Britain’s Continued Identity Crisis Is Crippling Its Foreign Policy

The recent flare up of tensions with Iran off the Gulf of Oman, mass protests on the streets of Hong Kong, and the leaking of the diplomatic cables of the UK’s Ambassador to the USA has compounded Britain’s current paralysis on the world stage. Saying much but acting little, allies and strategic opponents alike are increasingly aware of the impact the UK’s perpetual identity crisis is having on UK policymakers and their ability to craft a coherent foreign policy strategy.

It has been several years since the Government first announced its vision for ‘Global Britain’ and the Foreign Office has yet to fully define what the term means, the objectives behind it, or the overarching strategy that will be put in place after the UK leaves the European Union.

Britain’s pending exit from the EU remains an all-consuming distraction sucking up resources in Whitehall and goodwill abroad.  The last three years of negotiations have left European partners none the wiser as to what the UK’s future relationship with the European Union will be. As a new premier takes over the reins in Whitehall, the timing of these foreign policy crises has clearly exposed the UK in a weakened state.

On the question of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and the re-imposition of sanctions, UK policymakers are keen to be seen as honest brokers working with other European countries to restart talks. However, this desire appears to finds itself in direct conflict with a historic fear of breaking with American foreign policy aims and the incumbent US President of the day. This has led to the familial approach of the UK standing in lock step with America as it moves towards a policy of escalation, exemplified by the Royal Navy’s decision to seize an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, the subsequent retaliation against UK tankers in the region, and the launching of a UK/US joint maritime force to protect shipping in the gulf.

Hong Kong’s continued semi-autonomous status as guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration remains a source of much tension between the UK and China. The last time protests erupted on the streets of Hong Kong in 2014 UK Parliamentarians were banned by the Chinese Government from entering the territory.

Consecutive Conservative Governments (under David Cameron and Theresa May) have sought to harness Chinese investment, tourism, and trade to bring both countries closer together, despite accusations that this has left UK policymakers afraid to criticise China’s record on human rights.

The re-emergence of democracy protests on the streets of Hong Kong is once again testing the UK’s relationship with China. The Foreign Office finds itself at once torn between wanting to uphold the UK’s treaty obligation and offer vocal support for the protestors but at the same time avoiding any action that might harm the UK’s commercial relationship with China. This desire to be seen as a defender of democracy and human rights abroad while also increasing Chinese investment in the UK produces yet another incoherent strategy.

When it comes to foreign policy every modern British premier (bar Edward Heath) has closely aligned themselves with the incumbent US President of the day. It is therefore unsurprising that the new prime minister Boris Johnson has avoided criticising President Trump directly, particularly with the promise of a post-Brexit free trade agreement between the UK and USA.

The leaking of sensitive diplomatic cables from the UK’s Ambassador in the USA, the subsequent twitter attacks against him by the US President, followed by the Ambassador’s resignation, have left lingering questions about how UK policymakers should handle their US counterparts. Without a close future relationship with the EU, there is a residual concern that the UK’s ability to conduct an honest relationship with the US and an independent foreign policy will be greatly reduced.

In stark contrast to the UK, countries including Turkey, Russia, China, the USA, and Iran are developing clear identifiable foreign policy strategies that can be followed with ease by domestic and foreign audiences alike. These strategies demonstrate a firm understanding of their own history, capabilities, and with clear objectives in mind. While America puts itself first (through a protectionist trading policy); Russia continues to flex its muscles in Eastern Europe in the hopes of creating a buffer zone between itself and Europe and China moves ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative designed to redirect global trade and cement its status as a regional hegemon and global power. Even the European Union has used the intermittent years since Britain voted to leave to shore up a drive towards a greater role in global affairs.

UK Ministers remain unwilling to recast and redefine old relationships or to adapt through the establishment of new ones.  At every corner there is a spectre and fear of alienating strategic partners that the UK will soon depend on for future trade. This reliance on the kindness of strangers appears to be the central driving force behind the rising levels of indecision, which has caused an unprecedented level of paralysis when it comes to any meaningful foreign policy strategy.

Even on the central question of Brexit, ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’ alike have shown themselves to be unwilling to commit to a coherent vision of the UK’s place in the world, due in part to both camps reflecting fractious coalitions who cannot agree on what the end of point of Britain retaining or rescinding its membership of the EU should ultimately be.

Rather than continuing to stumble on without a clear destination in mind, it is time that policymakers used the opportunity provided by Brexit to engage the public in a national dialogue about the UK’s role in the world, the UK’s relationships with key allies and strategic opponents, and the principles it should stand for abroad.

This would require politicians being bold enough to set out a long-term vision of the UK’s future role in the world with a credible set of aims and a realistic assessment of the Foreign Office’s current diplomatic capabilities. The public’s support should be solicited through direct engagement in seminars and town-halls across the country. Opening up foreign policy discussion beyond the confines of Whitehall Departments would bring the added benefit of creating an arena to refine ideas and define priorities. Once a broad consensus is reached over the direction of travel, only then can any meaningful strategy be crafted which will form a coherent and over-arching foreign policy.

As Dominic Raab gets to grips with his new post as Foreign Secretary the crafting of a coherent foreign policy strategy in the face of fast developing crises should be an immediate priority. The proper resourcing and funding of the Foreign Office would be a natural starting point towards this aim, ensuring that resources are fitted around foreign policy priorities rather than the UK’s foreign policy priorities continuing to be being hamstrung by the limited resources available. The damage the Foreign Office has endured to its diplomatic infrastructure after years of cuts to its core budget and the loss of nearly 1,000 diplomatic posts over the last decade cannot be underestimated. Nor can the expertise, knowledge, and capability lost be replaced overnight. It requires long-term investment in the Foreign Office and the UK’s diplomatic network.

The last few months have shown the UK to be in a perilous position as it is drawn further into escalating crises without a coherent strategy to hand. The continued paralysis caused by Britain’s departure from the EU has shattered the image of the UK as a pragmatic and confident actor, revealing instead the stark contradictions of a country that does not know ‘what it is’ or ‘what it wants’. Until policymakers are brave enough to address this identity crisis and begin to move towards establishing a new public consensus over the UK’s place in the world, sadly no foreign policy strategy will be truly effective.

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.