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Is "Global Britain" losing its voice?

After six decades at the forefront of American-European relations, Britain had considerable influence. Now it has left the EU, will it still be heard?

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Inside No 10 they have heard the criticisms. They know that for 50 years Britain’s global role was supposedly clear, with the UK sandwiched conveniently between America and Europe, sharing a language with one and a democracy with the other. They know that this pillar of foreign policy, both simple and unique, has gone. They know that many think nothing of note can replace it. And they know that some want Britain to shed any remaining pretentions to global power, and concede its sorry position in a post-Brexit world.

Inside No 10, they have heard all of the familiar refrains – and they think that they are wrong.

Brexit is “unquestionably a major fucking change”, says a key Downing Street adviser. And, they concede, America’s international standing is “being transformed”. The world is in flux. But Britain, they say, has not lost out. For No 10, too many observers are plagued by defeatist images, of a resplendent France and ascendent Germany, both bathing in the glow of American attention, with Britain shut out across the Channel.

In fact, says Downing Street, Britain is “strikingly aligned” with Biden’s America. I am told links between Number 10 and Biden’s White House are strong, independently of the Foreign Office. The link between the UK and US is in better shape than the British media likes to fear. There is “such a desperate narrative in the UK to says it’s going to be difficult relationship”, says one adviser.

According to Boris Johnson’s team, Britain’s current standing with America transcends both the complications of Brexit and the lack of any great personal bond between Johnson and Joe Biden. “It’s not a Camp David-with-my-jacket-on Blair-Bush type thing,” says a key No 10 figure. “It’s a broad alignment based on substance.”

No 10’s thinking runs like this. The US has less relative power than it has had for decades. China is rising and America First – trashing your allies and questioning their pertinence – led the US nowhere. Biden wants to do the opposite: to strengthen the allies and institutions weakened by Donald Trump. What then does America ask of its allies, and to what institutions does it turn?

In Downing Street’s view, America’s outlook under Biden is simple. It wants allies who share its values, who focus on human rights, democracy, and climate change. It wants allies who commit to burden-sharing, whose defence spending exceeds 2 per cent of GDP. And it wants allies who can help it diplomatically, preferably one with a seat on the UN Security Council. In short, “I look at the Brits”, says a No 10 adviser.

Britain, they point out, spends “by far” the most on Nato in Europe. It is upgrading its forces and its fleet more aggressively than at any time since the Cold War, with fewer troops but more technology. Britain’s record on development is also strong, despite recent cuts; its spending among G7 members has fallen from first to second. Finally, say those in No 10, America wants allies “who will fight”, as the British did, however misguidedly, after 9/11. The way those close to Johnson see it, “you’d be hard-pressed to find a better ally if you were the US, or a more useful one”.

No 10 know much has been made online of Johnson’s supposedly blackened reputation in Washington. After Biden’s victory in November, a former National Security Council spokesman for Obama labelled him a “shapeshifting creep” whose “slavish devotion to Trump” would never be forgotten. In reality, I am told that “the grown-ups in DC get it”, and that Britain remains America’s best global partner, despite Brexit or Johnson’s ever-erratic past.

[See also: Harry Lambert on the four key ideas behind the government’s new foreign policy review]

That does not, an adviser notes, mean that America needs to “to pick the Brits over the Europeans”, or that Biden does not also want strong relationships with France or the EU. But whose agenda, No 10 ask aloud, is most aligned with America when it comes to the UN, Nato, and China, or the G7 and COP26 (both of which the UK will host later this year)? “It’s very clear”, Downing Street claim, “that the two most aligned countries are the US and UK”.

***

The government's Integrated Review of foreign, defence, development and security policy, published on 16 March, is, on the surface, a major moment in Johnson’s increasingly refuelled premiership. More than a year in the making, it was intended to address the siloed manner in which British governments typically craft the many strands of their international policy. The Review follows two major decisions made last year: the decision to fold development policy back into the foreign office, and a major multi-year investment in the defence budget.

