Escaping the past: Why we need an honest re-assessment of British Foreign Policy priorities

As Britain edges ever closer to the date of its exit of from the European Union, the UK’s diplomatic failure over the last few years becomes increasingly evident.  There is a growing consensus that the UK Government has been outmanoeuvred and outgunned in its Brexit negotiations with EU officials, ceding ground the minute it accepted the EU’s sequencing of talks, and triggered Article 50.

This visible state of crisis is not limited to Britain’s dealings with Europe, but highlights a longer-term decline and devaluation of the UK’s key strategic relationships- specifically when it comes to the USA and the Commonwealth. The diplomatic drift the UK currently finds itself amid did not start the day after the British public voted to leave the EU, instead it has been built upon years of complacency and a misconception of the country’s past.

Therefore, at this critical juncture policymakers should take the opportunity and time for an honest re-assessment of key priorities, including the strategies and tools that will be needed to realistically pursue them. This is evidently a far more attractive proposition than continuing to stumble on aimlessly and increasingly dependent on the bemused goodwill of others.

Rather than negotiating with European allies and establishing a post-Brexit foreign policy, there is a growing consensus that British policymakers have spent the last two years arguing amongst themselves while international affairs moves steadily on. Government ministers seem to ignore the stark reality that most countries outside of Europe regard whether Britain delays, defers, or stops Brexit as largely an irrelevance, particularly when considering the panoply of geo-political issues the world currently faces. Of course, for many countries Brexit will be an inconvenience, particularly those with whom the UK trades heavily, but to their respective domestic audiences it is happening somewhere far away.

A common perception abroad is that the UK is in the midst of an identity crisis which in turn is stifling its foreign policy; however there is also a genuine curiosity and interest in how Brexit will turn out and the kind of UK that will emerge as many world leaders recognise a similar pattern of events happening within their own countries fuelled in part by populism and dissatisfaction with globalisation and the current international order.

There is also a recognition that this is in fact far from something new. After all, Britain has always been the ‘awkward man of Europe’ with one foot in and another foot out the door. It was this very reason that led to the French President Charles De Gaulle vetoing the UK’s proposed membership twice (in 1963 and 1967), and German Chancellor Angela Merkel only last month describing the UK’s relationship with the EU as ‘patchy’. It is clear that Britain’s decisions over the years to secure opt-outs from key EU policies- including the Schengen Agreement, areas of common policy involving security, justice, and freedom, and the adoption of the Euro- have not been without criticism, with other EU Member States considering it evidence of the UK’s aloofness.

In contrast, when British premiers talk of the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with America it has often been viewed by some on the other side of the Atlantic as a phrase awash with insecurity and met privately with much ridicule (according to Jeremy Shapiro a former adviser to the Secretary of State under the Obama Presidency). Away from the cameras the term has garnered a similar dislike amongst UK policymakers. Former British Ambassador to the US Sir Christopher Meyer believes it sentimentalises a relationship towards the Americans which the Americans have always been notably unsentimental about.

There is little evidence that the UK’s influence over the US is in any way increased when it dutifully signs up to follow all aspects of American foreign policy. Harold Wilson’s decision to refuse to send British troops to Vietnam did not destroy his personal relationship with Lyndon Johnson or the trans-Atlantic-relationship. While Tony Blair’s decision to unconditionally offer the UK’s support in the US-led invasion of Iraq left him largely a spectator, with the UK having little to no influence over decisions relating to military deployment or the post-war reconstruction.

Even the personal closeness of UK premiers and their American counter-parts has not always garnered mutually balanced benefits or an equal level of respect. In 1983 Margaret Thatcher’s warm relationship with Ronald Reagan was not enough to warrant the US notifying the UK in advance of its plans to invade Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth. Under Barack Obama’s presidency there was a marked cooling of relations, influenced in part by the de-prioritising of Europe in favour of a pivot towards Asia but also by a lack of personal chemistry with David Cameron and Gordon Brown.  The election of Donald Trump to the presidency, an incumbent who is both unpredictable and unreliable is currently testing the closeness of UK/US relations to breaking-point.

