A more proactive diplomacy

Robin Niblett

The coalition government that took office in May has already begun to carve out some key foreign policy changes, but it will need to forge fresh alliances and renew old ones if it is to adapt to the recent and ongoing shifts in geopolitics

Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visits to the US, India and Turkey saw the start of a larger attempt by the UK’s new coalition government to demonstrate the nature of the “distinctive” foreign policy announced by Foreign Secretary William Hague in a major speech in July. This government has taken office at a time in which significant changes beyond the UK’s shores provide a clear impetus for a more proactive British role internationally.

There are four dimensions to the changing world that are especially relevant to the UK: the shift in the global centre of economic gravity from West to East; the growing competition for natural resources; the global risks that are emanating from the world’s most unstable and ungoverned spaces; and the diffusion of political power away from the USA and European countries. These long-term, and structural, changes taking place in the world will affect the UK’s prosperity and security as much as any near-term national security threats and challenges. Even at a time of fiscal austerity at home, an international role for the UK will be a necessity rather than a luxury.

Clearly, in order to confront these recent and ongoing changes, Britain will need to continue to rely on its traditional allies and partners – the USA and the European Union. Importantly, however, as Cameron’s visit to Washington has demonstrated, the context here is changing. The US will continue to be the UK’s most important bilateral ally, not least because its policies affect almost every dimension of Britain’s security and economic well-being. But striking the right balance in this relationship will be increasingly difficult, as the US redirects its strategic focus to China, India and other countries whose actions have a more immediate bearing on US security and prosperity.

Far from trying to reclaim Britain’s special relationship with the US, the Cameron government appears alive to this shift in US perceptions. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in advance of his US visit, the Prime Minister asserted that the UK is clearly the “junior partner” in the bilateral UK-US relationship and that he is “hard-headed and realistic about UK-US relations”, characterizing the UK as “a strong, self-confident country clear in our views and values”.

The coalition government has also demonstrated a careful pragmatism toward its EU partners. William Hague’s visit to Washington in May permitted Cameron to make Paris and Berlin his first foreign visits. The government has avoided conflict over proposed new EU financial regulations which would disadvantage the City of London, and it has made much of its desire for an active EU role in areas where British and broader European interests mesh, such as over energy policy and relations with Russia.

But, although still important, the traditional pillars of Britain’s place in the world – the bilateral relationship with the US, NATO and the EU – are weaker than in the past. The EU, in particular, appears to be locked into a cycle of introspection caused by the need for each of its member governments to adapt to the competitive pressures of the global economy.

The UK therefore needs to make an important adjustment to its foreign policy: the government needs to cultivate deeper bilateral relations with emerging powers – and emerging markets such as India and China, in particular – as well as with other mid-sized countries that are likely to be increasingly important economically, institutionally and geopolitically – such as Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and key Gulf States. These countries, along with China and India, are likely to be the destinations for increased UK exports and new sources of foreign direct investment without which the UK will be unable to ensure its long term economic prosperity.

Rather than being a ‘distinctive’ UK foreign policy, this is, in many ways, a return to a more traditional British approach to its international relations. The government is setting to one side the Euro-Atlantic focus which was a natural result of the Second World War and the ensuing Cold War, and is rediscovering the value of its historical relations with former parts of the old British Empire, many of which are now members of the Commonwealth. And the renewed emphasis on trade relations and open markets harks back to the days when the Royal Navy kept markets open for the then globally powerful British economy.

The adjustment in UK foreign policy was clearly visible in the large team of UK government ministers visiting India alongside the Prime Minister. The government was also explicit in its call for an “enhanced partnership” and, even, “a special relationship” with India. But the visit to India was also a reminder that making this adjustment to a more traditional British foreign policy will not be easy. Neither the British economy nor its navy are the dominant forces that they once were. Moreover, the recent financial crisis and Britain’s engagement in the Iraq war have undercut the UK’s reputation among many of the countries that it is now seeking to court. And budgets for international affairs will not be growing but shrinking.

Furthermore, the government will be challenged on two other fronts in its policy of a broader international engagement. First, as a recent survey, commissioned by Chatham House and carried out by YouGov, has demonstrated, the British public does not view countries such as India, China and Turkey as positively as the government might have hoped. Secondly, the Prime Minister and his colleagues will need to listen to their audiences in the countries they visit to find out the extent of their appetite for upgrading their trade relations with the UK and what it is that they might want in return. In the end, the government may find that leveraging its position as a member of the EU Single Market will be as important as deepening its bilateral relations.

However, the UK can still play to some important national strengths. Its own midsize status means that Britain’s diplomatic overtures do not elicit the same suspicions as do those of the world’s major powers, such as the US, China and Russia. Instead, Britain’s reputation for shrewd diplomacy and its strong institutional position in the UN Security Council, NATO, EU, G8, G20 and IMF, make it an attractive potential partner and problem-solver. Furthermore, the UK’s ‘soft power’ assets – including the English language and London’s position as a global hub – give British officials, business leaders and NGOs the opportunity to engage proactively with the diverse mix of players affecting international outcomes.

Taking advantage of these strengths will require political concentration on the mid to long-term, diplomatic agility and an intelligent use of limited resources. In this changing world the UK government has to find ways to do more, not less, but with fewer resources in its treasury.

About the author:

Director of Chatham House and author of the report ‘Playing to Its Strengths: Rethinking the UK’s Role in a Changing World’


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