Ten International Opportunities for the UK in 2019

It may seem impossible to see through the Brexit fog, but the rest of the world continues to present significant challenges and opportunities for the UK in 2019. Many of the top ten countdowns over the New Year focused on risks – and they remain considerable. But, despite everything, the UK will remain one of the world’s largest and most advanced economies with deeper and more complex trading, security, diplomatic and cultural ‘soft power’ links globally than almost any country in the world. Brexit makes it even more important that we proactively use the year ahead to defend and further advance these links and the international rules and security which underpin them. So in the BFPG spirit of constructive engagement here are ten suggested opportunities for the UK in 2019 to coherently advance some critical interests.

1. Use the 2019 Cricket World Cup as an opportunity for UK Soft Power

From May 30th until 14th July the UK will be hosting the Cricket World Cup for the first time since 1999. The UK excels at hosting major sporting events, which are increasingly important for the UK’s wider prosperity and influence as a critical aspect of the UK’s ‘soft power; the ability to build the global relationships and appeal that support our wider interests. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office is leading the development of a ‘UK Soft Power Strategy’, and the ability to host and impress some of our key international partners at events such as these is of particular value to the UK right now. This is not without risks, as soft power risks crumbling when government gets involved. Yet the Cricket World Cup is a real opportunity to test out and develop the UK’s experimentation in this space as other nations accelerate their own efforts, and could lay the groundwork for greater innovation in the future.

2. Develop more strategy and substance behind the UK’s ambitions in Asia Pacific

This year the UK will be opening a new dedicated Mission in Jakarta to ASEAN- Association of South East Asian Nations – an important practical step towards building links with an increasingly important region for the UK. The move is more timely as Indonesia, which hosts the secretariat, has just taken up its place as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the coming year, a move which will provide added energy to the ASEAN Summit due to take place in Jakarta in June 22nd. With the G20 taking place the following week, the ASEAN summit will be a good opportunity for the UK to use the novelty of its Mission to test out, and build profile and support for its growing regional ambitions, whilst addressing regional concerns that it lacks the capacity and long-term commitment to follow through. In addition, three new high commissions are to be opened in the Pacific, new defence arrangements in the region with Australia and Japan are developing and the important Five Power Defence Arrangement with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand is receiving fresh focus. The announcement of a new British military base in the region could be positive if potential partners are better consulted in advance. Finally; with India becoming perhaps our closest bilateral partner in years to come, the UK is further strengthening diplomatic links and investment, including establishing a new tech-hub in Delhi this year. In total; 2019 will mark an important milestone in the UK’s growing ambitions and define regional expectations of the UK over coming years.

3. Build on the success of the London Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Despite falling victim to Brexit reductionism, the Commonwealth remains an increasingly important, and strangely modern, networking group for the UK and other members. The UK’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last year was widely considered highly successful and constructive by participants, demonstrating the ongoing utility of the Commonwealth to its members, as well as the value of the UK’s, and especially the Royal Family’s, leadership role within it. This year brings the opportunity to build on the good will and access that CHOGM created for the UK, along with the announcement that ten new High Commissions will be opened during 2019. Much of the value of Commonwealth relationships comes from a focus on no-political aspects, such as youth, sport and the environment. Central aspects of UK initiatives across these issues as set out below have major relevance for the Commonwealth. Yet trade, security and diplomatic links are increasingly important and on issues from piracy and modern slavery to supporting the rules based international system, 2019 could see the UK begin to push a more strategic effort to build common positions on major issues amongst Commonwealth partners.

4. Re-calibrate and refresh relations with the USA

Fallout from the Trump Presidency is beginning to have a noticeable impact on UK policy discussions of the trans-Atlantic relationship, with growing talk of the need to reassess the UK’s particularly close links with the US on a number of levels. At present much discussion is vague or ill-focused, but, together with Brexit, it represents an opportunity to rethink what the UK and the US want from each other, and whether and how both countries might refresh a relationship that often, for better or worse, appeared to run on auto-pilot. At a cultural level this might include building more civil society links, including with the massive number of Americans with British links and heritage in the US, as well as the probably under recognised American diaspora in the UK.  Another emerging focus is on building sub-national regional links between US states and UK regions and devolved nations. Away from the scratchiness of bilateral ties at leadership level  the parallels being drawn between Brexit and cultural changes in the US, offer an opportunity to engage on many different levels with a key ally in 2019.

5. Begin redefining and rebuilding bilateral relationships across Europe

Whatever happens on March 29th, there will be much to do in the years ahead in rebuilding trust and relationships between the UK and key EU member states. What had been a deeply integrated and effective set of long term personal and institutional networks across the EU that the UK relied upon to pursue its interests has been severely compromised. Many aspects of it, such as well-disposed UK staff at think tanks and other bodies feeding into European, not just EU, decision-making are unlikely to be rebuilt. Alternative networks will take time to develop, and whilst the FCO have begun this work, 2019 will be key in setting the direction post Brexit and in considering how to use this as an opportunity to rethink how the UK engages informally and semi-formally with its most important partners.

6. Forge more domestic consensus on UK engagement with China

UK engagement with China has seesawed wildly from the close commercial embrace of what some close observers termed ‘Operation KowTow’ during the Cameron premiership, to a far warier relationship under Theresa May. Large Chinese investments have been blocked and Chinese technology companies such as Huawei have been publicly identified as posing a potential security threat to the UK by senior defence and intelligence officials. There is a logic in both approaches, yet little sense of a coherent discussion between UK business, defence, diplomatic and other stakeholders, about developing a consensus on an approach to China which recognises the need to engage China commercially and diplomatically whilst maintaining our national security. Businesses are increasingly unclear and frustrated by lack of clarity, particularly as the UK government continues to promote the Belt & Road initiative as an opportunity for UK companies.  A more balanced approach, if it could be developed with sufficient cross-party consensus, would allow a long-term strategic engagement that would work in both countries’ interests by providing a clearer and more reliable roadmap for future investment, trade, diplomatic and security arrangements. Neither China nor particular interests in the UK will likely be completely satisfied by the result, but it would at least demonstrate the UK as being open and consistent, and help businesses in both countries identify and follow up with greater confidence on the significant opportunities there are for mutual economic benefit.

