While Britain’s political elite squabbles over the Brexit process, the world is entering a period of transformative technological, environmental and social change.
In the face of these unprecedented challenges, our rules-based system, laid down after the Second World War and overseen ever since by the United Nations, badly needs updating. It is a system that Britain helped design and continues to lead thanks to its permanent membership of the UN’s Security Council. But these days the privileged role of the P5 (Britain plus France, the US, Russia and China) is increasingly under threat. Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia champion national interest, while emerging powers such as India and Brazil question France and Britain’s place at the top table. Reform looks inevitable.
By voting to leave the EU, Britain – the world’s 5th largest economy and Europe’s largest military power, has wobbled the global status quo. Brexit is a disruption that most of Britain’s political and foreign policy establishment firmly opposed and feels deeply uncomfortable about.
Elite chagrin helps explain why the process of leaving the EU has so far proved difficult. But Brexit is what Britain voted for, and Whitehall – like it or not – must now turn it into a success. To achieve this, the UK’s elite must adopt a more positive mindset. After all, the status quo wasn’t working. When change is inevitable, it is best to try and get ahead of it, and shape the future. Taking back control – of our foreign policy, as well as our democracy – requires a British vision of this future. It also requires a sense of confidence: that an independent Britain rooted in parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and a commitment to fairness and social justice can be an agile and creative partner to its EU neighbours and allies around the world.
Outside the EU our security and prosperity will continue to depend upon a rules-based system which is able to maintain the world’s peace and keep open its shipping lanes. As a sequence of transformative changes challenges this system to adapt (or collapse), Britain can become its most innovative and hard-working partner, and champion the modernisation of global institutions. If we are confident, and have a clear vision, there is no reason why Whitehall, and all of the UK, should not feel positive – both about Britain’s new role outside the EU, and the ability of Britain and her allies to reform our global system for the better. So, in the belief that our best days remain ahead of us, and in a spirit of fresh thinking (and provocation), here are five ideas to set Britain on a new and radical path in the world.
1. An independent power needs a smart strategy. We must now overcome the divisions created by Brexit, most notably the schism between the UK’s elite and the rest of the country. The government should lead a comprehensive foreign policy strategy review, to be published in January 2019. To be successful, this strategy needs to be understood and endorsed by British citizens, and it also needs to understand, describe and celebrate what it means to be British. The government’s review should therefore consult widely and listen carefully. Whilst elected officials will retain the final say on policy, a broad and deep public engagement will help ground the foreign policy establishment, and begin to align this country’s people, and our commercial, creative and cultural capabilities with our objectives as a leading power.
2. The interdependencies between diplomacy, trade, and international development are striking. The government should merge the FCO, DIT and DFID into a single department. This should not be seen as a return to business as usual by the Foreign Office old guard. Indeed, to signal a fresh start this new ministry should be re-launched as the Department for International Affairs (DIA). The DIA should maintain offices in every English region, and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and be given a mandate to engage with the multiplying centres of foreign policy activity across the UK. This will help sustain a meaningful connection between the UK’s diplomacy and its people and communities (see 3).
3. Foreign policy is no longer the preserve of Whitehall; other parts of the UK are developing their own international profiles and objectives as part of their regional and national renewal programmes. West Midlands Mayor Andy Street now leads overseas trade missions and exerts influence in far-away places such as Pakistan. UK universities are establishing international alliances vital to STEM research which could have massive implications for international prosperity. Diaspora communities now channel dynamic trade and cultural relations with countries across Asia and Africa with minimal UK government engagement. An effective Department for International Affairs, with a presence in Britain’s great cities, should be leveraging this informal diplomacy to maximise Britain’s influence.
4. The UK’s Overseas Territories are a woefully under-utilised physical and strategic asset for Global Britain. For example, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands share historic family and commercial links with Central and Southern America – parts of the world which London has traditionally struggled to reach. Why not headquarter the DIA’s regional policy team on one of these territories? The combination of UK policy-making and resources plus regional implementation could be a game-changer.
5. A post-Brexit priority is building a strong partnership with the EU27. But Britain should also channel the mood for change by leading a campaign to reform the UN’s institutions so that they are fit-for-purpose. A more effective UN would be in our national interests, while this programme of global engagement would help unite the country around a sense of purpose and demonstrate the continuing relevance of the UK and our values. As we campaign for a 21st century UN we should leverage two British assets. First, we should be prepared to put our P5 membership on the line; it is time that the 1945 victory powers accept its time to share the burden of international leadership more widely. Second, we should expand our armed forces and make them more available to the UN as trainers, capacity-builders, peace-keepers and first-responders to natural disasters. A wider role for the UK military could be partly funded out of the DFID budget, and would help address the current crisis the armed forces are experiencing in recruitment and morale.
These ideas would transform how Britain develops and delivers its foreign policy. There are of course other potentially bold and popular steps we should now be considering as we move to demonstrate that outside the EU, Britain can be a force for good on the world stage, true to our values as a liberal democracy and willing and able to defend our own interests and those of our allies. Britain as an effective and globally engaged power is a goal that the vast majority of its citizens share. To achieve it, the UK government must first demonstrate that it has a clear vision, and the self-confidence to make it a reality.
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Tom Cargill is Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. Alex Hickman is Director of Prosperity UK.
The British Foreign Policy Group’s latest report ‘Rising Power: Revitalising British Foreign Policy For a New Global Era’ is released on 10th November to coincide with the launch of a national engagement programme of foreign policy events across the UK, starting with Southampton on the 14th November.