Global Britain in a competitive age
Back in 1962, former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously remarked that Britain had “lost an empire, and failed to find a role.” It was a statement that truly rubbed salt in the wounds of Britain’s diminishing status. Even in 2021, at times one wonders if some in Britain have gotten over this even now.
For the purposes of finding this role much ink has been spilt, and furious debates engaged. A fresh attempt at defining this came in this month’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy under the banner, "Global Britain in a Competitive Age," a British government effort to chart a course on the world stage for post-Brexit Britain. The tag, "Global Britain," is a favorite of the more international Brexiteers anxious to highlight that Britain has not pulled up a drawbridge across the English Channel.
Often Britain’s post-imperial role was framed as a choice between being a core part of Europe or being the No. 1 ally of the US shifting closer to one or the other. Brexit has ripped up this scenario. Being outside the EU, Britain has resigned from this transatlantic bridging role. It has awkward relations with former EU partners, yet at the same time Britain has found itself at odds with the previous US administration and not necessarily the favorite ally of the current Biden administration.
The resulting 105-page tome is a mix of hard-headed practical realism and some bold aspirational vision in areas such as science and technology. Sadly, it is also laced with over-blown cliches barely masking an arrogant presumption that Britain still has the resources for a global military role.
The over-ambitious segments include the tilt to the Indo-Pacific. Even with a much smaller navy and military, somehow the review envisages British force projection on the other side of the world not least to protect freedom of navigation. The rhetoric-reality gap seems vast, and quite how this is achieved while operating on the home front in the North Atlantic is not clear. That said, given the sheer economic heft of this region with 40 percent of the global GDP, economic engagement makes perfect sense.
Another ambition that attracted huge criticism is the decision to increase the number of Britain’s nuclear warheads by 40 percent. This is a gutsy decision to take in the middle of an economic crisis when funds are so scarce. Voters may not be too impressed at billions being spent on weapons nobody ever wishes to see used. Many see the hypocrisy in doing this at the same time as calling for nuclear disarmament. The counter argument is that the nuclear deterrent has kept Britain safe since the 1950s and that with more advanced missile defense systems, notably Russian, additional warheads are necessary to maintain the credibility of that deterrence.
Yet in other parts, the review is far more realistic and less hubristic. It emphasizes a desire to be a “problem-solving and burden-sharing nation,” one that is engaged in all the major international multilateral fora. Cybersecurity is undeniably crucial for security, to fight crime and even defend democracy. The investment in cyber and tech comes at the expense of fewer ships and troops.
The primary focus on climate change may surprise some. The government “will make tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its No. 1 international priority.”
Britain hosts COP 26 in November and was the first major economy to set a net zero target for 2050. Decarbonizing the global economy is challenging but Scotland is leading the way on one front. In 2020, 97.4 percent of its electricity demand was generated from renewable sources.
Human rights get a nod but we are not going to get the human rights-centred foreign policy some would like. The UK will raise concerns about human rights violations but is it willing to do anything about them? China looms large in this equation. The UK has just raised the temperature by sanctioning four Chinese officials amid concerns regarding the treatment of the Uighurs and Hong Kong. On the other hand, a leaked video shows Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab telling officials that if the UK limited trade to countries with high standards of human rights, “we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.” Do not expect any consistency.
Running through the review is a powerful reminder of some of Britain’s considerable strengths, often lost sight of in the mishandling of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. The UK’s soft power is typically ranked in the top few in the world, with the BBC one of the most trusted broadcasters with a reach of 469 million people in 42 different languages. The British diplomatic service is the fourth largest in the world, and despite the recent decision to scale back overseas aid spending, Britain still ranks as a major donor to the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Today Britain still is searching for a role. It remains brimming with potential but needs to jump start its economy after the completion of Brexit and the end of the pandemic.
The review leaves many questions unanswered but no review can answer them all. Having just exited the world’s largest single free trade zone, it is surprising to see so little space devoted to future relations with the EU. This might be considered a work in progress. Yet when the post-Brexit feathers return to their unruffled status, how the UK interacts with its closest neighbors should not be an afterthought.
However, the review is worthy of close inspection for others too. If it does not always answer challenges, it does pose questions many other nations will have to face too. Dealing with China as a superpower is one, counter-terrorism is another. One grim warning is that “it is likely that a terrorist group will launch a successful CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) attack by 2030.”
Today Britain still is searching for a role. It remains brimming with potential but needs to jump start its economy after the completion of Brexit and the end of the pandemic. All too frequently in the last few years, one hears the accusation that it was missing in action on the world stage. That said, leadership internationally has been a rare commodity of late so a role is vacant for nations prepared to take courageous principled approaches to the dizzying global challenges we all face.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech