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17 November 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:16pm

There is a gaping hole where Britain’s foreign policy should be

Theresa May said little in her Mansion House speech. 

By Richard G. Whitman

Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech at the Mansion House on Monday demonstrated that her government has a gaping hole where it should have a foreign policy. 

The Lord Mayor’s dinner is the annual opportunity for a British Prime Minister to take stock of the UK’s foreign policy and to map its future direction. David Cameron was a master of this speech. His delivery in November 2015, following the heavy loss of life in the Paris terrorist attacks, forensically set out the UK’s strategy and capacity to engage internationally to counter the threat of terrorism. 

In contrast May’s focus was on the need to ensure that the benefits of “liberalism and globalisation” are more evenly distributed.  For her, the EU referendum and the US presidential election should be read as wake-up call. Important as this analysis may be for electoral politics, it does not set out a clear road map for the UK’s future foreign policy. It also resulted in a speech in which May made no reference to key security challenges faced by the UK, such as Russia and the ongoing conflict in Syria. 

With the UK facing the most challenging period in its foreign affairs since the Second World War, the absence of a clear government narrative on Britain’s future foreign policy is a major concern.  Britain’s planned exit from the European Union is now taking place alongside the election of a US President who, as a candidate, challenged the global liberalised free-trading order that Britain helped to construct, and the security alliance rooted in NATO. Most of the central tenets of the UK’s foreign, security and defence policy have now been called into question. 

Avoiding tough talking about the challenges to the UK’s foreign policy is becoming the default position of the May government. Her Mansion House speech contained a rallying cry for the UK to be a global leader. But for what purpose? Beyond making a softer version of globalisation work, she was not clear. 

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The impression of avoiding a debate on future UK foreign policy is reinforced by the speeches and statements of the Foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who appears content to conduct the UK’s public diplomacy through a combination of tweet-length bon mots and attempts to publicly antagonise other European governments. 

PM May has also further diminished the UK’s capacity for addressing its major diplomatic challenges by redistributing responsibility, staff and resources. The UK now has three secretaries of state influencing foreign policy – Johnson, but also David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union and Liam Fox at the Department for International Trade. Each are presenting piecemeal, and sometimes contradictory, positions on how the UK’s sees its future relations with the EU and third countries. To add to the confusion, the secretary of state for International Development Priti Patel has publicly called for new objectives and spending priorities for the UK’s development policy. 

Negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU is going to be the UK’s most pressing foreign policy challenge in the coming years. It will be the major preoccupation for Britain’s diplomatic and civil service machinery. And it will be made considerably more difficult if the UK’s exit from the EU isn’t embedded in a broader and deeper understanding of Britain’s future place in the world. 

The Prime Minister’s controlling instincts (demonstrated in No.10’s handling of the Brexit negotiations) are not a good starting point for debating the future for Britain’s foreign policy. Her government will need to make difficult choices. It must balance the needs of its post-Brexit economy, recalibrate relationships with its neighbours in Europe, and work out where, and for what purpose, to build deeper foreign and security policy relationships beyond Europe. The UK must draw up a clear roadmap for its post-Brexit role in the world. Otherwise, the danger is that the UK’s foreign policy will be simply a defensive reaction to the twists and turns of an unpredictable Trump Presidency. 

Richard G. Whitman is Senior Visiting Fellow at Chatham House and Senior Fellow on the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme. 

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