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What a difference a year makes. On 3 February 2020 (the first working day after the UK formally left the EU), Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood up in the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich and delivered a speech full of his trademark swashbuckling hyperbole: 'we are re-emerging after decades of hibernation as a campaigner for global free trade'.
A year later, on 19 February 2021, Johnson made the closing speech at the Munich Security Conference. In the meantime, the geopolitical landscape was transformed by the coronavirus pandemic and by President Joe Biden’s election victory. Indeed, Johnson’s Munich speech was overshadowed in media terms by Biden himself addressing the conference and announcing in no uncertain terms that ‘America is back’.
Less Bluster, More Details
British foreign policy in the year after that Greenwich speech has been consumed by Brexit negotiations. The overriding British objective was untrammelled sovereignty, at the cost of accepting new barriers to trade with the country’s largest market. It was much less clear what that sovereignty, bought at such a cost, would be used to achieve.
Johnson’s Munich speech was his first major pronouncement on national security since Greenwich and his first concerted effort to set out a wider vision of the UK’s post-Brexit and post-pandemic role in the world. It deserves a closer look for that reason and because it may well be a harbinger of the government’s Integrated Review, which will be published, after much delay, in March 2021.
The bluster and hyperbole were dialled down in the Munich speech. They were still there, in the repeated references to the vaulting ambition implied in the slogan ‘Global Britain’. But, overall, Johnson put international cooperation at the heart of British foreign policy.
It was a good day to be making this pitch. Earlier, Johnson had chaired a virtual meeting of G7 leaders, giving Biden his first opportunity for a collective conversation with close allies. The event produced a detailed agreed text (of a kind which would have been impossible during the Trump years) undertaking among other things to ‘intensify cooperation’ on the response to the coronavirus pandemic. On the same day, the US re-joined the Paris Agreement for global climate negotiations. Johnson rightly played up the importance of international cooperation to improve resilience against future pandemic risks and to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
A Convening Power
Looking ahead to the UK hosting the G7 summit in June and the COP26 climate negotiations in November, Johnson made the UK’s global convening power one important element of his vision for the country’s future role in the world. Another was reinforcing transatlantic relations. The phrase in the speech which stuck in my mind was: ‘the success of Global Britain depends on the security of our homeland and the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area’. A truism no doubt, but a very different tone to the exceptionalist rhetoric of the Greenwich speech.
In a clear message to the Biden administration, Johnson played up the UK’s commitment to NATO and its practical contribution in terms of increased defence spending and its leadership role in the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics. He also emphasised the E3 (the UK, France and Germany) plus the US, in what he called a ‘transatlantic quad’, as a forum for the UK to work with its closest allies on the most pressing security issues including Iran.
In doing so, Johnson revealed the yawning gap at the heart of this speech. He only mentioned the EU twice, both in the negative as something the UK had escaped from. In fact, they are the two most dubious statements in the speech: that ‘in leaving the EU, we restored sovereign control over vital levers of foreign policy’ and that parliament now has a ‘greater say over foreign policy’. It is hard to see how this statement is justified given the intergovernmental nature of EU Common Foreign and Security Policy.
Johnson gave two examples of how the government was using its new-found sovereignty. One was sanctions policy, where the UK was indeed able to move more quickly than the EU to impose sanctions on Belarus. But sanctions are only effective if applied by larger economic blocs – in reality, coordination with the EU as well as the US will remain vital if sanctions are to be effective. The second example was the capacity to speak out on human rights as it had done over Chinese repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang (overlooking the fact that being an EU member had never precluded the UK from taking its own position on human rights).
The speech is resoundingly silent on the EU’s role in contributing to the ‘stability of the Euro-Atlantic area’. The revival of the old Cold War quad format could prove useful, although France and Germany will always have a primary loyalty to EU foreign policy positions where they exist. The Munich speech was at its least persuasive when Johnson put on the mantle of spokesman for European opinion, declaring, for example: ‘I sense a new resolve among our European friends and allies to come together and act with unity and determination’, and later, ‘I believe that Europe increasingly recognises the necessity of joining our American friends to rediscover that far-sighted leadership and the spirit of adventure and transatlantic unity’.
The most notable contributions to the Munich conference by European leaders in fact pointed in a different direction. President Emmanuel Macron gave a spirited defence of European strategic autonomy. Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed out that European and US interests ‘will not always converge’, no doubt thinking of the differences over economic relations with China. Reconciling US and EU approaches to China will be a central issue in transatlantic relations over the next four years. One of the inescapable consequences of Brexit is that the UK will be watching this debate from the sidelines.
One speech, however well crafted, does not make a national strategy. The prime minister’s Munich speech was never going to resolve all the contradictions as the UK faces up to defining its new purpose in a fast-changing world. But it was important in marking a new, more measured tone and a real effort to weave different strands of the country’s international action into a more coherent whole. There was a new prominence for the theme of the UK working with others through the structures of international cooperation to maximise its influence. The crucial test is whether this welcome emphasis feeds through into the Integrated Review and is implemented in practice.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Munich Security Conference/Muller