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2021 – A pivotal year ahead for ‘Global Britain’

Article by Ben Judah and Georgina Wright

December 3, 2020

2021 – A pivotal year ahead for ‘Global Britain’

Ever since the referendum, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and other Conservative Party politicians have presented Brexit as the first step toward building a new ‘Global Britain’. As Johnson declared in a speech in late 2016, pointing to China, “as Global Britain, our range is not confined to the immediate European hinterland as we see the rise of new powers.”


But despite these promises, there has been little to no broader foreign policy debate in the country. Instead, Britons seem to have become caught between three temperaments. There are the catastrophists, who argue the UK will become irrelevant on the international stage as a result of Brexit; the nostalgics, who see a powerful Britain through the lens of a great colonial power; and the denialists, who refuse to accept that Britain must adapt to a changing global context. All are characterised by a surfeit of emotion and deficit of strategy⎯ and none have answers to the key questions their government must now answer if the UK is serious about remaining a global power.


2021 could go down in history as a turning point in British foreign policy. Downing Street hopes to finally have the capacity to deliver on ‘Global Britain’ and take it centre stage, with the UK chairing both the G7 and co-hosting the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The Government will publish a new national strategy, dubbed the Integrated Review, which will generate a roadmap of the UK’s long-term foreign policy commitments and priorities. And just last month, the Government pledged a £16.5 billion increase in the UK’s defence budget. But more needs to be done to make British foreign policy a success: it needs a long-term vision where it clearly sets out priorities and ambitions, and must ensure that it can deliver on them. This essay builds on the ideas set out in an earlier article co-authored for the World Politics Review.[1]


A realistic Britain

The UK remains an important player on the global stage. Despite low productivity, the British economy remains dynamic, as London has the highest concentration of fast-growing companies among cities in Europe.[2] The UK is still a respected partner with an extensive diplomatic footprint few can match, spanning most countries in the world. It plays a vital role in European security due to its top-class intelligence services and military presence in Europe and abroad. British officials play agenda-setting roles on the international stage, including at the G7, G20, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the UN Security Council. As a stakeholder in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, and thanks to the strength of its own financial jurisdictions, most of all the City of London, the UK has had enormous regulatory sway over the global financial system. The British government also remains a policy leader on everything from international development, to anti-corruption efforts, to the fight against climate change.


Still, it is undeniable that Britain’s reputation, leadership and influence in global affairs have all taken a hit. Since 2016, both of Britain’s most important partnerships, with Europe and the US, have come under huge stress. The complexity of Brexit has meant that much of the UK’s focus over recent years has been on untangling itself from the EU, rather than on crafting a new strategic partnership with the bloc. A month away from the end of the transition period, it is still unclear on what terms the UK will be cooperating with the EU from 1 January 2021.


Biden’s victory also changes things. After years of EU bashing under Trump, Biden has promised to repair the transatlantic relationship. His appointment for Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, has singled out the EU as one of the US’ most important partners. This raises important questions for the UK: what role does it want to play in the transatlantic relationship now that it has left the EU, but is still very much part of Europe?


A focused Britain

If you want to imagine what ‘Global Britain’ could be, a close look at Britain’s stand over Hong Kong this summer is a good place to start. In terms of actions, allies and openness, the measures taken by London contained the ingredients of what British foreign policy has been in the past and could be in the future: confident, values-driven and capable of swift action.


When news broke in May that Beijing was considering levying unprecedented restrictions on Hong Kong through a new national security law, the British government moved quickly to oppose the move and respond. Not only did the UK shift its geopolitical posture toward China, but it played a leadership role by setting the policy of opposing Beijing’s overreach, and getting like-minded countries, like France and Germany, to back it. British diplomacy also engaged strategically with allies, first gathering Australia and Canada and then the US to support its cause—demonstrating that the Anglosphere countries could work as an ‘action group’ to push back against China, and swiftly.


The UK’s decision to offer a pathway to citizenship to more than three million Hong Kong citizens was met with widespread acclaim in US policy circles, as it combined a principled defence of the rule of law with greater openness to immigration from Asia. British policy has not reversed China’s strategy toward Hong Kong, but it has sent a strong signal that the UK remains an independent player able to stand up for its interests and values.


These events, and the UK’s role in them, reveal that the country has an opportunity to participate in the reshaping of geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific. Australia, France, Germany and the US are all looking at new ways to engage there, but there is currently no global grouping structured around meeting the challenge of China’s influence, the way that NATO checks Russian ambitions. Britain has a unique opportunity to encourage one, if it leverages its strengths to create goodwill and work with allies, like it did for Hong Kong.


