Although British foreign policy is likely to encounter a variety of hardships after the withdrawal from the EU, some of the options still offer interesting opportunities which should not diminish the country’s international standing and contribution.
The decision to leave the EU is now behind us. Ahead lie months, perhaps even years of wrangling – with the EU, with Scotland, and all the unpleasantness that both will entail. However, once the storm dies down – and eventually it will – Britons are going to have to decide what kind of power we want to be. We will have to try and answer what kind of role we want to have, and what capacities that role will require. We will have to imagine a Britain without Scotland, and attempt to construct a role that is commensurate with the scaled-down ambitions and capabilities. Thus, Britain might look forward to three possible future postures. These are – in shorthand – Little Britain, Middleman, and Best Friends Forever.
The first posture involves a Britain that sees the world as an increasingly less friendly place, beginning a long gradual withdrawal from global affairs as a result. It might continue to be a formal ally of the United States, and perhaps even remain in NATO, but will only play the bare minimum role required to maintain those relationships, passing through crises as obliquely as possible. To all intents and purposes, the UK of this future will look like Cold War-era Japan, formally allied with the US, but offloading its responsibilities, a free rider on the efforts and resources of others. Instead of contributing to global security, it will allow its narrower interests to determine its actions, a parochial mercantilism taking pride of place in Whitehall. It will be Lord Salisbury’s ‘splendid isolation’ without the Empire and, perhaps, without the splendour. This would be the ‘peaceful shire’ Britain, with London leaving foreign policy to others, sipping tea and playing cricket on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.
The second posture might be called Middleman, and has some similarities with the first option in that mercantilism, writ large, begins to dominate Britain’s foreign policy calculations. Shorn of the size and confidence afforded it by membership to the EU, Britain will approach new developing markets with gusto and abandon. Seeing values as ‘unaffordable’, this Britain will swiftly jettison any pretence of shoring up the global liberal values system, seeing the modern international system as one large test of survival of the fittest. The Osborne Doctrine, so named for the Chancellor’s warm China engagement policies, will be accelerated and see London attempting to carve out a middleman role for itself between the old hegemon – the US – and the emerging one – -China. Counting on the UK’s certainty that only the City of London, with its knowledge and history of currency trading, can help Beijing internationalise the Chinese currency as a global currency Britain will dance between the various centres of power, attempting to play banker to the great powers. It could become Switzerland-Plus, attempting to exert power behind the scenes, without favourites or friends.
Finally, there is the Best Friends Forever scenario, which would see Britain bounce off the painful divorce with the EU with a renewed sense of purpose and identity as an upholder of Western liberalism. In this future, the UK will still have to run to new markets, such as India, China and others, but it will balance mercantilism with a strong emphasis on values and allies, doubling down on its NATO commitments in Eastern Europe and re-fortifying ties with Washington. This would see it re-engaging with old allies like Australia, and strengthening nascent security ties with democracies such as Japan India. Security diversity would become a part of British security posture and as with today, London would seek to bring together coalitions and groups of like-minded states whenever crises struck. This will see Britain becoming the ultimate middle power in security diplomacy and shoring up the rules-based system through strong support of Western allies and of regulatory norms relating to space and cybersecurity.
How viable are any of these three scenarios? Of course, as with reality, the future UK will exhibit aspects of all three at various times, and under different prime ministers. However, if any leader were to take Britain down the path of the first two, it would be great loss to the international liberal system. In many ways, the third option offers the most interesting and exciting possibilities under current circumstances. For those who worry about the US’s willingness to welcome the UK back into the fold, one might note that President Obama has already moved to reaffirm the importance of the special relationship in the wake of Brexit. Once away from the EU model, Britain – and its allies – might find new opportunities. The ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing arrangement has long been a pillar of global security for the Anglosphere. Policy elites in the UK might push to revitalise the Five Eyes at the political level, moving it beyond its shadowy corridors to a more strategic forum level. Five Eyes summits and working groups at the agency and ministerial level could become a viable vehicle for the UK and its closest allies to uphold the liberal order and at least tackle the growing Sino-Russian sense of revanchism. Modelled on the ad hoc minilateralism and trilateralism currently seen in the Asia Pacific, a Five Eyes arrangement could even consider one-day creating a pathway to closer association for long-standing liberal allies like Japan, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
While some kinks may need to be ironed out in the special relationship with the United States, Britain’s urban educated elites have more in common with American liberalism than they realise. Whether or not he can acknowledge it, Jeremy Corbyn is more likely to find his soulmate in a Bernie Sanders rather than in a Vladimir Putin. And his followers are more likely to find their beliefs in social diversity, social justice and human rights reflected in the US’s own progressive society than in a Russia that outlaws homosexuality or a China that imprisons human rights lawyers.
The UK should remember its interests, but also note that these need not be purely commercial. Values and old alliances are a part of British identity. Although the UK faces doubtless hardship ,it could also be on the cusp of exciting opportunities and possibilities.
John Hemmings is completing a Doctorate at the London School of Economics, and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.