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09 May 2023

UK in the world

In light of the Foreign Secretary’s recent Mansion House speech setting out the UK’s approach to China, Richard Whitman looks at whether there’s been a move away from expansive rhetoric together with diplomatic ‘wins’ towards a ‘new normal’ in UK foreign policy under Rishi Sunak. 

The contours of a post-Brexit UK foreign policy have been coming into sharper focus in the last six months under the Sunak led-government. The evidence for a ‘new normal’ in UK foreign policy practice is most marked in the move away from expansive rhetoric towards a new government narrative with a stress on serious-minded action alongside delivery of improved diplomatic relationships with neighbours.

The shift in tone was exemplified by the annual set-piece foreign policy speech delivered by the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly last week, which consisted of an extended public outline of UK foreign policy towards China. There was a clear distancing in the delivery of speech from some of the language of his predecessors which had put stress on the ideas of a ‘Global Britain’ having a ‘destiny’ to ‘act as a beacon of hope’ and as ‘the greatest country on earth’. Cleverly’s remarks consciously swerved away from diplomacy by hyperbole: “forgive me when I say that no punchy catchphrase or plausible adjective can do justice to such a country or to any sensible approach towards it.”

As previously observed, Sunak’s government has quietly dropped the ‘Global Britain’ mantra adopted by its predecessors. The idea of Global Britain was a central component in the May and Johnson governments’ rhetoric about UK foreign policy after the June 2016 referendum, becoming a key organising concept for UK foreign policy outside the EU. Its intention was to signal that there would be greater opportunities for the UK to reinvigorate its global role following departure from the EU, notably through trade policy; but also through the assertion of new opportunities for UK foreign policy in rebooting historic relationships, such as those with selected Commonwealth states like Canada, Australia and New Zealand and forging new alliances.

The idea was treated with a degree of scepticism by many countries (especially in Europe) that did not see the UK’s departure from the EU as enhancing its diplomatic significance but rather diminishing its capacity for influence.

Global Britain, notwithstanding substance in the area of trade policy, was largely a slogan in search of content while the UK government was preoccupied with Brexit. The full post-Brexit diplomatic, development and security preoccupations for the UK were rehearsed at length with the March 2021 publication of the Integrated Review. This followed on the heels of the resolution of the UK’s most pressing foreign policy concern – the settlement of the terms of the future EU-UK trade relationship – which came with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) in late 2020.

If realising Global Britain was dependent on a recast relationship with the EU, with the UK as an independent state with a normal ‘third country’ diplomatic relationship with the bloc, then the two-year dispute over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol stymied its development.

Even where there were dramatic policy innovations that captured the Global Britain spirit of a new direction in UK foreign policy, most notably the September 2021 announcement of the AUKUS agreement between the US, Australia and the UK, it came at the cost of complications in the relationship with a key European state: France.

In what was to prove its final phase, Global Britain gained a refocusing under Liz Truss, first as Foreign Secretary and then in her short-lived stint as Prime Minister. Truss’s project for Global Britain was for the UK as architect of the ‘network of liberty’ (the evolution of an earlier UK idea to use its 2021 presidency of the G7 to ‘enlarge’ the group to a ‘D-10’ of democratic states).

Yet Russia’s February 2022 military offensive against Ukraine created a new imperative to stress the commonality of interests with European states rather asserting distinctive UK interests. And, subsequently, government references to Global Britain diminished.

Truss’s brief term in office was a bridge to the greater normalisation of UK foreign policy-making observable under Sunak. As Foreign Secretary, Truss took responsibility for the relationship with the EU back from the Cabinet Office to the Foreign Office and made the first post-Brexit appearance of a UK minister at the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council.

As Prime Minister she attended the inaugural meeting of the new European Political Community. Truss’s appointment of James Cleverly as her successor as Foreign Secretary has been maintained by Sunak. Through his public diplomacy and official statements Cleverly has tended to convey the impression of diplomatic journeyman rather than rhetorician.

The Sunak-led government has operated in a very different international environment from its predecessors with Russia’s up-ending of the European security order. The close coordination with the EU on sanctions and intensive cooperation with like-minded European states providing military support for Ukraine has drawn the UK closer to its European neighbours.

The Sunak government’s diplomacy has prioritised an improved relationship with Europe. The decision to prioritise resolution of the major bilateral dispute with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol with the Windsor Framework and embracing the idea of the European Political Community have reset relations with the EU. The bilateral relationship with France has also been re-booted with the ending of a five year hiatus on leaders’ summits.

There is now a distinctly post-Brexit atmosphere in UK relations with the continent.

There also appears to be a great degree of accord between government and official opposition on foreign policy in the UK Parliament. Differences of language on the future of the relationship with the EU not withstanding, there is a significant cross-party agreement on policy towards Ukraine, Russia, China and increasing resources for UK defence.

At the very least the UK now has a post-Global Britain foreign policy, as exemplified by the recently published ‘refresh’ of the UK’s Integrated Review dropping references to the slogan whilst retaining the analysis that the UK needs to play an activist role in international relations. The new normal in UK foreign policy may be marked by diminished rhetoric, better relationships with neighbours, but no less of an ambition to see Britain global.

By Professor Richard Whitman, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe. 


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