Christopher Meyer, UK ambassador to Washington from 1997 to 2003, describes the Review as “novel” in that “it pulls in many elements and is forward-thinking and is not obviously driven by budget, which is unusual for defence reviews”. But the report's many elements are also arguably unfocused. As Peter Ricketts, permanent secretary at the foreign office from 2006 to 2010, has noted, “There is plenty of ambition in every direction, but little recognition of the need to choose.”

The document, as Ricketts notes, lists a dizzying array of aims for the UK: become a science and technology superpower by 2030; deploy the UK’s soft power; shape the international order; lead Nato in Europe; tilt to the Indo-Pacific; step up in Africa and the Gulf; be a force for good in human rights; champion free and fair trade; create a space force; invest in cyber power; build up national resilience; reform the global health system, and, above all, help to solve climate change; all while withstanding the myriad threats posed by Russia and China.

For Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff during his decade in Downing Street, the report’s formidable resolve follows from its authors being unable to outrun a key fact: “There was a great big hole where Europe should be,” he says. “We have never had a coherent foreign policy without a Europe policy.” (Britain’s long-run standing in Europe was underexplored by the report, with the door deliberately “left ajar”, as one adviser puts it.)

I put the No 10 view to Powell: that Britain can remain relevant to America, as it was under Blair, even without EU membership. When I suggest that the UK could, as the leading European power in Nato, continue to be a bridge between America and Europe, Powell demurs. “Even Boris Johnson when he builds bridges usually has them connected at both ends. We can’t be a bridge if we’re not in the EU, that role is gone for us.”

That role was highly valued by British leaders for six decades. It was the impetus behind Harold Macmillan’s attempt to bring the UK into the then-European Economic Community in 1961, says David Reynolds, emeritus professor of international history at Cambridge. “The crucial thing for Macmillan was that would be marginalised with the US,” Reynolds tells me. “They’d turn to the continent rather than us. The economic arguments were finely balanced. It was influence.”

In lieu of the UK’s EU role, one theme emphasised in the review is that of Britain as a convening power, one that can help shape the open international order. Powell is sceptical: “We’re too small. Why is anyone going to want to be convened by us?” Much of the world is joining together in blocs, he notes, while the UK is "swimming in the opposite direction". That is a choice one can make, but it is a fallacy to suggest one’s global influence will be unaffected.

The belief in No 10 is that life outside the EU will allow the UK to “swiftly form” coalitions of the willing, moving from one to another depending on the issue, whether that be with European allies or others such as Australia or Canada, who I am told are Britain’s “diplomatic partner of choice”.

How far can a new focus on a range of alliances, and an increasingly global focus, take the UK? Powell epitomises the view of many wary observers in seeing the government’s “tilt” to the Asia-Pacific as no more than secondary policy. “No matter how many air carriers we send to the South China Sea,” Powell says, ahead of the imminent deployment of one of the UK’s two flagship vessels, “we’re not going to be an Asian power”. 

As part of the UK’s tilt to Asia, the UK is seeking to join a pair of diplomatic institutions in the region, a move Powell sees as a side-show. Malaysia, he notes, is not asking to join the EU. As for America, Powell – expressing a scepticism shared by many – says that any future British involvement in American-led conflicts will follow from the US wanting to “have our flag” alongside them, not from any striking alignment between Johnson and Biden.

***

Every administration searches for a new strand in British foreign policy: a unique stance, an identity of its own. Johnson’s “Global Britain” was borne out of the necessity of Brexit. But while the UK's position in Europe has changed, the truth of the government’s Integrated Review may be that not must else has, or can. As Tom Fletcher, a former private secretary on foreign affairs to three prime ministers, puts it to me: “British foreign policy doesn’t change that much.”

Meyer puts it more starkly: “The room for revolutionary manoeuvre in [British] foreign policy is almost zero.” While he appreciates the novelty of the report, he also describes much of it as “utterly familiar”. Tom Tugendhat, the MP and chair of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee, agrees that the report is not a great new departure, but “an update”. Reynolds describes it as a “changing of the colour scheme, a freshening up of this and that”. No 10 itself concedes that it is “less that British foreign policy has changed” than that Global Britain has been defined.

