Nicholas Westcott is a professor of Practice in Diplomacy at SOAS University of London.
British foreign policy is in a sorry state.
In effect, the country doesn’t have one, and a Labour government would need to remedy that — swiftly.
Along these lines, shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has set out an encouraging prospectus in a recent Fabian pamphlet, entitled Britain Reconnected. And reconnecting is, indeed, at the heart of what needs to be done. But the strategy of “how” needs more thought.
Since Brexit, for all the integrated reviews — original or refreshed — pivots to Asia and “Global Britain” slogans, the British government has been adrift, unmoored and increasingly marginalized. Prime ministers have postured at the G7, the G20, the U.N. (except Rishi Sunak) and at Commonwealth meetings, and they have loudly broadcast their undying commitment to Ukraine. But support for Ukraine doesn’t make a foreign policy. And the result is that Britain is becoming increasingly irrelevant to other nations, and less influential in global debates.
In geography, the concept of “geographical inertia” explains why some towns live on long after their economic rationale has vanished. Britain is both a beneficiary and a victim of diplomatic inertia.
The United Kingdom’s once famed “Rolls Royce” diplomatic service is increasingly rusty and short on fuel, and recent ministerial drivers haven’t known where they were going. But the U.K. can still deliver when pushed. Despite its productivity problem and the obstacles thrown in its way by Brexit, the British economy is still one of the largest and most globally connected; and Britain still occupies the seats it acquired at the U.N. and International Financial Institutions after World War II.
For 50 years, Britain’s foreign policy was simple and consistent: Ally with the United States through NATO for security, belong to the EU for prosperity and cling on to the Commonwealth to preserve the legacy of imperial connections. And it worked — generally. Britain survived the loss of a global empire and, after a lull in the 1970s, continued to flourish.
But Brexit destroyed that, knocking out the central pillar that safeguarded the country’s economic prosperity. Voluntarily giving up our seat on the European Council has been incredibly damaging because the EU takes decisions that impact directly on the British economy — whether Britain is in the EU or not. We lost control rather than taking it back.
Of course, the first step to recovery is admitting the problem — easy enough, one would think, given it was caused by successive Conservative governments. But Labour remains equivocal.
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.
As Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has argued, it is wrong to assume we’re entering a new Cold War. The geopolitical landscape is more complex and fragmented, and many questions remain unanswered.
Can the U.S. be relied upon as a security guarantor for Europe? Will China double down on security over growth, and become more externally aggressive? With increasingly authoritarian governments rejecting a rules-based international order, is democracy in retreat? If realpolitik is becoming everyone’s watchword, and Lammy himself calls for pragmatism, how powerful is Britain, and what can it do to protect its interests in the world?
Simply put, power comes from three things: economic strength, military might and having friends. Brexit damaged the first and third, with consequences for how much the country can afford to spend on defense. Thus, Labour should focus its foreign policy on restoring all three of these sources of power.
This, in turn, points to a foreign policy based on four core pillars: alliance with the U.S., friendship with Europe, partnership with the Commonwealth and middle powers, and engagement with China.
First, it is essential to keep the U.S. committed to NATO. This will require a major joint effort with other alliance members to connect with all parts of American opinion — from Iowa to Texas, as well as California to Massachusetts — in order to make the case for continued U.S. engagement.
NATO’s strength comes from the consistency of U.S. commitment. The famous Five Eyes relationship is important but comparatively marginal, and while it is essential for Britain to participate in European defense cooperation, it will take a long time to mature. Britain cannot defend itself alone.
With Europe, the U.K. lost a huge amount of ground, goodwill and influence through Brexit. A major effort is now needed to smooth and strengthen economic relations with the EU, so as to enable British business to compete effectively — and this will only be possible through consistent attempts to cultivate close relations with all member countries. Now that British ministers can no longer meet their EU counterparts at regular councils, far more work will be needed to protect British interests via more intensive bilateral links. That will cost both time and money, but it is essential to maintain influence.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth has suffered neglect and seems to be slowly fading away. Still, it remains a largely like-minded community of nations that cuts across the north-south divide, with real potential value in this fragmenting world — particularly if it’s perceived as of benefit to all its members, not just the U.K. In that, India’s role is crucial. But Britain must also show all members they are valued as equal partners through visits, investment, aid, a greater role in global governance for developing members, and in former colonies more humility, rather than amplified bombast, will do more to restore influence.
In other areas — particularly the Middle East — Britain’s influence is a pale shadow of its former self, as the country is seen, through Brexit, to have marginalized itself. Rebuilding partnerships will depend on demonstrating mutual respect and offering real benefits from the relationship.
Finally, and most contentiously, Britain needs to maintain a working relationship with China. Given the growing areas of disagreement, China, like Russia, will be happy to see the U.K. marginalized. But we must keep a dialogue in order to ensure that outside views and the consequences of introversion are brought home to the Chinese Communist Party, and hopefully influence Beijing’s decisions.
There are plenty of other specific policies — on climate, drugs, terrorism, development, human rights, the rules-based order and all the usual works — many of which are covered in Lammy’s pamphlet. But success depends on Britain’s effective relations with other countries. Rebuilding these is where Britain’s foreign policy must start, and the closer we grow to Europe, the more influence we will have everywhere else.