Steps toward this are happening already. There has been a sharp uptick this year in ministerial meetings of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They have gone beyond its usual intelligence-sharing remit to discuss collaboration in the fight against the pandemic, and there is a mutual desire to deepen this cooperation further. Another proposal that has generated interest in Washington—and could be another conduit for action in the Asia-Pacific—is the potential D10 grouping, an alliance of ten democracies made up of the members of the G7, plus Australia, India and South Korea.[3]


The UK will also need to strengthen bilateral alliances. First, a successful ‘Global Britain’ would need to build an alliance with Japan. Luckily, London is knocking on an open door. Not only has Tokyo agreed in principle to Britain’s first post-Brexit free trade deal, it also wants Britain to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership ⎯ the successor to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump scuppered after taking office in 2017 ⎯ and has expressed a keen desire to join Five Eyes.


The second alliance is with Australia. First and foremost, a ‘Global Britain’ will need to take a more realistic approach to its collective ties with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Some Brexiteers dream of a new bloc around ‘CANZUK’ akin to the European Economic Community; this is an imperial fantasy. But there is still much that Britain could do to share burdens and coordinate foreign policy and security with Australia. Opportunities could include developing joint agendas and proposals for the future of Five Eyes and the G7. Given the bipartisan consensus within the US on the need for a tougher approach to China, this UK-Australia dialogue could eventually develop into an annual ‘G-Group’ style meeting for the UK, Australia and Canada to coordinate where they stand vis-á-vis the US. The UK and Australia could also make new, joint security investments and deployments in the Asia-Pacific, and allow close-to-free movement between the two countries, as well as between the UK and New Zealand.


The UK should also continue working closely with Canada. The two governments recently coordinated their responses to Hong Kong, Belarus’ flawed election and the recent flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and have co-funded a new Global Media Defence Fund at the UN. This could similarly grow into new joint security investments and deployments to meet threats posed by Russia and a new close-to-free movement travel agreement with Ottawa.


In terms of agility, Britain has much to learn from Tokyo, Canberra and Ottawa, as well as Oslo, about being a successful middle power, even if some in the UK still aspire to great-power status. Japan, for example, exists outside regulatory blocs, but has run a focused strategy supported by a successful domestic industrial policy, while Norway has chosen to concentrate its international efforts on conflict resolution and mediation. These are models for what ‘Global Britain’, with the right domestic reforms, could eventually be.


Much closer to home, the UK should aspire to become the EU’s partner of choice. The EU is also exploring the idea of smaller groupings, where one or a group of member states work together to tackle a specific foreign policy issue, like capacity-building in the Sahel or establishing safer routes for asylum-seekers. There may be scope for greater British involvement and input into the design of these projects, especially on issues where the UK and EU share common interests. London should embrace the EU’s offer of a comprehensive security and foreign policy deal—and push for one that gets it as close as possible to achieving permanent ‘observer status’ in its policymaking.


Britain should not be afraid to push for new formats too. It could, for example, consider broadening the remit of its E3 partnership with France and Germany beyond discussing Iran, to include European and international security. And where the UK is already influential, like in NATO and the UN, it should push for reform. A ‘Global Britain’ that invests in as many channels of influence as possible could come to enjoy privileged partnerships ⎯ or, to use a dated but still emotive term, ‘special relationships’ ⎯ with both Washington and Brussels.


Finally, Britain should seek to join as many multilateral trade agreements and bodies as possible. In addition to joining the CPTPP, it should launch a broader strategy in Asia to reinforce, associate or where possible even join key security bodies, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum; ‘the Quad’, a security dialogue among Australia, the US, India and Japan; and the recently proposed Resilient Supply Chains Initiative involving Australia, India and Japan.[4] These ties will also help the UK react to heightened competition between the US and China.


By expanding its alliances into the Global South, as well, the UK could buttress its ability to bring countries together. On tackling epidemics, for example, Britain could help countries that have strong research facilities, like the US, France, Germany and Switzerland, coordinate with countries that have frontline experience handling public health crises and new outbreaks, like South Africa. Through other alliances, it could put forward new ideas and launch multilateral regulatory processes on a range of issues that are vital for British interests, from eliminating kleptocracy and money-laundering, to adapting to climate change, to building better supply chains and new critical infrastructure like 5G.


This is what ‘Global Britain’ can be: a mid-sized country that reinforces the multilateral system through close alliances with the US and the EU, and new, deeper ties with democracies in the Asia-Pacific. Building trust and credibility with these allies can help the UK make up for its post-Brexit loss of regulatory influence and its vulnerability to US diktats over 5G and other emerging technologies. And at a time when many countries appear to be marching toward more individualism, Britain could choose to play a vital role in strengthening the multilateral system, and ensuring it is a fair and robust one.


