Global Britain, Little England

By Alex Colas

The long-trailed publication earlier this week of the Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was meant to give Boris Johnson enough material to keep alive the catchphrase ‘Global Britain’. Instead, the review has done something more useful: outline the many challenges post-Brexit Britain faces in finding a place in a fast-changing world.

The 100-page document is a sober appraisal of current realities, rather than a great-power ‘Grand Strategy’. It was presumably commissioned from the review lead, Professor John Bew, because he’s a historian of such things.  

It’s more a puffed up think-piece than Truman Doctrine. There are nonetheless some helpful pointers on what a Johnsonian ‘creative conservative internationalism’ looks like.

Aside from the small matter of Europe, much of the review replicates the boilerplate objectives of British foreign policy since at least the first Blair Government: sweat the post-imperial ‘soft power’ assets like the English language, common law, financial services, world-beating universities or the BBC.  Build on ‘British values’ of civil liberties, free trade, democracy and the rule of law which, according to Dominic Raab are ‘in our DNA’. Make the UK a global broker by harnessing its permanent UN Security Council membership, an extensive diplomatic footprint, NATO heavy-lifting, multilateral leadership, a nimble military and a generous international development aid to act as a ‘force for good’ in the world.  

The idea of an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ is a novel proposition for the contemporary UK. But it’s hardly new to anyone else that’s been paying attention – especially for that half of the planet’s population who actually live near those oceans, producing 40% of global GDP.

Similarly, the focus on science, technology, cybersecurity, global heating and public health is a welcome but sadly indispensable aspect of any security assessment in an era of anthropogenic climate change.

On the perennial issue of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, the review recommends raising the overall stockpile cap by over 40% to 260 warheads from the existing target reduction of 180. This is a move that even mainstream defence analysts find difficult to fathom, not least since it constitutes at minimum a breach in spirit of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Like the Northern Ireland protocol, Britannia may no longer rule the waves, but it certainly waives the rules. 

Left critics correctly underline the glaring contradictions and double-standards between what reviews like this say, and what the British Government does. British values are checked in at the door when dealing with autocratic allies in the Gulf and elsewhere. Britain’s humanitarian aid in Yemen has been slashed while the UK props up Riyadh’s murderous intervention in one of the world’s deadliest ongoing civil wars.

At home, funding cuts and marketisation of education mean that only 32 per cent of 16-to-30-year olds in the UK feel confident reading and writing in a language other than English, compared to the EU’s 89 per cent average. Meanwhile, the Treasury is currently threatening to axe research funding worth £1bn. The Tory fantasy of turning this sceptred isle into a colder, greyer version of the San Francisco Bay Area with an offshore financial centre attached is undermined by such cynical attitudes to public investment in infrastructure, training and innovation. 

For a middling power like the UK, foreign policy is about balancing domestic capabilities with external constraints. While inside the EU, the UK could play the role of a ‘global swing state’ in the western alliance. But, despite the Global Britain boosterism, the UK’s sovereign independence is now worth roughly the same as any other G20 member.

Here and there – through the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, or by providing special operations expertise – the UK may be able to act as a ‘force multiplier’ to US-led coalitions. But in the main, the UK should get used to being a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker on the world stage.

Global power has fragmented regionally and by sector, with China making huge advances in new technologies and bolstering its leverage across Eurasia. Meanwhile the US retains military hegemony globally and still dominates the leading institutions of global governance. Obscure international bodies like the 5G technology standard-setting 3rd Generation Partnership Project are more likely to shape the future distribution of global power than the much delegitimised UN Security Council. But the UK only holds a seat in one of those institutions. 

The most striking absence in the Integrated Review, however, is the UK’s own constitutional fractures.  In the foreseeable future, the biggest threat to the union is the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum, and the festering border issues in Northern Ireland. Sooner or later, the UK will have to define a territorial border with the EU, and the there is no way Washington will allow it to be on Irish land.

Whether Scotland declares independence or not, the SNP’s hold north of that border is likely to cement the Tories’ reinvention as a party of English nationalism. These domestic challenges are compounded by the socio-economic fall-out of the Covid pandemic. They are going to require much Government attention in coming years, further reducing the political bandwidth available for a Global Britain. 

All this leaves Labour with very little ground on which to reinvent Britain as a progressive force in world politics. Resurrecting an ethical foreign policy -as a recent Open Labour, Corbyn-fixated pamphlet does – is not a credible response to the UK’s new international predicament.

If Labour ever gets back into power, the objective conditions domestically are likely to be the same:  any country with a powerful arms industry will have dictatorships and autocracies as clients. An economy so dependent on its financial sector will be reluctant to clamp down on money laundering and tax evasion.

Weaning the UK off such toxic alliances will require radical social transformation at home, not simply giving foreign policy an ethical dimension. It involves a long-term investment in both people-to-people solidarities and the development of a viable socialist internationalism that connects global struggles for a more equitable, cooperative and decarbonised world with democratic political change nationally. Reckoning with Britain’s diminished place in the world may, paradoxically, be the first step in that task.  

Alex Colás teaches international relations at Birkbeck College, University of London and is co-author of Capitalism and the Sea

Image: A Trident submarine leaving its base on the Clyde. Source: Author: bodgerbrooks, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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