7. Use the G20 Summit in Osaka to build an alliance for international governance reform

The UK was one of the major architects of the network of global governance structures that, however imperfectly, promote good governance, the consistent application of rules, and fair process around the world. After 70 years, many of the institutions and rules deserve review, but some governments and factions use this as an excuse to undermine the entire principle of a rules based international order. The UK now stands as one of a strong cohort of global and medium sized powers who understand that our interests lie in promoting and defending fair and consistent international rules. Yet more coordination and mutual support amongst this group would be timely to begin advancing a fair reform agenda. Japan has stated the rules based international system will be a focus for its G20 summit in Osaka on June 28th-29th . The UK could proactively support this agenda alongside other G20 peers such as India, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Canada, Argentina, as well as European colleagues, to address some of the root causes of both popular discontent, as well as the more legitimate concerns from the super powers and smaller states about inadequacies of the system as it stands.

8. Focus international attention on the Sustainable Development Goals

This year the UK is one of around 40 countries due to report back on its progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals at the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to be held from 9th – 18th July in New York. This is an important opportunity for the UK to show leadership by demonstrating what it has achieved in recent years across 17 areas in areas ranging global poverty reduction and the provision of clean water to preventing climate change and tackling gender equality. With some important exceptions, the UK has a strong record to report on, but the urgency of the challenges facing the world, and the UK, are growing.  The UK could usefully use the High-Level Political Forum as an opportunity to rally support for more ambitious action on targets to be championed at the UN General Assembly Meeting in September, and then at the UN Climate Change Conference to be hosted by Peru from the 11th November, particularly working with like-minded fellow global powers and others at national and sub-national level to accelerate progress.

9. Further trade and diplomatic links across Africa

In the latter part of the year the UK is due to follow through on the pledge made by Prime Minister Theresa May during her Africa visit last year to host a UK-Africa Investment summit in 2019. This summit will provide a rare opportunity to the UK to build on the relationships and progress forged during the visit last year and at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting earlier in the year. African states are increasingly being recognised as strategically vital to the future stability and prosperity of the UK and the world. They also offer significant opportunity to the UK as trading partners as well as allies in support of particular common objectives given African states make up almost one third of the UN General Assembly. The UK has already begun to recalibrate its regional engagement Africa via an innovative new 20 year ‘Strategic Approach’ developed by the FCO and led by the National Security Council, which integrates policies focused on inclusive growth, stability & security, climate change and demography across the continent. This investment summit provides an invaluable platform to demonstrate specific progress through new trade initiatives and partnerships in support of shared interests and prosperity at a critical time for both the UK, and many African states.

10. Embrace NATO’s 70th Anniversary to Renew Support for Collective Security

Throughout 2019 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation will be marking 70 years since it was founded to provide mutual security guarantees between the democracies of North America and Western Europe in the face of Soviet aggression. Since then the alliance has expanded to include states formerly dominated by the Soviet Union, and remains a vital if increasingly tested organisation as Russia seeks to undermine its neighbours and carve out regions of influence to suits its own interests. Renewed instability in the Western Balkans in particular offer new threats to European stability, with Russia playing a provocatory role. President Trump’s increasingly aggressive positioning in relation to other members’ failure to pay their share of the costs of protection, alongside the emergence of a generation who risk taking for granted the European peace and stability of recent decades, threaten the alliance. As a leading member, the UK has the opportunity at this summit to build consensus on a way forward. In addition, the UK has an opportunity to restate the case for collective security and support for the rules based international system at a time of deep uncertainty across Europe and North America. This might include building on the support and momentum the UK benefited from in the aftermath of the chemical attack in Salisbury last year and the focus it developed as a result on strengthening the mandate of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, and using it to track down the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Initiatives such as this, as well as a continuing focus on the prevention of sexual violence against women in conflict, can generate wider public support for actions in support of common security, and the UK is well placed to pursue these further in 2019.


There are many other opportunities that might be included here, as well as challenges. The crisis in Yemen and Syria for instance remain deeply alarming but with no clear entry point for the UK, or indeed possibly others to take new unilateral initiatives on top of the steady diplomacy being undertaken already.  But these ten areas hopefully give an indication of the practical steps the UK can take towards defending and advancing its interests in 2019. Many if not all of these are already programmed into various grids across government. A particular challenge over years ahead will be building internal UK government coherence so that, for instance, announcements on initiatives by the Defence Secretary are coordinated effectively with other government departments. Yet it is outside government where perhaps the starkest challenge remains for the UK. The Brexit vote and subsequent events are ever more clear signals that the division between domestic and foreign policy is breaking down. Key communities of interest, critical stakeholders, regions and others are playing ever more vocal and influential roles in aspects of UK foreign, trade and even security policy. Foreign states themselves are now asking the UK if there is sufficient domestic consensus behind particular initiatives such as the possibility of joining the Trans Pacific Partnership. Such concerns are only likely to grow over coming years. The UK does not have a tradition of expressing a particularly strategic global outlook, but this approach appears increasingly unsustainable when communities increasingly question why they should support, whether through taxes, votes or other means, the UK’s diplomats and others to pursue their work around the world. More effectively articulating a foreign policy strategy rooted in engagement with people across the UK is the real opportunity, and necessity of 2019.

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.