London Calling 17 – The New Global Britain: Aspiration or Delusion?

ISSN: 2736-6065

Blog Post by Irina von Wiese, former LibDem MEP  

London Calling is the European Liberal Forum’s column aimed at bridging the Channel. 

On 16 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Britain is moving east. Alas, not to where it was before – at the heart of Europe – but a great deal further east. To be precise, to the Indo-Pacific, where it once, long before the existence of the EU, ruled over a vast empire. Maybe it is this sentimental memory that has spurned Johnson’s idea that Britain’s future must lie far away from the islands it currently occupies.

In his ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, Boris Johnson unveils his vision for a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’.

On first sight, the Review is both ambitious and hawkish. There is the usual dose of Johnsonian optimism about Britain’s ability to play an influential global role, and the importance of ‘international institutions, laws and norms that enable open societies and economies to flourish’. The Review is explicit in saying that the United Kingdom will not be able to do everything alone and that ‘collective action and co-creation with our allies and partners will be vitally important’.

Britain’s nuclear arsenal will be expanded from 180 warheads to ‘up to’ 260, a new counter-terrorism operations centre will be set up and more armed forces will be sent overseas ‘more often and for longer periods of time’. A £24 billion increase in defence spending will include £6.6 billion to give Britain ‘an enduring military edge in areas including space, directed energy weapons, and advanced high-speed missiles’.

On foreign policy, the Review singles out Russia as the No. 1 threat to U.K. security and states the intent to make better use of the Magnitsky Act sanctions regime, allowing for the freezing of assets and refusal of visa for third country national implicated in corruption or human rights violations.

So far so good. But how likely are these intentions to translate into real life action?

Going by deeds rather than words, one could suspect Britain is diminishing, rather than expanding, its role on the global stage.

Only a few months ago, the U.K. government merged its hitherto independent Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, and then promptly cut development aid from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of GDP – reducing aid to Yemen, for example, by almost 50 percent. This comes at a time when Yemenis are facing civil war, Covid-19 and mass starvation.

There is a similar chasm between aspiration and reality when it comes to internationalism.

Having withdrawn from the EU, Britain voluntarily abandoned its chance to influence policy not only within the biggest democratic bloc of nations, but also in shaping common EU foreign policy vis-à-vis China, Russia and other (truly) global players.

Although there is a firm commitment to NATO and warm words about multilateralism and partnership, NATO and EU partners will be excused for taking such promises with a pinch of salt. By now, they must have realised that Boris Johnson’s words sound a bit too good to be true. The commitment to ‘uphold international law’ didn’t, in his definition, exclude the repeated attempt to break the Withdrawal Agreement or the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU – both binding treaties under international law.

On Russia, individual sanctions are a useful and effective tool, but send mixed messages after the U.K. government failed to conduct any proper assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum, and then tried to withhold the so-called Russia Report into the same topic.

More conspicuous is the absence of a similar condemnation of China. While the United States have classified the persecution of Uighurs as genocide and condemned the crackdown on democracy and increasing threats to Taiwan, Boris Johnson seems to have fewer reservations about the Chinese Communist Party. The Review argues that Britain must forge closer economic ties with China, describing the situation there as ‘systemic challenge’. Given the dependence of critical infrastructure, sensitive sites and technology in the U.K. on existing and future Chinese investment, it is maybe not surprising that the CCP is seen as a threat to economic security, rather than its own people. Sceptics wonder how long Britain, outside the EU, will be able to maintain a tough stance vis-à-vis China once contracts with Chinese investors come up for renewal.

Global Britain is a noble aspiration. The proof of the pudding, however, will be in the eating.

Brexit has left the U.K. exposed to political pressure from all sides. In order to replace the loss of EU trade – already amounting to a 40.7 percent export decline -, the U.K. is desperately seeking new partners, and is willing to overlook some ‘issues’ such as growing nationalism and human rights abuses in India. Moving away from Europe, Johnson is insisting on his Brexit success story and ignoring commitments he made on Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. Once the world has recognised the brilliance of his New Global Britain, such minor detail will surely be forgotten.

Now as in 2016, it is questionable if these tactics will work. Now like then, potential trading partners across the globe are taking note: nobody wants to sign a deal with a notorious deal-breaker. So as Global Britain reaches out to India, Australia and Japan, it remains to be seen what standing it really has, without its empire, and without the economic power and political back-up of the EU.

For now, the message is aimed at a domestic audience: those who were promised the Brave New World of post-Brexit Britain, freed from the shackles of EU dictate and ready to take up its rightful (and historic) place on the global map. Externally, it is clear to most observers, not least in the former colonies, that the U.K. is economically weakened and politically increasingly isolated from its closest neighbours and friends.