A Britain that delivers

Ultimately, though, the UK will be judged not by what it promises on the international stage, but by what it does. The Government’s recent threat to breach the Withdrawal Agreement it negotiated with the EU less than a year ago has been seized upon by critics at home and abroad as proof that the country is heading toward political isolation. The House of Lords has removed the controversial provisions – though the Government has said it would reintroduce them unless talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol made progress. This has not gone down well in Brussels. And in his phone call to the Prime Minister, President-elect Biden warned that the Brexit outcome must respect the Good Friday Agreement. The Chancellor’s recent announcement that the UK would reduce aid spending from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GDP has also disappointed partners across the developing world.


Building a good reputation can take years, but it can be lost in a matter of days. In the long-run, this behaviour could have serious consequences for the way the UK is perceived internationally, and damage the attractiveness of its domestic market for foreign direct investment. It might even prevent the British government from negotiating trade deals in the future. To create a ‘Global Britain’, the UK, above all, will need to command the trust of other countries. It will need to continue to invest in its diplomatic network, and it must be mindful of the tone it uses to convey its global ambitions.


The UK must ensure that it has the means to live up to those ambitions. COVID-19 will inevitably redirect the Government’s purse, with knock-on effects on public finances. British leaders will need to make careful and considered choices about where to invest and reallocate funding, ensuring that they prioritise the issues and regions singled out in its foreign policy review. The UK will also need to be honest about trade. Even if, by some miracle, it replicates all the deals the EU has with its trading partners and secures new deals with the US, India, China and the Gulf states, those arrangements would only increase Britain’s GDP by 0.2 per cent after 15 years, according to government projections.[5] If the UK is serious about becoming an export-oriented economy that is productive and grows in the long-run, its trade deals will need to be supported by a strong and well-considered industrial strategy.


The UK will need to protect some other budget lines; for example, it should continue to protect funding for the BBC World Service and the British Council, which are vital tools of soft power. It could do more to protect journalists abroad, perhaps through the Global Media Defence Fund with Canada. It should also quickly move to restore aid spending to 0.7 per cent. Beyond that, the UK should increase its efforts to support and fund research on artificial intelligence, quantum computing and life sciences to remain competitive in these areas with the tech powerhouses of the US and China.


The UK must also make sure that it can act decisively. Johnson’s decision in June to merge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development into one foreign policy department may be one step in the right direction, as it will centralise decision making, staffing and budgeting. But the Government must think about how to hone and hold onto that expertise. These offices typically experience very high levels of staff turnover, with officials often choosing to work on very different policy briefs every three years. This has long contributed to a loss of institutional memory and some short-sightedness, as demonstrated by the UK’s decision to drastically reduce the size of its Soviet desk shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To avoid this kind of thing happening again, the UK should consider building up its in-house expertise, as well as drawing on foreign policy expertise outside of government, in think tanks, universities, civil society and the private sector.


Finally, the UK needs a much more inclusive public debate to generate support for foreign policy. Successive governments have not always done a good job of explaining what they were doing on the global stage or why it mattered. While Johnson’s government has promised a ‘Global Britain’ that delivers for Britons all across the country, it still must demonstrate how its new foreign policy plan will benefit the UK as a whole, especially Scotland and the other devolved governments.


With the Brexit saga slowly drawing to an end, Britain needs to think about its future. The world needs the UK to be an agile actor, with the right resources and strong networks to be effective on the global stage. When it comes to strategy, political promises and vision are not enough; it will also need to show leadership, trustworthiness and a commitment to being a force for good in the world. British leaders will need to have a strong sense of the country’s significant strengths and weaknesses, as well as a determination to use that knowledge to the greatest advantage. The longer Britain waits, the harder it will be to convince the global community that it is serious about the role it wants to play.


This essay was adapted from an article In the Aftermath of Brexit, What Can ‘Global Britain’ Be? published by World Politics Review in October 2020.


Ben Judah is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “This is London: Life and Death in the World City.”

Georgina Wright is a senior researcher on the Brexit team at the Institute for Government and a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.


[1] Ben Judah and Georgina Wright, In the Aftermath of Brext, What Can ‘Global Britain’ Be?, World Politics Review, October 2020,

[2] Maxine Kelly, FT 1000: the fourth annual list of Europe’s fastest-growing companies, Financial Times, March 2020,

[3] Erik Brattberg and Ben Judah, Forget the G-7, Build the D-10, Foreign Policy, June 2020,

[4] Amitendu Palit, The Resilient Supply Chain Initiative: Reshaping Economics Through Geopolitics, The Diplomat, September 2020,

[5] EU Exit: Long-term economic analysis, HM Government, November 2018,

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