Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday night took part in their first televised debate of the general election campaign. What was striking, as has been true across the campaign so far, was a lack of substantive discussion of UK foreign policy beyond Brexit.
This underlines that, while a ginormous amount of attention has, in recent years, focused on the implications of the UK’s potential departure from the EU, comparatively little time has been spent on broader international policy. Indeed, the last time the nation systematically reviewed its place in the world, beyond Europe, was the 2015 National Security Strategy exercise and Strategic Defense and Security Review.
Almost a half-decade on, with the UK potentially on the cusp of leaving the EU, a new foreign policy review is as urgent as it is necessary. And this is especially so given the scant attention paid to international issues in this year’s general election campaign.
The last decade has seen Britain lose its global influence at the fastest pace for years, despite the fact that it retains the world’s fifth-largest defense budget, the third-largest aid budget and the fourth-largest diplomatic network. This has happened because successive Conservative-led governments have moved away from the world, rather than confidently embracing it. It is a flawed approach that has weakened Britain and diminished its international standing — and this at a time when the UK faces a massive range of challenges, from Russia’s stridency to a continued terrorist threat.
In a previous generation, former Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd asserted that Britain had been able to “punch above its weight” in the postwar era, despite it no longer being a great power. That statement may still be true today, but it is under increasing scrutiny as the UK risks fading into what some have called foreign policy irrelevance.
With the forthcoming scheduled exit from the EU, the Conservative government has asserted that it wants to rediscover the UK’s heritage “as a great global trading nation,” particularly with former parts of the British Empire and now-Commonwealth, such as India. Other target markets include China and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, plus key industrialized countries such as Australia, Canada and the US. To this end, London is agreeing new post-Brexit trade deals with dozens of countries, but this process is not straightforward.
Take the example of a potential UK-US trade deal, where there may be key areas ripe for agreement, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods, but potential disagreements too. These include over harmonizing financial services regulations, while other possible icebergs lie on the horizon too, not least given the current US president’s commitment to “America First.”
At the same time that these bilateral discussions are ongoing, the UK has also opened discussions with the 164-strong body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) over its post-Brexit terms of membership. The UK’s current membership is governed by its status within the EU, with Brussels making commitments on trade tariffs and quotas on behalf of the 28 governments it represents. The UK is seeking to replicate, as much as possible, its current schedule of WTO commitments. Upon leaving the EU, these obligations would serve as the baseline from which London would seek to negotiate new trade agreements.
If London fails to achieve a new schedule of WTO commitments, the nation’s trading arrangements will be severely disrupted.
While these WTO negotiations contain significant opportunity, they also have risk. For, if London fails to achieve a new schedule of WTO commitments, the nation’s trading arrangements will be severely disrupted, with a proverbial cliff-edge scenario a danger.
Outside of trade, Johnson has reaffirmed his vision that — post-Brexit — the country will continue to play a major role in international security, including through its membership of NATO. While London will play a genuinely global role through continued membership of forums such as the UN Security Council, its continued commitment to Europe will also be very important going forward. Johnson has sought to emphasize that, while the UK is leaving the EU, it is not leaving Europe. Instead, it is possible that London could continue, if not intensify, its cooperation with EU partners in areas including crime, counterterrorism and foreign affairs.
At this stage, the EU has not yet formally commented in great detail on wider post-Brexit security and foreign policy cooperation with the UK. However, it is likely that many national leaders, including in Germany, France and Eastern Europe, will particularly favor a continued strong working relationship given the growing array of external security challenges facing the union.
This underlines that, ultimately, the issue of UK foreign policy is not just a burning issue for Britain, but also the rest of the world as, if London no longer punches so strongly on the international stage, it will be less able to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile. Continuing Britain’s proud traditions as a longstanding promoter of democracy, human rights and the rule of law long into the 21st century would be best secured by a different approach to UK foreign policy, which the next government should seek to enable.