The Review has been met with moderate approval from many observers, especially abroad, but that may be because the report could only ever offer a set of familiar prescriptions. British foreign policy is fixed by a number of organising assumptions, from a belief in internationalism and collective security to a constrained defence budget, where the major decisions – investing in nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, each of them considered by successive British governments as a price of the UK’s permanent UN Security Council membership – were made before Johnson. (The raising of the UK’s limit of nuclear warheads – a source of much press coverage – is, I am told, a non-story. It is a technical requirement as the UK upgrades its weapons system.)

Since the Norman conquest, Meyer suggests, “there’s been a dialectic between what Anthony Crosland called Britain’s ‘blue water’ [global] identity and its European one”. After 1973, when Britain joined the EEC, the pendulum swung toward the continent. Now it is swinging back, but the degree of movement is arguably never that great.

The most novel aspects of the report may instead be, first, its adamantine focus on funding science and technology and, second, its insistence on Britain building up national resilience. On that front, the UK has, No 10 stresses, been woken up by Covid. Unchecked globalisation is now recognised to have created critical supply chain vulnerabilities. But neither of these issues is a question of the UK looking to Europe or to the rest of the world. As ever, Britain will try to do both at once. To have its cake and eat it.

***

Both those inside and outside No 10 are shrewd observers of foreign policy. It is too early to arbitrate between them. Sceptics of Britain’s post-Brexit standing cannot be easily dismissed. But No 10 is not alone in seeing some strength in Britain’s post-Brexit position with the US. Meyer agrees that the two countries are well-aligned, whereas there is “a lot of grit in the shoe of EU-American relations”, whether on investment in Russian pipelines, the use of Chinese technology or the freedom of vaccine production.

Meyer does not describe the UK as being a bridge between the US and EU – “we never were”, he says, “all that ended up with is Blair doing the splits and falling into the mid-Atlantic” – but nor does he think Britain needs to be. Mutual interest binds the UK and US whatever our European involvement, he suggests, although he does not describe the relationship as “special”. That status is reserved for Ireland and Israel, as the only countries that can shape America’s domestic politics. But Britain’s link with America is, as it long has been, uniquely close on military, security and intelligence matters, a front on which the EU – as an economic giant but a political dwarf and military minnow – cannot compete.

That closeness has long been cited by British leaders as the basis for an enduring Atlantic alliance. Britain is content to operate in America’s slipstream. It is taken as a given across Whitehall and much of Westminster that this is beneficial. Internationalism unites both of Britain’s relevant political parties and its civil service. “We could just fall back and guard Dover”, quips Tugendhat, a Conservative, but Britain has always wanted to be in the world, notes Powell, an adviser to a Labour leader. Nations are powerful, says Fletcher, capturing the foreign office view, in so far as they exercise power globally.

Internationalism is also the inevitable preserve of every prime minister; embracing the (formerly jet-setting) role of a statesman is one of the job’s irresistible perks. Johnson will have two opportunities to to embrace that role this year in a fortunately-timed boon, when the UK hosts the G7 in June and COP26 in November. No 10 describes its agenda for G7 as both extensive and elemental, to simply get it “functioning again” in the wake of Trump.

The role and rise of China will loom over both meetings. Tugendhat is among a handful of MPs who were recently barred from the country by the Chinese government, in part for speaking out over China’s treatment of its Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province. The Integrated Review is, he says, “all about China without being explicitly so”. Meyer fears “there is not a hope in hell of anyone in the world doing anything about what is happening to the Uighurs.” At least, not directly. The key, both he and Tugendhat agree, is to shape the international environment in which China operates. “If they cannot sell their cotton,” Tugendhat tells me, referring to international efforts to prevent the sale of goods made by forced Uighur labour, “China will change the way it is made”.

The UK has already begun to lead on this front, No 10 point out. Driving through such changes internationally will be a question, says Tugendhat, of Britain building up alliances, of making Britain’s voice carry globally. Some are sceptical that the voice of a post-Brexit Britain can carry far at all. Nevertheless that remains Britain’s aim, as it long has been. Global Britain is an old plan with a new name.

Harry Lambert is special correspondent at the New Statesman and writes long reads. He tweets at @harrytlambert.