Foreign Policy and the New Global Britain

‘To govern’, the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France wrote, after defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, ‘is to choose’. France eventually chose De Gaulle and a new republican constitution. After the Brexit referendum of 2016, a divided parliament, like the French Fourth Republic, chose indecision. The clarifying election of December 2019 changed all that, but beyond leaving the European Union and redefining  its relationship with Europe the Johnson government faces a number of hard choices. Some, like the high-speed train linking London to the North are of a domestic nature, others, like the roll out of 5 G broadband, not only affect UK infrastructure they also have geostrategic resonance. 

Britain evidently needs a foreign policy geared to its long-term national interests in a rapidly changing world no longer en route to a liberal democratic end of history. This has become more urgent in the wake of Brexit. Unlike the interminable process of ever closer European Union, 31 January 2020 marked a seminal political event.[1] The event, however, needs a coherent strategy to govern what follows from it. Since 2016, various alternatives to European Union have emerged that no one had considered while the EU set the economic and fiscal rules and its single regulatory mechanism governed trade and labour movement within the Union and free trade negotiations with external trading partners outside it.Policy now must not only consider the economic dimension of Brexit, but also how economic and geopolitical interests are linked in an interconnected, but far from integrated, world. The agenda has implications for Global Britain’s reinvention not only in Europe, but also East of Suez.

One of the hard choices the new Johnson government made in 2020 permitted the PRC linked telco Huawei access to up to 35 per cent of the ‘non-core peripheral parts’ of UK telecom networks. To avoid delaying the installation of 5G across the UK, the government chose a quick economic fix over long term strategy. Significantly, the US President Donald Trump, his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the Australian government, which prevents the Chinese telco access to its broadband, Johnson’s own defence minister, Ben Wallace,  Chinese dissident artist, Ai Wei Wei and even Justin Trudeau all deplored the decision.

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China’s state-linked  telco’s  intrusion into UK infrastructure crystalizes the problem Global Britain faces in coordinating its future economic and security interests. In an early attempt at Making Sense of British Foreign Policy After Brexit, the historian John Bew observed that the ‘the greatest challenge to the new government was to identify some guiding principles for a new global strategy’ and take measures ‘to transform current uncertainty into opportunity’.[2] In December, Boris Johnson advertised his intention to ‘undertake the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War’. It would evaluate ‘Global Britain’s foreign policy: British alliances and diplomacy, shifts of power and wealth to Asia, how we can best use our huge expenditure on international development, and the role of technology’. The Queen’s Speech later the same month announced the new government’s intention to conduct the review in 2020.

In a recent policy paper identifying ‘the core assumptions’ driving British foreign and defence policy since the end of the Cold War, their limitations and what a post Brexit defence and foreign policy posture now requires, James Rogers, Director of the Global Britain programme at the Henry Jackson Society establishes some of the issues the  review must confront.[3]

Globalisation and the End of History

As Roger’s shows, at the end of the Cold War successive UK governments along with western political, business, academic and media elites welcomed globalisation as an immutable and desirable force. It announced the triumphant spread of liberalism and democracy as the only viable global political and ideological form. ‘The struggle for world hegemony by political ideology’ Tony Blair, an enthusiastic proponent of the new order, informed the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in 2002 ‘is gone’. [4]

Blair’s belief that the West drove the process of global convergence assumed its continuing military and technological dominance. Timothy Berners-Lee’s invention of the world wide web in 1990, not only unleashed a new ‘information age’, it also seemed to confirm ‘the West’s geostrategic reach and military edge’. In this new age transnational forms of inclusive governance would replace increasingly otiose nation states in what McKinsey director Kenichi Ohmae anticipated in 1990 would be an increasingly interdependent, borderless, democratic world. The only source of threat to this utopian vision came from ‘zones of chaos’ like the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, together with the international terrorism, migration, arms and refugee flows that they spawned and which required doles of overseas aid and the occasional recourse to armed social work of the US led counter insurgency (COIN) variety, to curtail.

The meliorist clichés of Western-led, global governance involved a number of presuppositions. Britain’s overriding geostrategic concern, as it had been for much of the twentieth century, remained the stability of the European continent. Britain continued to play a key role in the Euro-Atlantic System. Meanwhile, the region East of Suez assumed a growing importance for British economic and security interests, whilst the Indo-Pacific zone (formerly, the Asia Pacific), presented the UK and the European Union with economic and investment opportunities. Developing and developed states in this new dispensation would, it was assumed, respect ‘shared spaces’ like the South China Sea.

