On 31 January, the United Kingdom will finally emerge from its long national nightmare of Brexit. As it strides, blinking, into the light of the real world, it must face some harsh new realities. The world is a much scarier and more inhospitable place than the one it took a holiday from after the 2016 Brexit referendum.
In 2020 a new, more modern cold war between the United States and China structures an emerging era of geopolitical competition in which neutrality seems an increasingly untenable option. In navigating this heightened competition, Britain has fewer and less reliable partners than it did just three years ago. The US is self-absorbed and led by Donald Trump, who bears no sentimental attachment to Europe or Britain. The European Union is weakened by internal divisions, most notably Brexit itself, and many of its member states resent the UK for the last three years of psychodrama. Most of the Commonwealth remains scarred by colonialism and deeply uninterested in aligning with Britain.
Britain voted for independence, but has achieved isolation.
Its answer to all of this is a slogan: “Global Britain”. The term evokes an imperial nostalgia for a time in which Britain was the master of its own destiny. But, of course, that time is long past and, today, Britain can only have global influence if it works effectively and closely with like-minded partners. What is the strategy to form such a bond with an overbearing America, a resentful Europe, or a uninterested Commonwealth? And, just as importantly, how will Britain navigate the divides that are opening between Europe and America?
The British government itself clearly has no idea how the Global Britain concept will answer these questions. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, suggested that it means Britain is “leading by example as a force for good in the world”. But surely no one in Russia, China, India, or really anywhere else is waiting to be told by Britain what is right and good. More seriously, the government has decided to undertake what Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised will be “the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the cold war”. As a policy analyst, I would never gainsay the option of a good, in-depth study replete with a research budget and lavish conferences. A review is necessary but is also a policy review is also an old and established method of avoiding tough decisions. And many of those decisions will not await the outcome of the review.
Trump’s America sees in post-Brexit Britain the weak link in European efforts to challenge US security policies.
Even before the review, one can already see the shape of things to come. Trump’s America sees in post-Brexit Britain the weak link in European efforts to challenge US security policies. It is isolated and in desperate need of a trade deal, which the Trump administration seems intent on taking advantage of. This week, a recently departed Trump administration official told the BBC that, if the UK wanted a good trade deal, it had better “realign [its] foreign policy away from Brussels” and dump the Iran nuclear deal. Less than a day later, it was revealed that Trump administration had threatened the UK, Germany, and France with automobile tariffs if they didn’t fall in line with US policy on Iran. Johnson has responded to this pressure by calling once again for a new “Trump deal” with Iran, effectively signalling his abandonment of the Iran deal.
The next test case is already lined up. Earlier this week, Johnson’s government rebuffed US efforts to convince the UK to ban Chinese firm Huawei from providing equipment for Britain’s 5G network. But, given recent events, one must wonder whether this decision will stand once Trump begins to threaten the US-UK intelligence relationship or (yet again) the much-mooted US-UK trade deal.
The irony of recent British neo-poodleism is that the UK needs an EU trade deal much more than it needs a US trade deal. After all, the UK sends 47 percent of its exports to the EU and only 13 percent to the US. And, as the Iran issue demonstrates, the UK is closer to its European partners on most geopolitical challenges than it is to Trump’s America. Moreover, many in the UK no longer consider the US a reliable partner. Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, openly worried last week that the US under Trump is withdrawing from the world and Britain may have to fight future conflicts without its help.
In this context, far from caving to US pressure, one might expect Britain to be urgently repairing its ties to its EU partners, particularly Germany and France. But this British government was shaped by a Brexit that Leavers have long championed as a declaration of independence from the diktats of Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Their very identity is wrapped up in making that independence demonstrably real. Going back to Brussels, hat in hand, to ask for geopolitical help would somewhat step on that message.
Alas, the world is not shaped by the political needs of the Brexiteers. America, under this president at least, will remain both an unreliable and unforgiving partner. Avoiding less-than-splendid isolation will, therefore, require a tight relationship with France, Germany, and the EU – which will, in turn, demand difficult economic and political compromises. But, because the UK government abhors such an outcome, it is floundering around for an alternative. So far, however, the UK government’s only plan for dealing with the contradictions of its Global Britain concept is to hope that its foreign policy review lasts longer than the Trump presidency.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.