proportionate, but the response should always come – whether immediately and actively (through a diplomatic rebuke or naval strike), or later on and abstractly (such as withholding support for an ally in an international organisation).
Simultaneously, the new government should boost military spending. The British defence budget has slipped from the world’s second-largest in the early 2000s to the sixth largest in 2018.
2. Properly fund British strategic ambitions
For some years, the UK has committed to devote 2% of its national income to defence and 0.7% to Official Development Assistance (ODA), with the latter target being written into British law. By international standards, Britain is a good international citizen. But this is not enough. In an age of great power competition, the UK needs the means to protect its citizens, residents and interests and dissuade and deter its (potential) opponents.
While the new government should remain committed to spending 0.7% of UK national income on ODA, the definition of international development should be redefined. As extreme poverty is being overcome globally, the UK should focus instead on enhancing governance and the rule of law in developing countries. This will make it harder for authoritarian and revisionist regimes like Russia and the PRC to ‘capture’ elites in developing countries and turn them into proxies, with which to wield power.
Simultaneously, the new government should boost military spending. The British defence budget has slipped from the world’s second-largest in the early 2000s to the sixth largest in 2018. It is astonishing that the UK has reduced its defence spending to the levels envisaged in the 2000s for peace-time (2% of national income) just as the world has become more volatile and as peer competitors have started to emerge. The new government should listen to the Defence Committee and those like Tobias Ellwood and Jeremy Hunt, who have called for significant increases in defence spending – up to 2.5% or 3% of national income. Such investment would provide the means to give the UK armed forces it requires – not least more warships – to underpin its interests and dissuade and deter (potential) opponents.
3. Rearrange Britain’s departments of state
The UK has parsed its overseas engagement through four different departments of state – the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, Department for International Development and the Department of International Trade. This has compartmentalised Britain’s ability to shape the world, reducing the overall impact. As part of the process of ‘desecuritisation’, the new government should radicalise the Fusion Doctrine and – as this author has argued elsewhere with Bob Seely MP – subjugate the National Security Council to a new National Strategy Council. This would be tasked with developing long-term national strategy to maximise Britain’s global power.
Equally, given the re-emergence great power competition, the Foreign Office should be afforded greater strategic direction over other dimensions of British foreign policy. Consequently, the Department for International Development and the Department of International Trade should be demoted to agencies within the Foreign Office – albeit each with ministerial heads – under the overall direction of the Foreign Secretary. This would ensure that British development spending and trade objectives are better aligned with UK foreign policy priorities.
Given the re-emergence of great power competition, the Foreign Office should be afforded greater strategic direction over other dimensions of British foreign policy.
4. Articulate a new British vision for Europe
Undoubtedly, to restore trust and accountability, withdrawal from the EU will be the new government’s immediate foreign policy priority. But thought must also be given to the longer term. The UK is an ‘ordering power’ in Europe: it cannot simply withdraw from its own neighbourhood, otherwise peer competitors – existing and potential – will simply move in or rise up to reorder it instead.
As it withdraws from the EU, the new British government needs to begin asking itself what it wants the European mainland to look like in the longer term. Is the UK content with a ‘hands-off’ approach, leaving Europe to fall further under the authority of the EU? Or should the UK move to reshape Europe in accordance with its own priorities and values? If the decision of the British people in 2016 meant anything, it surely reflected their desire for democratic sovereignty. Liberal democracy is in retreat across much of Europe. The new British government should develop a new vision of Europe that emphasises the importance of liberal democracy grounded in the national community, particularly when large authoritarian competitors like Russia seek to roll democracy back.
5. Develop ‘CANZUK’ and forge new international relationships
Despite the fact that Britain will remain a European country, other regions are rising in economic and geopolitical importance. Chief among these is the Indo-Pacific region – the world’s economic growth zone – with which the UK is well-placed to develop deeper links. Australia, Canada and New Zealand serve together as Britain’s gateway to the Indo-Pacific. Beside their historical links, common democratic culture and common head of state, the three countries share with Britain a support for the rules-based international system, which ensures that closer relations make sense. The four countries – known as ‘CANZUK’ – are also not without influence: they hold between them almost 10% of the world’s wealth and a combined economic income in excess of US$7.7 trillion.
Of course, deepening ties within CANZUK cannot develop in a vacuum. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK all have close relations with the US, as well as Japan. As Washington’s focus on the PRC grows, the Indo-Pacific vector of American global policy will undoubtedly grow more important than its Atlantic or European vectors. Consequently, the UK needs to double-down on working out how to influence the America of the future, irrespective of the administration of Donald Trump. Equally, the UK needs to focus more on Japan, which is likely to become as important to the US in its confrontation with PRC as the UK was during the West’s confrontation with the Soviet Union.
To summarise, Mr Johnson’s new government has its work cut out. Britain is at a turning point. Undoubtedly, the UK is turning because of domestic forces, but it is also being pulled from outside. In an age of geopolitical competition, the UK needs to stand resolute. It also needs the structures and instruments from which to protect and project its interests and dissuade, deter and even undermine those who threaten them. In short, as it leaves the EU, Britain’s foreign and defence policy must become a national priority once again.