In Search of our Mojo: Tackling Pessimism in UK Foreign Policy

As I write this article from the warmer climes of Spain, a non-scientific explanation as to why we back in the UK have always been slightly pessimistic with regards to the future stares at me from outside the window. If one were to ask someone in the UK “What will the weather be like tomorrow?”, the chances are that the answer will be related to rain and grey skies rather than the sun and blue skies that those in warmer countries might be used to. The significant challenges of deciding and implementing the many aspects of Brexit, can appear equally daunting. Finding things that Remainers and Brexiteers agree on might appear a challenge in current times – but most acknowledge the sheer size of the task at hand, epitomised by Brexit occupying 30% of the Bills in the current government’s Queen’s Speech.

This innate pessimism has extended beyond the weather to Brexit and to our post-Brexit foreign policy.   Mick Jagger’s latest song “England Lost” is an example of this current pessimistic mood at its purest. Jagger uses word play between “England lost” and “England is lost”, drawing a comparison between our unfortunately unsuccessful international football teams, and a pessimistic view of where England/UK is today.

Our diplomats abroad have on the whole been somewhat more successful than our footballers. For our foreign policy, there are many reasons why we can be optimistic. The UK historically has been an international heavyweight and maintains many of those accrued assets, from being the 5th largest economy, to having a permanent seat on the UN security council, and world class intelligence agencies such as MI6 – all of which give us an edge in the international arena.

Pessimism and modesty (and a globally recognised expertise in self-deprecating humour) have helped the UK in many ways over the years, particularly since decolonisation, not least in offsetting accusations of arrogance in a way other countries such as the US have not always avoided. Pessimism enables a realism that has been important for the success of the UK, and so a renewed sense of optimism in our foreign policy, however welcome, should not be blind to our limitations and failings.

Having said that, one does not have to look far to find examples of our capacity to promote our values internationally, uphold our role as a major international actor, and protect and promote our prosperity. The Department for International Trade have set up 10 working groups with 15 countries to improve our trade relations. Equally, the UK continues to advocate for freedom of seas and support the rules based international system as seen through the commitment to send the UK’s 2 new aircraft carriers to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. We also continue to strive towards world peace and conflict resolution, evidenced by us supporting the Cyprus peace talks.

We should avoid setting unrealistic goals in our foreign policy, as that would ultimately lead to disappointment, although perhaps no more upsetting than being repeatedly knocked out by Germany on penalties. A calculated and reasoned optimism therefore involves balancing hope and capacity to create a success-inducing atmosphere. With UK foreign policy, if the right steps are taken, the chance for us to re-establish ourselves and excel on the international stage is there for the taking, and would undoubtedly be aided by us regaining our ‘foreign policy mojo’, a national optimistic approach to the process.  This combined with our traditional modesty and realism should yield the best results.

We as a nation have divided opinions on what is best, and this applies just as much to foreign policy as anything else. The challenge quickly becomes how to be optimistic if the country takes a path that is not the one you agree with. Questioning and challenging our foreign policy is invaluable to our success, especially if done through positive dialogue. The BFPG works towards providing the opportunity for this dialogue and for a greater national engagement on foreign policy. This is surely something worth being optimistic about.

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.
Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.