Since the referendum results the UK is suffering with the headache of deciding what its foreign policy strategy should be for Britain’s after it leaves the European Union. Parliament’s recent and overwhelming vote to renew Trident suggests a confidence in a modernised military. But, the problem of forging Britain’s new global role is huge and cannot be undermined. There are many risks in BrExit for Theresa May’s new government as there are many benefits. But, it is certainly possible, with the will and determination expressed by Britain throughout it’s history to achieve some significant things that show the world Britain is not leaving the world but re-joining it.
Firstly, we should remind ourselves that Britain’s objective facets of global status has not changed. We remain formal members of international organisations, such as NATO, the UN Permanent Security Council, and more broadly the Commonwealth. In July 2015, Britain guaranteed 2% of GDP would be spent on Defence as required by NATO members. Prime Minister’s May’s new government has also guaranteed commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on International Aid. Both these comittments can be taken as an expression of confidence in these international organisations and Britain’s military and international obligations.
However, there is a growing narrative which is increasingly being used since BrExit. It has become popular to say that Britain is a declining power, a receding powerful state, with decreasing influence. The UK government must dismiss the siren call of a declining Britain and refocus its efforts on positive diplomatic, military and geopolitical ambitions that can repudiate that claim. Image matters in International Affairs, so Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union can easily be thought as British isolationism on steroids. That’s why Boris Johnson, the new Foreign Secretary and prominent Leave campaigner, and his continuous call for ‘more Britain in the world’ shows even significant Leavers don’t concur with the narrative that BrExit equates to an isolationist Britain.
The overriding problem with this is that Britain is perceived to be abandoning it’s nearest geopolitical sphere of influence. It is important; therefore, to redefine our relationship with the European Union, to ensue we get the very best deal that strikes a balance between immigration and passporting rights for financial services in London. However, reshaping of the relationship with the European Union must ensure that France and Germany do not look to its Russian border instead of its Anglo-American border. Following BrExit there is a direct risk of warmer relations with Russia, instead of the US.
EU sanctions on Russia emphasised the old cliché of the UK being a bridge between American wishes and European resistance to such American desires. Hollande’s vocal criticism of Russian sactions shows there could be a move to friendlier relations with Moscow. Hollande has comment that, ‘NATO has no role at all in saying what Europe’s relationship should be with Russian,’ further stating that Russia is not an adversary but a partner. The risk is that these actions could undermine NATO and US efforts to counteract Russia’s aggressive geopolitical aims.
The most significant risk to NATO’s influence is the creation of a centrally controlled European Union Army. Not only would this be counteractive to UK aims but also to NATO’s. The creation of a federalist EU army could undermine the potency of NATO and could encourage further actions from an emboldened Russia, especially if Berlin agrees with Paris on thawing relations with Moscow.
It is for these that the UK that should begin to start paying particularly attention to the Eastern European flank. The UK was the initial driver for a EU expansion to the east. This political record must not be shunned after BrExit, so it must pay particular attention to Baltic States as well as Hungary and Poland. Both of these nations fear a dominant Franco-German alliance within the EU, which seem to set to propel the EU in to further integration, something Poland and Hungary do not wish to see. Both countries are looking for a third party ally to offset the Franco-German call for federalism. In this spirit the UK government would be sensible to redirect some foreign aid to these countries, to offset the losses of the UK EU budget contribution that the countries will feel the most and to mitigate the growing influence of Russia in the east. There would also be the added benefit of supporting NATO efforts to bolster its eastern front.
Further challenges for the UK can be found in its endeavour to look further afield from its immediate European neighbourhood. Leave campaigners called for an internationalist and global Britain, one that makes efforts to trade with China and Far East countries. This process must be navigated with particular care. Direct foreign investment, particularly from China is needed to help offset any possible economic damage done to the economy post-BrExit. But, the UK government should be asking at what cost to Britain’s internationalist role? The recent Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) placed emphasis on Britain’s rule-based approach to internationalist order, one that runs directly through the UN, international law and NATO. These organisations can play Britain’s rule-based role but they must be further exemplified after BrExit, and should not be discarded in dealing with Chinese authorities for the sake of Chinese investment.
The shock review of the Hinckley Nuclear Power Plant Programme by Theresa May’s administration, expresses a potential change of tact in dealing with China. However, the ‘golden era’ of UK-China relationships must not be sabotaged, and Britain must continue to call out Chinese human rights abuses, working in a cooperative manner to overcome Chinese challenges to international law. As Britain looks east, the UK government must ask what role it should take in the geopolitical arena of the region, particularly around the South China Sea. Britain’s new post-BrExit global approach in this region may be limited, but it can and indeed must step up to the challenge of a being visible arbiter, persuader and champion of international law in the region. The UK could (again) could act as a bridge between China and the US on the contentious South China Sea issue. The Foreign Office could lead on talks to mitigate the growing tension and gain an agreable consensus on the Hague Ruling.
Most fundamental to all these global ambitions is the role of defence spending. To counter-balance the narrative of a shrinking and less influential Britain May’s administration should demonstrate that a BrExit Britain means exactly the opposite. This is non more crucial than now, particular after the leaked sensitive-official document, which showed UK Generals have concern that Britain no longer has the hardware to deal with a direct conflict with Russian forces. The report, Insights to ‘Training Smarter’ Against a Hybrid Adversary, outlined that in the unlikely event of ‘direct confrontation between Britain and Russia, Russia has a significant capability edge over many UK force elements.’
To counteract this Theresa May is able to do several things. To show a commitment to NATO, she should signal not only a ring-fence of NATO’s 2% GDP defence spending, but a noticeable increase. She should commission a special post-BrExit update to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, and question the procurement length of F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. All new defence procurements outlined in the 2015 SDSR should be bought forward, most specifically the full operating capability of the new QE II aircraft carriers.
Alongside this, there should be an emphasis on an immediate trade dialogue with friendly nations. The UK PM could invite the new US President to London straight after the American Election, whereby the UK can host a special dialogue on strengthening NATO and start agreement on an Anglo-American free trade deal. This should coincide with the updated SDSR review and the announcement of Britain’s commitment to NATO and a noticeable UK defence spending increase. Alongside this, the UK has the opportunity of trade deals with Commonwealth Nations. I have outlined the importance of this in a different article.
To encourage the development of free trade in this community, the UK should bring forward the scheduled 2018 meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government to 2017. The particularly emphasis for this meeting should be on solidifying an Anglo-Sphere security cooperation agenda, and also on free trade between the wider Commonwealth Community. This would be a vocal expression of strength from the UK to the rest of the globe.
The greatest challenge to Theresa May’s government is to establish a strategy that can navigate Britain’s new role in the world. BrExit presents the opportunity as well as risks of recalibrating Britain’s foreign policy. For a long time Brtian has endeavoured to ask ‘what is Britain’s place in the world?’. BrExit presents the opportunity for the UK to become more internationalist and to play a greater role on the world stage. Now is the best time to answer this burning question, and reshape Britain’s place in the world for the best.