Tough trade negotiations with the European Union (EU) may be over, but when it comes to Britain’s post-Brexit future, there is still a lot needs doing – especially when it comes to making sure British diplomacy is up to the monumental task of navigating the UK’s new geopolitical landscape.
'Global Britain' has become a catchy label for the government’s ambition to look beyond Europe for new commercial opportunities and pathways to global influence. But it will only be meaningful if the UK government recognizes extra investments are needed to make its vision a reality.
At a minimum, the UK needs to be an indispensable member of whatever team it joins – whether that is a coalition to tackle climate change, deter Russian political subversion, or balance China’s efforts to suffuse its state-first norms into international relations.
In this sense, a positive image of Global Britain must be earned, not declared. The government’s recent commitment of an additional £16 billion to the armed forces over the next four years is, in part, a recognition of this fact. But this sum will at best plug the shortfall for existing commitments to major platforms, such as making two aircraft carriers operational and modernizing the country’s nuclear deterrent.
Retain the same level of global influence
The missing piece of the puzzle remains British diplomacy, where spending will need to rise significantly to promote UK interests in a highly competitive global marketplace dominated by the United States, China and the EU – or, more to the point, to retain the same level of global influence the UK enjoyed when it was an EU member.
Outside the EU, Britain will no longer be able to rely on the European Commission to manage complex and simultaneous trade negotiations with other powerful blocs and emerging markets. Nor will it be able to leverage the division of labour the EU offered, whereby the UK could leave Germany and central European states to take the diplomatic lead on Belarus and Ukraine, while the UK focused its efforts on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The UK also needs to expand its presence in Brussels to monitor and try to influence the decisions of EU institutions, as well as in European capitals such as Berlin and Paris, which have outsized influence on EU policymaking. It has to strengthen relations with key players such as the Netherlands, important for its leadership of the more Euroskeptic group of member countries, or Spain and Italy given their economic size and voice on foreign policy, or Poland given its role in central Europe and in EU–Russia relations.
Even as the UK deepens its European networks, it needs to expand its diplomatic presence in major capitals around the world. In Washington, the UK will have to fight its way to the table when Joe Biden’s presidential administration starts to re-energize the transatlantic relationship. The EU and its major members are central to transatlantic agreements on digital taxation, sanctions policy toward Russia, and responding to climate change. A beefed-up British commitment to NATO will only go so far to buy American attention.
The UK also faces additional demands on its resources at the multilateral level. It needs to supplement its presence in institutions where it no longer forms part of the EU camp, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).
British officials need to look beyond their traditional stomping grounds – the United Nations (UN) in New York and Geneva, or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in Washington – and focus on projecting Britain’s voice into the deliberations of new regional actors, such as the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing.
Lacking the clout of the US or China, and unable to leverage that of the EU, it will take a lot of hard work for the UK to insert itself as a player or broker in contentious debates over how to govern new areas of international affairs such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cyber governance, and outer space.
On the surface, there are promising signs. The financial resources applied to the country’s diplomacy have risen by 18 per cent since 2010-2011, and the total number of diplomatic personnel, including those based at home and overseas plus local staff, has climbed above the level of six years ago.
However, these figures disguise a fundamental shift. If the proportion of British diplomatic resources supporting development assistance and British commercial interests has risen significantly, investment in traditional areas of diplomacy such as conflict resolution, crisis management, and the nurturing of bilateral and institutional relationships has continued to fall.
The government has closed or downgraded 11 consulates and diplomatic offices between 2016 and 2019, leading the UK to fall from ninth place in terms of its global diplomatic presence to 11th at the end of last year. This has weakened Britain’s voice at a moment of maximum strategic uncertainty for itself and the world.
If Britain does not invest enough in diplomacy, it can forget its global ambitions. Shorn of the loyalty of its EU neighbours and with others obliged to prioritize relations with their own regional neighbours or the big powers, the UK could find itself squeezed to the margins.
Britain’s recent humiliations at the UN such as its failure to win a seat on the International Court of Justice in the election of judges in 2017 and its defeat in a vote over the fate of the Chagos Islands in May 2019 are warnings for what it’s post-Brexit future could become.
Dr Robin Niblett CMG, Director and Chief Executive. This article was originally published in Politico.