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Being the values you want to see in the world? Global Britain, domestic trajectories and the Integrated Review

Article by Dr Jonathan Gilmore

May 7, 2021

Being the values you want to see in the world? Global Britain, domestic trajectories and the Integrated Review

The publication of the Integrated Review (IR) in March 2021 marked the most detailed account yet of the Government’s vision of a post-Brexit ‘Global’ Britain. A vision of foreign policy as flexible and dynamic, yet committed to established partnerships, and both a defender of values and dedicated to the pursuit of national interest. Familiar tensions within UK foreign policy have remained evident, and the Review makes an obvious effort to please segments of both the Conservative Party and the electorate with very different views on Britain’s role in the world.


However, there is also much to welcome within the Review. It makes clear commitments to the ‘values’ component of UK foreign policy – support for democracy, human rights and international development. Despite the markedly nativist politics of Brexit, it seems that UK foreign policy itself has not swung decisively in this direction. However, problems can also be seen in the instrumental use of values as a stick with which to poke authoritarian states, and the corrosive impact of failing to embody these values in domestic British political life.


The IR marks a less radical shift in the UK’s international priorities than may have been anticipated, given Britain’s departure from the EU and the nativist pull of populist nationalism. These influences are certainly evident in the repeated emphasis on Britain as an independent sovereign state and its new-found flexibility as a ‘buccaneering free trader’.[1] Indeed, Dominic Raab’s description of the UK as “a creative disrupter”, reflects more than a passing hint of Trumpian rhetoric.[2]


Nevertheless, there is an important and encouraging continuity in the UK’s commitment to a ‘values’ component in its foreign policy. Indeed, the Review and Raab’s recent speeches make liberal use of the claim that Global Britain is to be a ‘force for good’ in the world. The Review marks the most assertive foregrounding of moral commitments in UK foreign policy since the similar use of ‘force for good’ nomenclature in New Labour’s foreign policy during the 1990s. The Review’s ‘force for good’ agenda maintains commitments to the promotion of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and international development, as core drivers of UK foreign policy. The Review also pushes the values agenda somewhat further, committing to support the expansion of democratic values, human rights and responsible state behaviour into the ‘future frontiers’ of cyberspace. Whilst Britain’s actual conduct of international affairs is highly unlikely to mirror its professed values at all times, their continued presence in the language of UK foreign policy is an important means of holding the Government to account for the ethical choices they make.


The Review also demonstrates a healthy degree of realism regarding the challenges faced by the liberal international order, and its fragmentation into a more polarised and competitive system. The enthusiasm for the promotion of values in foreign policy is pitched against the rise of authoritarian challengers. The familiar antagonists of North Korea and Iran are highlighted by the Review, alongside the more direct inclusion of Russia as a major security threat. The authoritarian challenge posed by China is implied, though is stated deliberately ambiguously given its importance as a trading partner. Although the fragmentation of the liberal international order is disconcerting for advocates of human rights and democratisation, the recognition of these limitations is conversely a positive development.


Assumptions about the onward march of democracy and the universal validity of liberal values have been at the heart of a range of miscalculations in Western foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. Such assumptions were latent in Western responses to the Arab Spring. In Libya, this manifested itself in excessive faith about the solidity of the National Transitional Council and the democratic trajectory in a post-Gaddafi era. In Syria, significant errors were made in assuming the inevitable demise of Bashar al-Assad and underestimating the potential of Russia as a powerful and decisive counter-revolutionary force.


The IR more openly recognises the frailty of the liberal international order and the plurality of interests and worldviews. As a strategic guide for action, this recognition provides openings for more creative and nuanced approaches to UK foreign policy. Rather than assuming a linear path to a more democratic and cooperative world order, the onus is on practitioners of British foreign policy to work pragmatically within the constraints of the present.


Within this context, the Review positions the UK in an entrepreneurial role, ‘shaping the open order of the future’, as Raab put it ‘a disruptor for stability’.[3] History has not ended, authoritarianism is not vanquished, and Western democracies must work to create the international order in which they’d like to reside.


Although the IR’s ‘force for good agenda’ keeps values firmly on the radar of British foreign policy, it also reveals a more troubling direction. Global Britain as a ‘force for good’ is quite clearly positioned in opposition to nefarious authoritarian forces, who seek to target the vulnerabilities of democratic societies and undermine social cohesion within them. The Review positions the UK in a binary struggle between rival political systems as authoritarian states seek to expand their zones of influence. Britain’s commitment to human rights, open societies, democracy and the rule of law as defining features of its ‘force for good’, are by extension polarised against the ‘forces for bad’. The IR moves beyond acknowledging the diversity of worldviews and orientates British foreign policy towards a much more direct ideological conflict.


In this context, the values around which Britain seeks to shape its foreign policy risk becoming instrumentalised in this international struggle, as tools to challenge rival powers, rather than ends in themselves. This instrumentalisation of the values component is reflected in the recent decision to more closely link development aid to national interest priorities, with the merger of the FCO and DFID.[4] Placed into the context of a global political struggle against authoritarianism, the risk is that development aid will become similarly instrumentalised and directed to allied ‘frontline states’, rather than those most in need of developmental assistance.


