In early February, just after leaving the European Union and before Britain was engulfed by the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared his country ready to make its mark on the world again.
The U.K. was embarking on a “great voyage” to champion free trade, he said in a speech in London. While not wishing to exaggerate British influence, he warned against downplaying “the eagerness of our friends around the world to hear once again our independent voice.”
Barely six months later, free trade is falling victim to protectionism as Covid-19 ravages economies and sharpens geopolitical rivalries. The government is tangling with China over Hong Kong and with Russia over alleged meddling in elections, while sparring with the EU over the terms of their future ties.
In a world upturned, other powers view the U.K. as having lost influence, shorn of its EU membership and economically vulnerable, according to interviews with senior policy makers past and present from allies and rivals alike.
From India to Canada, Europe to China, the snapshot provided is one of skepticism of the U.K.’s bid to forge a foreign policy that is at once a projection of the country today and a reflection of its imperial past. The danger is that the government in London has an inflated view of what it terms Global Britain, when for the rest of the world it’s just another country.
“The U.K. will find a world out there that is increasingly governed outright by mercantilism and power,” said Rob Davies, who served as South Africa’s minister of trade and industry for a decade until his retirement in May 2019. “I am not sure it is going to be such an easy ride.”
The Covid era already looks daunting. The U.K. suffered a disproportionately high death rate from the virus and is staring at the deepest recession in at least a century. For all its coronavirus failings, though, there is a case to be made that the U.K. has been more assertive in its foreign policy positions in the last six months than in the last six years.
On Hong Kong, it has offered a path to citizenship for as many as 3 million residents, while its banning of Huawei from its 5G networks—even if it was prompted by U.S. pressure—puts the onus on European countries to follow suit. The U.K. led the charge on Russia over its hacking of prospective virus vaccines and is against allowing Vladimir Putin to be readmitted to the Group of Seven as U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested.
India, as an English-speaking market of 1.3 billion people, is keen to do business with the U.K., which it views positively in contrast to the EU’s “preachy moralizing” and “heavily bureaucratic and protectionist” stance, said Swapan Dasgupta, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
Yet while India “has the highest level of natural comfort” with the U.K., it sees itself with the advantage, not the other way around, according to Dasgupta, who sits in the upper house of parliament in New Delhi. That could allow it to gain access to expertise in fields such as technology and finance and marry British research with Indian manufacturing skills, he said.
“Britain is going to be weak and vulnerable on many counts,” said Dasgupta. “Their vulnerability post-Brexit is precisely the reason India has an opportunity to strengthen ties with Britain. Especially with misgivings over China, this could be a great opportunity for India.”
Canada is another natural ally for the U.K. due to its shared history, language and culture. While it is not among British priorities for a trade deal—they are with the EU, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Japan—it is part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership which the U.K. aims to join.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau already has a trade deal with the EU, though. Protecting Canada’s market access to continental Europe will be a priority in any negotiations with Johnson’s government, said Mel Cappe, former Canadian high commissioner to the U.K.
“If you’re a Canadian exporter, you don’t need access to Britain, you need access to the continent,” said Cappe, now a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance.
The U.K.’s most enduring alliance is with the U.S. While the Trump administration continues to stress the importance of the “special relationship,” it has shown no qualms about threatening Britain when it considers ideas the U.S. opposes. That was evident with the Huawei decision, with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo warning in recent months that Britain risked losing some access to American intelligence if it partnered with the Chinese company.
With polls suggesting a change of leadership after November’s presidential election, there’s no guarantee a trade deal that has been touted by Trump would be a priority.
For the U.K.’s European partners, meanwhile, the danger is of Britain falling off the radar altogether. Brexit trade talks have become a sideshow as European leaders focused on agreeing a huge economic support package to confront the fallout from the pandemic. A deal was struck in the early hours of Tuesday.
A study by Jana Puglierin and Ulrike Franke of the European Council on Foreign Relations found that EU policy toward the U.K. was considered among the bloc’s top five priorities by just one member state—Ireland.
Defense is one area where the U.K. punches above its weight on the global stage. The concern among some allies is that a strategic review of U.K. security and foreign policy shifts the country’s focus.
At a time of growing threats, the U.K. needs to devote its limited resources to core interests close to home, said Malcolm Chalmers, an adviser to the U.K. Parliament Joint Committee on National Security Strategy. “We should be realistic,” he said.
Even Britain’s old sparring partner France is concerned when it looks across the Channel at the post-Brexit landscape. France sees in Brexit the loss of the one other European country with similar defense capabilities and which views the world as it does, according to a French military official.
“I don’t know anyone in France’s military and intelligence establishment who’s happy about Brexit,” said the official, asking not to be named discussing France’s defense partners.
Regardless, the U.K.’s post-Brexit influence is being tested particularly through its clash with China. Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and translator for Deng Xiaoping, said China tends to look at Britain “as a country of pragmatism,” yet Brexit is seen as a failure of leadership that revealed structural defects in the British model that have yet to be addressed.
“If Britain does not exercise in a timely manner wise leadership and if it allows its independent foreign policy be more and more eroded, Britain may drop from a first-tier country in the world into a second-tier country in Europe,” said Gao. “Few, if not none, will shed a tear if this happens. But be assured that China will continue to treat Britain as an equal, as it does with Fiji or Tonga.”
For Tom Tugendhat, a ruling Conservative Party lawmaker who chairs Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, the tensions with China are regrettable, but overdue.
He has long made the case for Britain to adopt a new overseas strategy, arguing that it is more important to the nation’s future health and prosperity than at any time since the war. Today, that means standing with the likes of Australia, Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan to defend the international rules-based system over authoritarianism.
“What China is trying to do is to break the international order and to change it into a dependence modeled on Beijing and that just doesn’t work for us,” said Tugendhat. “We’re only at the opening stages of a foreign policy that we’ve needed for a very long time.”
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