The convincing general election win for the Conservative Party and Boris Johnson opens a new chapter in British history. On 31 January 2020, Britain will withdraw from the EU and return to its historical position as a separate European power.
Recognising the strategic significance of this change, the Queen’s speech opening the new parliament stated that 'the government will undertake the deepest review of Britain's security, defence, and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War'. But in what context?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other Brexit supporters have yearned for Britain to return to its exceptional trajectory. In their view, Britain can once again become a trading nation - more global in outlook and ambition than its European neighbours, freed from the shackles of an ageing and fractured European continent and its deadening regulatory hand.
This imagery makes good copy. But the 21st century does not offer Britain the same opportunities as did the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries. This is a different world, and Britain’s position in it needs to be crafted with a sharp eye to what is possible.
Geopolitics undergoing wrenching change
This is not declinism. The UK remains an economically strong and politically influential country by relative global standards – it is currently the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, and the second largest donor of official development assistance. It has ubiquitous cultural brands from fashion and music to the royal family, and an eminent diplomatic and security position at the heart of all of the world’s major international institutions and alliances, from NATO and the UN security council to the IMF, G7, G20 and Commonwealth.
But Britain leaves the EU just as the geopolitical landscape is undergoing wrenching change. The United States has turned inwards, closer to its own historic norm, and is undermining the international institutions which it created alongside Britain in the 1940s. China’s international influence is on the rise alongside its vast and still growing economy, challenging traditional norms of individual freedom and public transparency.
Russia is navigating the cracks and crevices of the fracturing rules-based international order with ruthless efficiency. Sensing the change in the wind, many governments are now back-tracking on their post-Cold War transitions to more open and democratic societies.
The implications of this new context have yet to be fully internalised by those who look forward to Britain’s future outside the EU. Britain will be negotiating new trade deals in an increasingly transactional, fragmented and protectionist international economic environment. It will be trying to sell its world-class services into markets where national control over finance, law, technology and media is increasingly prized.
Making new diplomatic inroads will be no easier. The government will face strong internal and external criticism if it lends security assistance to states that are simultaneously clamping down on their citizens’ rights. With the number of military personnel in decline and investment in new equipment stretched across multiple expensive platforms, the UK could struggle to project meaningful defence cooperation to new security partners in Asia at the same time as upholding its NATO commitments and its deployments in conflict zones around the world.
Britain also opens its new global chapter at a time when it is changing domestically. There is no over-riding reason for a missionary British foreign policy – neither the economic returns or image of national glory that drove Empire, nor the existential defence of its land, interests and freedom that drove it during the Cold War.
Stretching liberal interventionism to Iraq, as Tony Blair did when he was prime minister, and to Libya as David Cameron did in 2011, has injected a deep dose of popular scepticism to the idea that Britain - with or without allies - can or should help make the world in its own image.
This more defensive mindset – epitomised by parliament’s refusal to use military force to punish President Bashar al Assad’s regime for using chemical weapons against its citizens in 2013 – will not abate soon. Especially when the new government’s political bandwidth will be stretched by fiendishly complex trade-offs between its financial promises to support domestic renewal, the imperatives of striking and implementing a new free trade agreement with the EU, and the economic consequences of leaving the single market.
All this points to the fact that the most important step for Britain at the beginning of this new national chapter will be to establish an effective partnership with the EU and its member states. They face the same international risks as Britain and have as much to gain from the preservation of rules-based international behaviour. Recognising the continued interdependence between Britain and the EU will offer both sides greater leverage in a more competitive and hostile world.
A new transatlantic relationship
Once it has agreed its new relationship with the EU, Britain can turn to crafting its new relationship with the mighty United States. US-UK economic interdependence and close security ties should help discipline the bilateral economic relationship. The more difficult challenge will be for the UK to avoid falling into fissures between the US and the EU over how to manage bilateral relations with China and Russia, particularly if President Trump wins a second term.
Britain will have to get used to this difficult balancing act between its transatlantic heart and European head after Brexit. This makes it all the more important for the UK to develop new diplomatic and commercial initiatives with countries that are also struggling to cope with the current uncertain, transactional international environment.
Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand can grow as bilateral economic partners and as allies in international institutions, such as the G7, OECD and WTO. They may even open a door to British engagement in regional trade arrangements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CP-TPP), which do not require the same political commitments as EU membership.
Turning from an EU-rooted foreign and economic policy to one that is once again more international in outlook will be difficult, take time and be more costly than the government currently envisages. The irony is that for this to be successful requires sustained political investment by the Johnson government to build a strong relationship with the EU that it is focused on leaving.
Dr Robin Niblett CMG, Director, Chatham House.