Brexit proper will arrive on 1 January, whether Britain has acquired a free trade agreement with the European Union or not. Soon afterwards, barring a dramatic upset befitting Donald Trump, Joe Biden will be in the White House. Meanwhile, the UK’s Integrated Review is still on the drawing board. The more impatient lament this, but it is perhaps no bad thing for us to take the opportunity afforded by delay to reflect on what Global Britain’s foreign policy should be and how we ought to present it at home and in the world.
Let’s not overdo it. Our future role in the world is going to be one of evolution rather than revolution. It will be neither a great leap into a new world nor the post-imperial pastiche described by some of its detractors. We are a country with people, interests and investors all around the world and have no choice about playing an engaged international role. But do we know what we want to do?
We need to start with a strategy, not a wish list. Strategy – in business at least – is about making choices to achieve your objectives. You do some things – and you work out how you can do them successfully – and you decide what other things you’re not going to do. Before you can make those choices, you need to agree on your overarching objectives. This means asking some hard questions.
Since the end of the Cold War, activism has too often been substituted for strategic thinking. The political Right relishes opportunities to project power, the Left wants to lead the world in righting what it perceives to be morally wrong. Lobbies from Defence to Development press for budgets and initiatives. But activism – “doing something” in response to the latest half-understood catastrophe – has done untold harm to our interests as well as the lives of people around the world. The world is not a safer place as a result.
While Joe Biden’s foreign policy will look much more conventional, multilateral and measured than Trump’s, no serious observer expects a return to old-style interventionism. For a start, there’s too much to do at home. Underlying the near-bipartisan agreement on the threat from China is the recognition that the US is now living in a multipolar world.
A tough line on China and a multilateral push on climate change will be two key parts of a coherent policy: both make sense for UK foreign policy too, so President Biden and PM Johnson will find much to agree upon; and the UK still has plenty of strengths to bring to the party.
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The EU will be also more comfortable with some parts of the US agenda than others. On the one hand, there is plenty of scope to strengthen the US-EU relationship, including on issues such as Iran. On the other hand, deprived of easy jibes at Trump, Brussels and key member states will have to think more about their approach to US policy, particularly the parts they find uncomfortable or inconvenient.
Those who focus on Britain’s limited room for manoeuvre are right, but only up to a point. No country today, including the US, can set the agenda unchallenged. Most foreign policy is to some extent reactive.
But that’s no excuse for not being clear about what we want to do and how. Here’s what Global Britain’s foreign policy should take as its guiding principles:
First, we should transparently set out our foreign policy in terms of a national interest that makes sense beyond King Charles Street and a few universities. Pretty much every country in the world takes for granted that foreign policy should reflect the national interest. Democratic legitimacy matters.
A foreign policy with too high-level a narrative is more likely to serve no one rather than everyone. The results of such an abstract policy won’t be measurable, except, of course, in terms of providing a raison d’être for the foreign policy “industry” that delivers it (full disclosure: as a former diplomat I used to play a small part in the industry).
No, it would be best to be as clear as we can about what we are protecting and enhancing, starting with national security and prosperity. If this sounds insular and selfish, it really isn’t. An assertion that our policy is based on values rather than interests, fashionable though it is in certain quarters in the West, will lack credibility and clarity in most of the world. Worse, in a multipolar geopolitical system, it sounds increasingly patronising (“colonialist” even) to suggest that it’s our mission civilisatrice to help everyone else reach the nirvana which is the twenty-first century West. A bit more honesty and modesty would be an excellent starting point.
Secondly, Britain’s orientation remains with the free democratic world, but this is no time for purism. There is now a great opportunity to rejuvenate the message, but also to make our diplomacy more sophisticated. We should be clear about what we are for and clear that we can defend our prosperity and security best in conjunction with our democratic allies.
At the same time, we mustn’t let the best be the enemy of the good. Values in Western Europe evolve at break-neck pace and we cannot afford to work only with those who keep up with the fastest of the advance guard. Boris Johnson’s initiative to launch the often-discussed G10 – the G7 plus South Korea, India and Australia is surely timely, not least because of its greater diversity. If we want to advance democracy and freedom, we need to start broadening the coalition, even if that coalition does not see eye to eye on every single matter of policy.
At the same time, though, the G8 is for understandable reasons no longer an option. If we are to achieve our strategic objectives in 2020 and beyond, we have absolutely no interest in driving Russia into China’s arms. Strategy implies choice, and the choice is tougher than easy slogans.
Thirdly, our foreign policy should be ethical but not moralistic. Our readiness to operate to high moral standards around the world should always be part of our calling card. Preaching, bullying and bombing others to behave like us shouldn’t. We celebrate diversity at home and need to be prepared to promote a pluralistic approach abroad.
That doesn’t mean, as it has too often in recent years, that we should continually seek to tell others how they should live their lives. Perhaps less time spent in the committee rooms of Brussels can wean us off an excess of “declaratory diplomacy” with hectoring statements on every unwelcome development. Sanctions should be used sparingly too: they are better than war, no doubt, but they are also usually less effective than patient engagement. It is time, perhaps, to return to diplomacy as “jaw jaw” rather than an unrelenting campaigning machine.
Fourthly, we should ensure that diplomacy, development and international trade function hand-in-hand so that we can do well by doing good. The merger of FCO and DFID should reflect an unashamed acceptance that our aid policy should be in lockstep with our foreign policy – when public money is being spent, there is no case for “semi-detached” aid sending out mixed signals. We should also be unashamed in arguing that free trade is often the best way of doing good: the Department for International Trade, whether it joins FCDO or remains separate, should be seamlessly part of the same strategy. When we sign declarations about climate change or free trade agreements, all parts of Government should be singing from the same hymn sheet and putting our money behind our declarations.
Finally, we should continue to be flexible about the best means to achieve foreign policy goals. With a Biden White House, the US pendulum will certainly swing back towards multilateralism, but only so far. Britain should not be “holier than thou” in supporting blocked or un-reformable multilateral mechanisms because we can’t bear to step back. Bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral diplomacy as well as “coalitions of the willing” all have their place. It always pays to be as inclusive as possible, but it’s the result that counts, not the mechanism.
Above all, foreign policy should once again be a national endeavour – as it was during the Cold War – not an abstract design by (and too often for) the “industry”. The substance and orientation of our foreign policy won’t change radically, but the way we talk about it at home and abroad definitely needs a refresh. There’s no better time than the present.
David Landsman is a former Ambassador and now a company executive.