In this emerging transnational order, government, media, business and academic elites considered Britain a significant, but declining power. National security and economic growth still constituted core government concerns, but were best served by working with allies and partners, particularly the US, but also through ever closer union with Europe. Consequently, both the Blair and Cameron administrations between 1996-2016 embraced a progressive project to modernize British institutions through programmes of global justice, multiculturalism and cherishing difference. National unity appeared anachronistic as the UK’s military and diplomatic power waned, or dissolved into what the fashionable critical theorist, Jurgen Habermas, termed ‘post national constellations’.

History Resumes

A series of events, however, conspired to overthrow this latest manifestation of the Whig view of history. The intractable wars of choice waged in Afghanistan and Iraq educed unanticipated domestic and global repercussions. They shook the prevailing progressive faith that political religions like Islamism were, to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, ‘non-viable’. The financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath shattered confidence in the globalisation of markets and industrial production delivering wealth to all who experienced its borderless blessings. Globalisation and the fourth industrial revolution were not necessarily democracy’s friend. The deadly angel that spelt death to economic inefficiency is not always at the service of liberty. It had once offered her some service but is not at her command, as the rapid rise of China after it entered the WTO in 2002 and its growing  big tech data  ascendancy demonstrates. The rise of revisionist powers, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China, and their debilitating impact on zones of chaos and globally shared spaces further fractured the progressive illusion of shared values leading to what John Rawls termed the ‘realistic utopia’ of perpetual peace.

The UK must now face these facts, or as Rogers, more prosaically puts it, ‘the recent deterioration of the international environment has drawn several existing assumptions into question’, further compounded, ‘by the country’s decision in 2016 to withdraw from the European Union’.

The Revenge of Politics

The resurgence of international competition in the wake of the financial crisis rendered globalisation unpredictable, increasingly contested and difficult to manage. In this altered environment, the assumptions informing British foreign policy after 1990 now appear outdated. A strategic review that recognizes this altered reality must, as a matter of existential urgency, address the social cohesion that identity politics and the progressive assault on the nation state unravelled. It requires, as the Rogers report argues, ‘re- centring and strengthening the union-state through policies to enhance national identity and Britishness and shut out foreign interference’. [5]

A renewed sense of national purpose would also reject both isolationism and the fashionable tyranny of guilt that seeks to compensate the victims of past imperial crimes. This dismal cosmopolitan mentality prefers a policy of neutrality in dealing with the authoritarian Goliaths that now strut the world stage. Yet, appeasing Moscow and Beijing will not ensure peace. Nor will reparations for those soi disant sufferers of alleged imperial wrongs alleviate poverty, achieve justice or restore regional stability, although it may briefly salve the over sensitive consciences of the Guardian left.

Contra the rhetoric of appeasement, the UK has, alongside its allies, succeeded in projecting and installing a vision of economic and international order that takes the form of a wider rules-based international system. Not all of the core assumptions informing British strategic policy are, therefore, wrong. Several chime with the UK’s broader strategic aspirations, notably the spread of liberal principles and democratic structures in Europe and beyond.

But many other countries, particularly authoritarian regimes, do not see the world in the same way that Britain does. This difference in understanding has re-emerged in the form of geopolitical and ideological competition. If the UK is to compete successfully with larger, but ideologically unsympathetic powers in the future, it will need to integrate its institutions to maximise their effectiveness. The 2018 National Security Capability Review’s ‘fusion doctrine’, envisaged a new National Strategy Council setting long-term strategic goals and distributing defence and aid funding in accordance with a new foreign policy realism. This  would require harnessing the UK’s vast aid expenditure  to serve geopolitical interests in Africa and Asia.

Moreover, as Europe becomes less relevant internationally and less central to a post Brexit economy, the UK will also have to resist the continued ‘offshoring’ of its industries to countries where environmental standards were (and remain) far lower.  Britain has become  excessively dependent on importing foreign manufactured goods and exporting waste for recycling, to countries like the PRC, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. To prevent state competition from intensifying further still, Britain will have to pursue ‘de-globalisation’,  drawing back manufacturing to the British Isles, otherwise known as ‘reshoring’ industry.

Europe will always occupy a place in British strategic thinking. However, the declining continent is no longer the world’s economic and geopolitical cockpit. As a global power, the UK needs to understand how developments in distant theatres connect with its geopolitical interests, as well as the concerns of its alliances, not least in relation to the US. A   more coherent national strategy must align the country’s policymakers’ core assumptions about the world with the events and phenomena they are supposed to deal with.[6] Although Britain lacks the economic heft of the US, the industrial might of the PRC, and the demographic potential of India, Indonesia, Brazil or Nigeria, it has frequently managed to bring together a range of capabilities into a synthesis, which it has often managed to harness to considerable national effect.

Returning to the World

The Rogers report offers an insight into what a realistic appreciation of the national interest requires. It is, however, short on detail of how strategic and economic interests may be aligned especially in the crucially important Indo-Pacific zone. The policy unit in Downing Street, which includes international historians like John Bew, is evidently aware of this policy dilemma.