The IR is noteworthy for making some acknowledgment of the domestic context within the UK and its relationship to foreign policy. It recognises that ‘freedom must start at home’ – that domestic populations must be convinced of the benefits of openness and protected from the negative impacts of globalisation. The Conservative Government’s new-found popularity amongst ‘Red Wall’ voters in the economically depressed former Labour heartlands adds a new optic to this. Having myself previously argued for greater focus on the domestic foundations of UK foreign policy, I do see this recognition as a positive development.[5]


However, it is on this point that fissures in the ‘force for good agenda’ begin to emerge. The nod towards the domestic context and the steadfast commitment to values in UK foreign policy sits awkwardly with a contradictory direction in some of the Government’s domestic policies. Elements of the Government’s domestic agenda appear to undermine sources of UK soft power, threatening core values, and in certain cases suggest echoes of democratic backsliding.


The IR is explicit that democratic values, the UK legal system and ‘large and diverse diasporic communities’ are central facets of British soft power. Yet in each case, recent domestic policy approaches have worked against this.


In terms of democratic values and human rights, the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently passing through Parliament, will impose significant restrictions on public protests and the traditional way of life of Gypsy and Traveller communities. This legislation has already met with fierce resistance from human rights and civil society groups.[6] For foreign policy practitioners, challenging crackdowns on pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, Belarus or Russia, becomes significantly more difficult when democratic norms on protest are under threat at home.


Along similar lines, the IR’s aspirations to infuse democratic values and human rights into the future frontiers of cyberspace, also run into tension with recent UK legislation eroding rights to privacy and enhancing the surveillance powers of the state. Enhanced powers for security agencies to intercept electronic communications and allow blanket access to internet connection records were established in the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act. End-to-end encryption remains a target of legislation.


Domestic approaches to immigration also pose an intersecting threat to human rights and the ‘people to people links’ emphasised in the Review. Ending freedom of movement and limiting immigration were central planks of the Brexit campaign and the Conservatives 2019 election manifesto, indicating that the future trajectory is to constrict, rather than expand person to person links through immigration.[7] The ‘Migration and Mobility Partnership’ agreement between India and the UK, signed in May 2021, does suggest that the search for new trade deals in the post-Brexit may demand a softening of the anti-immigration platform. At the same time, a significant component of the UK-India deal is also aimed at constraining irregular migration.[8] Positioned alongside a largely anti-immigration narrative, the Government’s enthusiasm for ‘people to people links’ is thus likely to be limited to narrow categories of outsiders who are deemed economically useful.


The ‘hostile environment’ policies that emerged from the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts and culminated in the Windrush Scandal, are emblematic of the human rights implications of the UK’s anti-migrant domestic policies. The Acts simplified deportation processes for irregular migrants and increased border everyday immigration surveillance powers in housing, banking and public services.


This domestic anti-immigration trajectory appears set to continue with the Government’s proposed overhaul of the UK asylum system, a move at odds with its commitments to human rights, civilian protection and international law.[9] The proposal to reduce entitlements for asylum seekers who entered Britain through ‘illegal’ means runs against the provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which explicitly prohibit penalising asylum seekers due to their mode of entry to the country.[10]


Finally, domestic inconsistencies are also emergent with respect to the rule of law and the power of the judiciary. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling against the 2019 prorogation of Parliament during the EU withdrawal process, the Government’s response has been to review the power of the courts to challenge decisions by the executive.[11] Although this has not yet been translated into any formal limitations on judicial review, it does carry with it unpleasant echoes of democratic backsliding in Poland and the stripping back of judicial checks on government power.


As an agenda for future UK foreign policy, the IR thus provides cause for optimism in its foregrounding of a values-based agenda. However, there are important questions about the role values will play and inconsistencies in the depth of commitment across different spheres of state activity. The growth of authoritarianism certainly does not provide an encouraging environment within which human rights and democracy might flourish internationally. However, weaponising these values to stoke an ideological conflict with authoritarian powers is also unlikely to foster wider consensus on human rights norms and democratic development.


Similarly, erosion of human rights and democratic norms within Britain has the potential to reduce UK soft power and suggests that the promotion of these values in its foreign policy has a hollow core. If Britain wishes to defend human rights and democracy internationally against rising authoritarianism, it must embody these values domestically. Without doing so, it risks being charged with hypocrisy in attempting to shape values-based norms internationally, whilst presiding over their decline at home.


Dr Jonathan Gilmore is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester. His expertise centre on British foreign policy, global ethics, humanitarian intervention and comparative defence and security practices. His research has featured in major international academic journals and his book ‘The Cosmopolitan Military’ was published in 2015.


[1] The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good, The Sunday Telegraph, September 2019.

[2] FCDO and The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, A force for good: Global Britain in a competitive age, Aspen Security Conference,, March 2021,

[3] Ibid.

[4] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Merging success: Bringing together the FCO and DFID, Sixth Special Report of Session 2019-21, House of Commons, September 2020,

[5] Jonathan Gilmore, Developing domestic foundations for a values-based UK foreign policy, The Foreign Policy Centre, September 2020,

[6] Liberty, Leading Organisations Join Condemnation of Policing Bill, March 2021,

[7] The Conservative Party, Get Brexit Done: Unleash Britain’s Potential: The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2019, London: The Conservative Party, 2019, p. 20.

[8] Home Office, MoU on the migration and mobility partnership between India and the United Kingdom,, May 2021,

[9] BBC News, Priti Patel pledges overhaul of asylum seeker rules, March 2021,

[10] Article 31(1) of the 1951 Convention.

[11] Independent Review of Administrative Law,, January 2021,

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