Mark Webber explores the UK’s understanding of its place in the world, highlighting how a particular conception of Britain’s international standing helps explain the drive to leave the European Union, and the post-Brexit ‘reset’ in UK foreign policy that has taken place subsequently. This is one of three blogs that summarises recent research on UK foreign policy and Brexit.
Is Britain ‘broken’ or is it – in the words of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – a ‘global leader’? These two polarised views of the UK seem irreconcilable. Perhaps instead the UK is a modest ‘medium power’ or even its less attractive analogue – a ‘stalemate society’, a country characterized by high ambition but deadlocked politics?
That such questions continue to shape national debate reflects an introspective awareness that the UK is not what it once was, conjoined to a feeling that it is still capable of recapturing past glories. This nostalgia runs deep in the British political class, fuelling a tacit (if often unacknowledged) mission to arrest the country’s decline.
These are not new questions – coping with decline has been a mainstay of British historical surveys for decades; and the subject of denial by its political class for just as long. But it is not just a British preoccupation. The great challenge of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been to prevent relative decline, to obstruct challenges to US hegemony – first from Japan (a country, ironically, with its own declinist narrative) and latterly from China.
Germany – Europe’s largest economy and during the Merkel-era the EU’s centre of gravity – has recently been dubbed ‘the sick man of Europe’ owing to recession, an embarrassing dependency on Russian energy and fractious coalition politics. The re-election of Emanuel Macron as president of France in April 2022 occurred against a backdrop of angst over social breakdown, rising crime and political decay.
While there are similarities across these debates, the British case has one stand-out feature: the impact of Brexit. And here we confront a puzzle: why was Brexit, a course of action that many warned would actually accelerate British decline, pursued with alacrity by a faction of the Conservative Party historically committed to upholding the UK’s place in the world?
Brexit was not a policy blunder of the sort to which British politics seems particularly prone, an irrational act initiated by flawed decision-makers who then proved unable to reverse the process once its negative consequences had become clear. Brexit, rather, was a quite logical extension of how one section of Britain’s elite viewed the UK’s international standing.
Foreign policy may have obvious material objectives (defence, trade, investment, and the protection of fellow nationals) supplemented by access to mechanisms (international law, organisations, and alliances) that safeguard such interests. Equally, political elites are also preoccupied by more abstract ambitions – the promotion of values and norms, the fulfilment of national identity, and the preservation of status. These abstractions are tied together subjectively in shared ideas on what international ‘role’ a state should play.
In the British case, there has been an enduring belief among governments of all stripes, that the UK is a world leader. British role conceptions – as a good ally, a diplomatic convening power, a trading and finance state, a champion of the rule of law, follow logically from that starting point.
This framing helps explain Brexit. A course of action fraught with risk and uncertainty was nonetheless seen by some as invigorating and emboldening. A decline in Britain’s status was not regarded as Brexit’s tolerable collateral damage – Brexit was, in fact, rationalised on precisely the opposite grounds, as an act that would unbind the UK from the shackles of EU membership and increase Britain’s freedom of manoeuvre in both its domestic and foreign policies.
It would, in then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s words, propel the UK ‘back out into the world in a way that we had perhaps forgotten over the past 45 years.’
Of course, such claims could be dismissed as political confection. But we should not be so quick to write off political belief. Identity and the role conceptions which follow are powerful and historically stubborn drivers of action.
Johnson’s claim in the Forward to the 2021 Integrated Review that Brexit had opened up a ‘new chapter’ for the UK to rightfully take its place as ‘one of the most influential countries in the world’ might seem hyperbolic, but it played upon assumptions of national distinctiveness, even exceptionalism, already firmly embedded in UK foreign policy.
Many of these assumptions have proven to be mistaken. For sure, the UK has since Brexit still had a demonstrable impact on international politics. Britain has held a key position in the coalition supporting Ukraine and its traditional lead in NATO has been upheld. But being outside the EU has probably not made any difference here – the UK could have championed these causes regardless.
UK foreign policy also seems to have become increasingly performative. The enthusiasm for hosting international gatherings (not just the standard affairs of a NATO summit or a COP meeting but also special one-off gatherings on AI and energy security) one suspects may be because London wants to be seen to be important. It also likes to sound important – hence the ‘global Britain’ grandiosity of the 2021 Integrated Review and the claims of Britain’s ability to ‘shape the international environment’ in the 2023 Refresh.
Equally, a lot of energy has simply gone into recapturing ground lost by leaving the EU – as in the case of international trade negotiations or the restoration of cordial relations with France and Germany (and, indeed, the institutions of the EU itself).
Such actions are, in part, aimed at ‘offsetting’ the impact of Brexit. But something more substantive has also been going on – the UK’s ‘Indo-Pacific-tilt’, the attention paid to regional players such as India, the talking up of the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere, and the launch of an international science and technology strategy represent a deliberate post-Brexit ‘resetting’ of foreign policy. All of this speaks to a view held in government that the UK’s role in the world is as significant now as it was before the referendum.
By Mark Webber, Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham.