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Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: Executive Summary

Article by Adam Hug, Dr Abigael Baldoumas, Katy Chakrabortty and Dr Danny Sriskandarajah

March 3, 2020

Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: Executive Summary

The United Kingdom is preparing for its post-Brexit place in the world at a time when the principles of liberal democracy and the rules-based world order are facing their greatest challenges in a generation. In a fast-changing world with new powers rising, old institutions struggling and future challenges emerging – from AI to climate change – having a clear approach to values in British foreign policy is not just about doing what we think is right or supporting institutions, norms and rules that the UK often played a key role in creating, but also about actively helping to shape the systems the UK will have to work within for decades to come. The UK’s standing going forward will depend more on its future contributions to global solutions, rather than relying on past glories. This requires facing up to the ways in which the current international order has entrenched unequal power relations and the UK’s own privileged position.

Securing the national interest in an uncertain world will mean helping to set a framework for the international system that can produce mutually beneficial solutions to global challenges in ways that address longstanding disparities in the voice and protection afforded to people around the world. It cannot be achieved through a transactional approach that prioritises short-term, narrowly defined security and economic gains. The UK has an opportunity to articulate a powerful vision for ‘Global Britain’ that is defined by commitments to human rights, inclusive representation at home and abroad, and making a substantial impact on poverty and inequality. Failure to actively stand up for its values will be seen as a sign of weakness and decline at a time when there is uncertainty about Britain’s standing and future role in the world.

This requires a joined-up approach to foreign policy where decisions about diplomacy, trade, security and international development are all equally rooted in the internationalist values of democracy, human rights, free and fair trade and the international rule of law that the UK has long championed. All major policy and spending decisions with an international dimension should be measured against these values. The UK’s future role in the world will be determined by the decisions it takes now about trade deals, how and how much it spends on international development, in its responses to violations of human rights and international norms and rules, and by the role the UK plays in multilateral institutions.

As a medium-sized power, albeit one with considerable assets, the UK will need to show it is still willing to work collaboratively with partners, and to creatively and meaningfully use available tools of influence to shape the future direction of the international system and to respond effectively to specific crises and abuses of its values. The scale and scope of the challenges facing the world will require stronger partnerships with existing allies as well as investment in new and different partnerships with countries that share the UK’s values.

Key recommendations to the UK Government:

  • Agree a ‘Global Britain’ values statement of the principles underpinning its role in the world.
  • Develop a ‘Global Britain Test’ that assesses the impact of policies against its principles.
  • Engage with and reform the multilateral and global institutions the UK remains a part of.
  • Defend the independence of DFID, the 0.7% GNI pledge on aid and the focus on reducing poverty.
  • Show the UK still has the confidence and stature to stand up for its values by supporting those who defend them, and speaking out and taking action when they are abused.
  • Show climate leadership with effective diplomacy for COP26 in Glasgow and more domestic reform.
  • Deliver on new financial transparency commitments and further actions on tax havens.
  • Improve parliamentary and public scrutiny of new trade negotiations, and ensure Parliament has a final vote on any new trade deals.



Adam Hug became Director of the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) in November 2017. He had previously been the Policy Director at the FPC from 2008–2017. His research focuses on human rights and governance issues, particularly in the former Soviet Union. He also writes on UK and EU foreign policy.

Dr Abigael Baldoumas is a humanitarian policy advisor for Oxfam GB. She holds a DPhil in Political Science from Oxford University on the role of social movements in shaping public policy in the UK. She has worked in international development since 2012. Her work focuses on forced displacement, gender justice and rights-based humanitarian response.

Katy Chakrabortty is the head of advocacy at Oxfam GB. She has been at Oxfam since 2009, and as well as political relations work she has played a major role in Oxfam’s Even it Up campaign against extreme economic inequality. Her background is in political campaigning and parliamentary advocacy, having previously worked for the Electoral Reform Society, Amnesty International and DeHavilland.

Dr Danny Sriskandarajah joined Oxfam GB as chief executive in January 2019 from CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance of which he was Secretary General for six years. Prior to that he was Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Interim Director of the Commonwealth Foundation and held various posts at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Photo credit: Lighthouse and sunset, Isle of Skye. Image by Frank Winkler from Pixabay

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