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Amelia Hadfield and Richard Whitman take stock of the direction of UK diplomacy after Brexit drawing on just published research on the UK’s ‘status seeking’ in international relations. This is one of three blogs that summarises recent research on UK foreign policy and Brexit.

Whether Brexit has had a positive or negative impact on the UK’s international role remains contested, but it has undoubtedly led to a shift in the architecture of Britain’s multilateral diplomacy. Crucially, departure from the EU has steeled the UK government’s resolve to strengthen its long-standing roles in those key multilateral organisations where the UK has traditionally enjoyed significant influence, including NATO, the United Nations and the Commonwealth.

Brexit confronted the UK with the serious task of redrafting its international identity, while pursuing its longstanding international roles, and safeguarding its status as a significant international actor.

Whilst in the decades leading up to Brexit the UK had firmly established itself as a leading international actor, the withdrawal of its membership from a key international security and economic forum such as the EU, has resulted in ‘status insecurity’ and an unsettled UK foreign policy.

Global Britain

The rhetoric of ‘Global Britain’ articulated by the government from 2016 signified that departing the EU was not a diminishing moment for the UK’s international status. Rather, Brexit was seen as providing the opportunity to pursue a more ambitious and far reaching British foreign policy.

Boris Johnson described Global Britain as a means to ‘recover our natural and historical role as an enterprising, outward-looking country’. However, this reformulation also contained a good dose of continuity by highlighting the UK’s long-established position as a Euro-Atlantic power.

Pursuing the UK’s new international status was initially very much a second order undertaking. From 2016, domestic political turmoil and uncertainty gripped Westminster and Whitehall as the terms of Brexit unfolded. Only with the publication of the Integrated Review in 2021 and its 2023 Refresh did a fully-fledged exposition of the UK’s post-Brexit international ambitions see the light of day.

Negotiations with the EU were not accompanied by a coherent and cogent ambition for the status that the UK was seeking for itself in Europe.

Absent a meaningful European diplomatic strategy, the UK pursued a largely ‘outside-in’ approach seeking to influence the foreign policies of its European neighbours through its roles in multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations, the G7 and NATO.

This was accompanied by ‘venue shopping’, preferencing strategic diplomatic partnerships with small groups of states, such as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partners. The aim, so it seemed, was to find multilateral replacements for the foreign policy coordination previously enjoyed with EU partners.

United Nations

With the UK’s position as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the 2016 referendum ignited concerns over Brexit’s negative impact on the country’s reputation and legitimacy in international politics. Within the Security Council and the General Assembly, the UK has been viewed historically as an influential state, generally dominating the agenda setting process.

Renowned for its diplomatic professionalism, its superior negotiation skills, and its commitment to foreign aid, the British Permanent Mission had a solid track record of demonstrating evidence of ‘real intent to be a global power’. Since 2016, the UK has been particularly keen to safeguard a high degree of continuity between its pre-Brexit and post-Brexit roles within its overall approach to the UN, emphasising that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is not a wholesale rejection of international institutions or an abdication of  its leadership role in multilateral settings.

Such assurances can only go so far, however. Despite leadership in key forums, including the UNSC, the government’s announcement in November 2020 to cut official development assistance (ODA) from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP negatively impacted the UK’s international reputation, jeopardising its commitment to multilateralism and its leverage in international institutions.

Whilst only announced as a ‘temporary measure’ in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, these and other shifts, including the go-it-alone attitude to foreign and security policy underlying the 2021 Integrated Review, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, suggested a  UK continuing to retreat from its aspiration to be ‘one of the world’s largest providers of aid’. These developments risked a diminution of the UK’s moral weight and norm shaping capacity within international fora.

The Commonwealth

As the United Kingdom negotiated its future relationship with the EU, proponents of Brexit championed a more outward looking UK foreign policy, routinely invoking the resumption of alliances with the Commonwealth of Nations as a means to revitalize the UK’s influence on the international stage.

The combination of the Commonwealth’s fast-growing economies, with their common history and shared language, gives shape to a conviction in some quarters that the UK’s future truly lies outside the EU.

However, critics have asserted that whilst the act of expanding trade with the Commonwealth is tangible, the body’s institutional deficiencies and political incoherence make it an inadequate and possibly outdated platform from which the UK can secure deep and meaningful international cooperation post-Brexit.

Moreover, as the Commonwealth’s trading and diplomatic relationships with the UK have been considerably altered since the 1973 British accession to the European Economic Community, it has operated as a second order network of influence for the UK post Brexit.

Status secured?

Following the 2016 referendum, post-Brexit Britain has had to look beyond the framework of the EU and find new constructive pathways of engagement that can withstand domestic political imperatives and external crises.

The 2021 publication of the Integrated Review and its accompanying Refresh in 2023 provided a critical update to the UK’s international architectures of governance, advancing a vision of the UK engaging in collective action and constructive international cooperation.

Whilst the Global Britain rhetoric proved useful for recapitulating the UK’s long-standing roles and approaches to international status seeking and influence, questions still remain as to whether post-Brexit Britain can achieve credibility in the international roles and status that it seeks.

The war in Ukraine has provided an avenue of opportunity for this task. The rhetoric of the Johnson, Truss and Sunak governments has made clear that support for Ukraine is a matter of principle. But it also advertises the UK’s standing as a valuable ally – military support to Ukraine stands alongside that of Germany in quantitative terms as the largest in Europe (although British weaponry and training has arguably been much more effective than its German counterparts).

This has earnt the UK huge admiration in Ukraine, has repaired a troubled relationship with the Biden administration, and has consolidated ties to key post-Brexit partners such as Poland.

By Amelia Hadfield, Professor in European and International Affairs, University of Surrey, and Professor Richard Whitman, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.


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