Why Theresa May’s upcoming Africa trip may signal changes in UK foreign policy

The Prime Minister is in Africa this week for a tour that will take her to the UK’s three most strategic partners south of the Sahara – Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. It takes place against a backdrop of relentless Brexit mania in the UK, and if her earlier visit to China is anything to go by, most of the UK media will treat it as little more than an exotic backdrop for questions on events in the Whitehall village. But it’s worth examining a little what the visit signifies in terms of the wider thinking that has been quietly going on in government about post-Brexit priorities, and how to secure UK interests in a world of considerable turmoil.

It is true that Brexit has dominated much thinking in the FCO, but while attention from outside was on the idiosyncratic skills of Boris Johnson, the department has managed to secure a bit more money for Brexit contingency planning, as well as, perhaps by necessity, accrue an increasingly effective and respected junior ministerial team. Whilst it is also true that the results of the Brexit vote surprised as many inside the FCO as outside, the mood has never been as bleak as many would like to portray it. In fact, there has been a growing sense that Brexit offers the FCO an opportunity to lead a process of policy renewal to reshape the UK as an adroit and highly innovative global player, combining its unique strategic assets in new configurations to secure UK interests in the face of growing threats, but also increasing opportunity for the UK post-Brexit.

This thinking is beginning to emerge in several forms, and, as is so often the case, it is in Africa that many of the ideas and strategies for post-Brexit success are being explored. This is not accidental. Far from being a backwater, Africa increasingly sits at the heart of many of the strategic shifts playing themselves out around the world. Its sheer complexity is a petri dish and challenging testing ground for new models of engagement and influence, whether it be Chinese infrastructure diplomacy or the emergence of new models of international crime or extreme forms of ideology. There is also a renewed recognition that in a world of growing multipolar competition the support of African states matters ever more, with Africa accounting for the largest single block of votes in the UN General Assembly. Recent surprise defeats for the UK in retaining a long held seat on the International Court of Justice, and over a request to refer a dispute over the status of the Chagos Islands to the court, have been timely warnings to the UK of the importance of better cultivating the support of other states for UK positions.

It’s for this reason that the FCO has been quietly leading development of a new Africa Strategy, but also developing a broader soft power strategy for the UK. Soft power – the ability to project the values and culture of a country through the arts, media, sports, education, business and a whole host of other non-governmental activities – is increasingly recognised as a major asset for the UK, and boosting the UK’s soft power has been explicitly endorsed as a top priority by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Yet soft power is nebulous and fragile, dependent on its perceived distance from official government policy for much of its power. At a recent private meeting of some of the UK’s largest ‘soft power’ organisations, there was, given the current state of the UK, a genuine desire to do more to project outward the values of tolerance, pragmatism and openness upon which such organisations depend but a real concern that government may try to directly influence such efforts. To do so, or to simply try to align such efforts behind some sort of campaign, would risk directly undermining the very strengths that has led the UK to be judged amongst the world’s leading exponents of soft power on indices such as the Soft Power 30 Index published annually by Portland.

So the Prime Minister’s visit will offer some important signals of intent with regards to how the UK is seeking to reposition globally post-Brexit. It may too provide some early indications of the growing role many non-governmental organisations may have in shaping the agenda of the UK over coming years – not just in Africa, but around the world. Handled sensitively, this does offer real opportunity, but the risks are very real also. In the current circumstances, the UK needs to tread carefully if significant damage is not to be done to a global reputation at a highly sensitive moment for UK foreign policy. On the other hand if it gets the balance right, the UK may once again demonstrate the flexibility, innovation and imagination that has served it so well in past moments of crisis – both national, and international.

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.