Foreign Secretary’s first policy speech: Strong on sentiment, weak on rationale

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson spoke on Friday morning in the first of a series of foreign policy speeches he intends to make to lay out his vision for ‘Global Britain’ – a UK that is outward looking, assertive and engaged internationally and that ‘refuses to be defined’ by the decision made to leave the European Union.

Overall the speech was useful in that it was a rousing call for greater UK engagement internationally but it also demonstrated the distance we still have to travel in putting flesh on the bones of a desire to be ‘Global Britain’ in, what the Foreign Secretary acknowledged to be, an increasingly volatile and uncertain world. Most importantly perhaps, whilst the Foreign Secretary acknowledged that many of his constituents are not aware of the significant UK contribution to the world, he failed to satisfactorily make the case as to why they should care.

The speech itself and its setting pointed to some of the challenges around this. Made in Chatham House, the seat of the global foreign policy establishment in London, Mr Johnson acknowledged the audience to be ‘far more expert than I’ in many fields, as well numbering as a large number of colleagues, both foreign and British, he clearly recognised and collaborated with regularly. Important as they are in many ways this is not the audience likely to transmit the sentiment or substance of the speech convincingly to a broader UK audience. Neither did the Foreign Secretary adequately make the link between an outward facing ‘global Britain’ and the immediate personal interests of UK citizens. It is true he did make an important reference to the UK’s role in defining and defending the rules based international system upon which our trade and security depends. He also made a passing reference to the self interest in supporting girls education in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. But it was his answer to a question regarding the significant upgrading of the underfunded, under-recognised diplomatic tools required to pursue his global agenda that really framed the challenge we face collectively.

The Foreign Secretary’s response was positive in so far as it went. He pointed out the value of the FCO to the UK and the importance of his constituents recognising the real and significant return on every pound spent on diplomacy. Yet the question remains who is explaining the direct self-interest to UK citizens in engaging globally, measured not in pride, but in pounds and pence and the security to live our lives as we wish? This is the frustration, in that the sentiment of the Foreign Secretary and the government may be right. But unless the argument can be made more convincingly, and in accessible language, why UK citizens, not in central London, but in Durham, Belfast , Inverness and Plymouth should pay and support Global Britain, then good intentions will be still born through lack of popular support. This would be a tragedy in an ever more volatile world at a time when the UK is uniquely placed to provide the leadership required not just for global benefit, but for the benefit of everyone in the UK.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.