Leaving the EU has inspired talk of a ‘Global Britain’ that reaches out farther to its allies. But this confidence is not shared by diplomats, many of whom dub it a rebranding exercise. In an extract from their new United Nations Association report, Jess Gifkins (University of Manchester), Samuel Jarvis (University of Southampton) and Jason Ralph (University of Leeds) warn that Brexit – alongside other factors – is likely to shrink Britain’s global influence.
Whilst the phrase Global Britain has a range of historical connotations, it has been taken on by the UK government as the defining phrase to encapsulate the UK’s foreign policy post-Brexit. Yet despite significant rhetorical references to the phrase, there is still no clarity on what Global Britain might mean, even from a UK perspective. This has a knock-on effect, making it more difficult for the UK to project clarity of purpose abroad. Whilst the UK government has stated that “Global Britain is already backed by substance” – including a recently announced ‘Global Britain Board’ – and thus demonstrates that the UK is “increasingly open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage”, our research suggests that this perception is not shared by stakeholders and diplomatic partners.
One of the main areas of concern is how the policy of Global Britain fits into existing strategies and frameworks. We interviewed a range of UK officials – including three who have served as British Ambassador to the United Nations – and asked about their perceptions of Global Britain. Interviewees expressed concern at the government’s lack of strategic thinking on the position of UK foreign policy after Brexit.
The more positive assessments regarding the Global Britain phrase emphasised opportunities for the UK to “do more and to be more engaged with the UN than we are currently”; there is little evidence of this as yet: it is “a work in progress”.
Former European Commissioner Baroness Ashton described Global Britain as an “aspiration” stating that “it was a way of saying, both domestically and internationally, that Britain was still going to be an outward-facing nation”. However, when discussing the potential for the UK to carve out a new foreign policy approach to alliance building at the UN, many interviewees were sceptical of the extra benefits the UK could gain outside of the EU. As Sir Simon Fraser, former Permanent Undersecretary at the FCO, explained in an interview, “we’re going to end up wanting to be pretty much where we are now on international affairs: an active influential voice”.
As a result, the UK needs to consider in greater detail the purpose and direct policy implications of a new ‘Global Britain’ strategy, particularly in terms of how this might differ from its current foreign policy strategy as a member of the EU. This requires a more honest discussion regarding whether Global Britain is simply a rebranding exercise or the starting point for policy conversations that will seek to redefine UK foreign policy according to new or different values and priorities over the coming years.
At the United Nations, diplomats from outside the UK were in agreement that the policy of ‘Global Britain’ was not of much relevance or was simply not discussed. As one interviewee highlighted: “Other countries don’t really talk about it much; they are more interested in what is the British policy on Africa or what is the British policy on the Middle East”.
Consequently, it was often characterised by diplomats as simply a slogan with very little behind it and was therefore “much more about the UK domestic audience”. A non-EU diplomat also noted that the UK mission in New York had not been using the phrase in its statements, this was connected to what many saw as the “ambiguous character of the phrase”. Indeed, Prime Minister Theresa May’s 2018 speech to the UN General Assembly did not include the phrase ‘Global Britain’.
The scepticism around the phrase was also linked back to the perceived motivations underpinning the Brexit vote, which many saw as being in opposition to the idea of a ‘Global Britain’ and against certain aspects of globalisation.
What these responses underline is the challenge for UK diplomats at the UN to both effectively interpret the phrase and use it to then frame new foreign policy objectives and strategies within the UN. This new strategy would need to come from the Foreign Office, particularly regarding important and difficult issues such as the instability in Somalia.
Consequently, if the UK government is seeking to promote ‘Global Britain’ on the international stage, evidence so far suggests it has struggled to convince external actors of either its purpose and meaning or its impact on directing UK foreign policy. As a result, the Foreign Office will need to consider the value of the ‘Global Britain’ phrase in more detail, beyond its rhetorical use to a domestic audience.
Perceptions from the British elite on the impact of Brexit on the UK’s reputation in the UN are bleak. An anonymous interviewee described perceptions of the UK currently as “we’ve lost our marbles” and Former UK Ambassador to the UN Sir Jeremy Greenstock reported that “most other people – almost without exception – think we’ve shot ourselves in the foot”. Brexit was viewed by interviewees as situated within broader global shifts: “internationally it was seen as a huge knock to our reputation. It was seen… [as like] the US electing Trump: anti-trade, anti-multilateralism, anti-values, anti-immigration.”
There was a common narrative from British interviewees on the negative impacts of Brexit on the reputation of the UK in international politics. In terms of more specific and tangible impacts of these reputational costs, diminished British activism was described: “there is also a perception that the UK is doing less and championing fewer, and less difficult agendas. Most of the difficult diplomacy in 2018 on Syria and Yemen at the UN Security Council was handled by Sweden and the Netherlands.” Sir Simon Fraser concurred that “fundamentally and structurally I think our position, and our leverage in international institutions, will be weaker once we have left the European Union”.
While interviewees were careful not to attribute all of the UK’s decline in the UN to Brexit they were clear that Brexit represented a negative impact to the UK’s reputation and would decrease the UK’s capacity for influence in the UN. Many interviewees – both from the UK and abroad – framed Brexit part of a broader and more long-standing decline in British influence internationally. As such while there are concerns about the UK’s role internationally after Brexit these also need to be viewed in relation to broader international power shifts.
For a full list of references, see the full report, Global Britain in the United Nations, published by the United Nations Association.
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Jess Gifkins is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Manchester.
Samuel Jarvis is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at the University of Southampton.
Jason Ralph is Head of the School of Politics and International Studies and Professor of International Relations at the University of Leeds.