A Global Britain must first tend its own backyard.
By David Yang
Boris Johnson’s plan to renew the UK into “Global Britain” aims to propel Britain into the global centre-stage outside and independent of the EU. By boosting the UK’s status as a “soft power superpower” and improving its hard power capabilities, Johnson hopes to make the UK a leader in diplomacy, head of the club of democracies and international convener. The UK is well within a position to achieve this. Since the end of WWII, the UK has maintained its global reputation by making up for what it lost in military and colonial power with cultural, scientific and diplomatic prowess. It has maintained its Permanent UN Security Council Membership and significant influence in multilateral organisations. It has become a pioneer in scientific research and education, attracting students from across the globe with its world-class universities. There is even an argument to be made that being outside the EU gives the UK independence of action and policy globally, which it has begun to take advantage of with its trade deal with Japan and negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. However, the UK of today is not the same as the 19th-century superpower it once was and must face harsh realities abroad, but more pressingly at home.
Perhaps the most obvious limitation of the UK is resources. The UK may have increased military spending by £16.5bn over the next four years, but this comes at the cost of cutting foreign aid by £4bn. Amid cuts to almost every other department, Boris Johnson exempted the Ministry of Defence. This funding is not only misplaced but still lags behind the ambitions of Johnson’s “Global Britain”. In May 2021, the UK’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth set sail to conduct a joint freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea with NATO allies, which might have been a stronger show of British military power had they not needed to borrow US aircraft to fill its decks, or US ships to guard it. Ships, tanks and planes may create a façade of power and influence, but they have never been modern Britain’s speciality. The UK of the 21st century’s most valuable trait is its soft power: its diplomatic connections, cultural and scientific reputation and economic assistance. In 2013, the UK was the only G7 country that met the UN foreign aid target of 0.7% of GNI, aiming to promote education, welfare and stability across the world. The current cuts foreign aid faces will not only reduce spending on programmes like girls’ education and hygiene in the developing world, but also severely inhibit scientific research. UK Research and Innovation, the UK’s public science funding body, has a £120m gap between its budget and original spending resulting from the foreign aid cuts, including crucial research into COVID studies on transmission and treatment. At a time when the world must work together to end the pandemic, cutting research funding does not exactly portray the UK as a paragon of global health security. Now outside of the EU, the UK has also lost access to many educational programmes like Erasmus and must pay upfront for continued membership of Horizon Europe, the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation. If the UK is to maintain its soft power capabilities, it must face harsh resource realities and weigh up trade-offs between hard and soft power.
Paramount to Johnson’s vision of the UK as a “global convener” and leader of the “club of democracies” is the UK’s diplomatic reputation. A country cannot expect to be a world leader without commanding a degree of trust and respect. While the UK has undoubtedly built a reputation as a stable and trustworthy democracy over the past century, many of Boris Johnson’s actions risk sullying it. Brexit has already happened, and itself does not jeopardise the UK’s foreign policy. What does, however, is the oppugnant attitude Johnson’s government takes with the EU. Brexit left the option of leaving the EU on respectful terms while continuing to engage with Europe, albeit not on the same level of cooperation, as valuable economic and geopolitical partners. After all, the EU remains the UK’s biggest and closest trading partner and a close military ally through NATO. Despite this, the UK has clashed with the EU multiple times over Northern Ireland, choosing to unilaterally override the withdrawal agreement it signed just 17 months prior. Naturally, the EU has condemned this action, with key European figures like Macron, Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen bringing up the issue at the recent G7 conference hosted by the UK. Even President Biden from the US has warned Johnson not to imperil the situation in Northern Ireland, making it a precondition of any US/UK trade agreement. What seems to be tanking the UK’s relationships with its allies is justified by Johnson as “taking back control” to avoid checks between the UK and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea. If the UK truly wants to resolve this issue, it must realise that eliminating regulatory differences within the UK and avoiding a hard border in Ireland are mutually exclusive. Going back on an international treaty the country had just signed does not solve problems but creates them. Not only does Boris Johnson want to have his cake and eat it, but he seems determined to place the blame on anyone but his government. It is the EU’s fault for not allowing the UK to break a treaty it signed, Parliament’s fault for undermining government negotiations and even the previous government’s fault for building in assumptions on Northern Ireland it did not like. To break international law and then blame almost every other actor inside and outside the UK, all while the very high stakes of Northern Irish peace are at play, does not display international trustworthiness or respect.
The UK has a long history of being an international leader and has the capabilities to realise that post-Brexit. However, it must face the reality of its practical limitations and diplomatic inevitabilities. Britannia may have once ruled the waves, but now it rules the realm of education, research, humanitarian aid and diplomacy. Recognising and, more importantly, not squandering that advantage is key to maximising the UK’s influence on the world stage. The UK must also recognise that it can project itself most effectively alongside its allies. The UK’s relationship with Europe did not end with Brexit, and any “club of democracies” will include much of the EU. In an increasingly multipolar world, it cannot afford to alienate its closest (physically and diplomatically) partners. US foreign policy under Biden favours multilateral solutions and cooperation with the EU and will not tolerate a brash and stubborn UK. Amid tensions in Northern Ireland and his populist and nationalist rhetoric, Boris Johnson must realise that his vision for the UK requires compromise. He must be a PM for the Union abroad, not just the unionists at home.