There still exists a unique attachment to the UK in many sections of the US Government, business community, military, and civil society, it’s clear that the ‘specialness ‘of this relationship has long fallen into disrepair. Rather than continuing to perform a nostalgic swansong more suited to the 20th century, policymakers should instead take stock of the levers that remain and craft a relationship of commercial and strategic interests not sentimentality.

Similarly, the overhang of the UK’s colonial past weights heavy. On the one hand it has led to the creation and maintenance of the Commonwealth but on the other it has ensured its neglect. Unlike France in West Africa, the UK has gone to great lengths to avoid directly involvement itself in the affairs of former colonial countries, save only armed intervention in Sierra Leone, fearing that this could be labelled as neo-colonial.

This has led to the de-prioritisation of relationships with Commonwealth countries both in the level of trade and diplomatic resources invested by the UK. The UK’s largest trade partner in the Commonwealth is Canada, which makes up just 1.6% of the UK’s total trade in goods and services. By comparison India, which has a population of 1.3 billion people and an economy forecasted to be the second largest by 2020, represents just 1.1% of all UK exports. The UK’s inability to navigate and come to terms with its complicated past has led many Commonwealth countries to shift their diplomatic and trade relations away.

In all of this it appears that UK policymakers are keen for the UK to remain a global player but at the same time are uncertain and feel conflicted as to what that role should be. One might argue that this anxiety over Britain’s role is a reflection of the UK’s character and is totemic of its cultural diversity; however it is also a reflection of a distorted perception of history.

For example those who argue that the UK should stop Brexit and integrate further into the EU, adopting the Euro and a shared common foreign and defence policy, reveal a wilful ignorance of the history of the UK’s fractious membership which has been defined as much by a divergence in geography as it has by culture. Similarly, little consideration is given by the advocates of this position to the sacrifices and complications an integrated EU-wide foreign policy would bring, most notably the inevitable loss of the UK’s seat on the United Nations Security Council and a weakening of bi-lateral relationships.

Some consider Brexit as an opportunity for the UK’s renewed leadership role in the Commonwealth, with the possibility of a free trade area, but they neglect the fact that the Commonwealth is not a homogenous entity; rather it is a group of loosely affiliated countries having their own individual interests, pre-existing relationships with other countries, and complex needs.

Much to their likely disappointment, these types of Brexiteers will find that Commonwealth countries have not been patiently waiting for British leadership. In fact, the harsh truth in many cases is that a quiet resentment exists amongst citizens in these countries, who are taught- and some of who remember- the worst aspects of British colonial rule. They not only have no interest in returning to such a one-sided and exploitative relationship, but at the same time have already formed preferential trading relationships with other countries.

This is not to say that the UK can’t develop more advantageous relationships with Commonwealth countries. Many positive links remain, but a degree of humility and care will be required to maximise these – qualities that seem noticeably absent from many of those UK voices most fervently arguing for re-engagement.

In all of this there seems to be a deficit in imagination and fixation on a past that simply never existed. When considering the variety of distorted historical views is it any wonder that policymakers have struggled to create a coherent foreign policy beyond the UK’s imperial past?

Rather than continuing to establish a foreign policy based on disjointed parts and established pillars that appear to be built on shifting ground, policymakers should instead come to terms with the UK’s limitations, recognise its assets, and begin identifying alternative spheres of influence.

While difficult, such an honest reassessment of foreign policy priorities would not only garner support amongst the public but would also bear fruit.  As most countries recognise that the UK still has much to offer and find themselves on similar journeys to revitalise their role in world while also reconciling the contradictions of their respective histories.

By making peace with it’s complicated past, the UK just might be able to find a meaningful role in the world once again.



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.
BFPG Admin