Politics, as Bew observes, is about ‘perception and momentum’.[7] Brexit opens opportunities for a flexible and sovereign market state. It means the UK can free its economy from the regulatory restrictions and layers of bureaucracy that rendered any trade deal an interminable process. The difficulty of agreeing a consensus between 28 states, at different levels of development, on EU trade policy only complicated an already cumbersome decision-making mechanism.

 Strategic trade policy requires economic prudence imbued with enough dynamism to seize new opportunities whilst prioritizing quality over quantity, and the long over the short-term. Downing Street policy units currently work simultaneously on trade deals with the US and the EU. They are also examining Free Trade Agreements  (FTAs)with Australia and Canada as well as pivoting to the Indo Pacific. 

The noodle bowl of Free Trade Agreements  

The Indo-Pacific has maintained growth rates across the region in excess of 5 % over the last decade. Foreign direct investment (fdi), openness to global production networks and bilateral, trilateral and multilateral FTAs have been crucial to this growth. This pattern of agreements, which evolved with the rise of China after 2002, increasingly link the economies of Pacific Asia with the United States and India.

They also throw geopolitics into sharp focus which any UK pivot away from Europe must acknowledge. In this context, China considers the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) amalgamating all ASEANs FTA’s with regional partners into a coherent whole, integral to its Belt and Road initiative,  improving connectivity by building land transportation corridors linking China to Europe, and South Asia as well as with Southeast Asia.

However, the China model has a geopolitical trade off. Xi Jinping’s China dream wishes to integrate the smaller ASEAN economies into a Sinocentric regional production network. China’s proactive economic diplomacy in Southeast Asia is part of a broader strategy that imbricates its neighbors in a web of incentives that increase their dependence and raises the ante for calling China over ‘either territorial or economic disputes’.[8]

China’s growing global reach means that Easternisation[9] has implications for investment and development in the UK. Prior to Brexit Sino-UK relations had seemingly entered a ‘golden era’ with bilateral trade worth $75 billion in 2015. London accounts for two thirds of renminbi payments outside mainland China and Hong Kong. China viewed the UK as a gateway to Europe. Difficulties, over the nuclear power station at Hinckley Point to be built by France’s EDF and the China General Nuclear Power Group, and more recently Huawei’s UK broadband rollout however, sharply emphasized the economic stakes and political risks Brexit might entail for enhanced bilateral trading and investment with China.

‘Asia is the single region of the world of most consequence for America’, Ashton Carter, the US Secretary of State, wrote in 2016. It is in its putative pivot to the Indo-Pacific where the vital importance of the UK’s special relationship leading neither  to increased dependency on the US, nor kowtowing to China, will need most  careful calibration. It might also offer the opportunity, in terms of regional security, of reinvigorating the Five Power Defence Agreement (FPDA-with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand) as a counterpoint to building a more coherent set of FTAs with Commonwealth countries.

The Anglospheric Alternative ?

Given the geopolitical complexity of dealing with China, it might be prudent in the short term for the UK to focus on FTAs with developed economies in the Commonwealth and with the US. These states share both liberal market values and common law. Special Administrative Regions like Hong Kong and sovereign commonwealth states like Canada, Malaysia, India, Australia and New Zealand, and Singapore, followed a constitutional and economic legacy bequeathed by the UK.

Unlike the UK, however, they never abandoned sovereignty for a utopian project of ever closer union. Instead, they understood that ‘the liberty of a people consists in being governed by laws which they themselves have made’[10] and focused at the end of the Cold War on adapting institutions to the challenges and opportunities offered by globalisation.

By 2015, states following some version of an Anglo-liberal rule of law enjoyed both high standards of living and were amongst the more attractive places on the globe to live. Asian city states like Singapore had a per capita GDP (US$53,000) significantly in advance of the UK and most European states.[11] Singapore, like Hong Kong, is a regional trading hub which facilitates foreign direct investment through its investment friendly business climate and superb infrastructure.

Ultimately a geostrategic framework of FTA’s could lead to more ambitious schemes such as James C. Bennett’s Canzuk, or even Canzukus adding military co-operation, liberalised migration rules, and other co-operative measures to free trade with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and, in time, Singapore and India. A revamped western alliance structure could afford a framework not only for evolving economic linkages but also geopolitical ones, in terms of a shared language (English), a shared political culture based on sovereign institutions, the rule of law and mutual defence.

Global Britain’s Australian Dimension

It is with Australia that the UK’s shared security and economic interests most naturally coincide. Given their historically close relationship, a UK presence East of Suez in an era of global connectivity would be mutually reinforcing on a number of levels. Britain and Australia already cooperate closely on defence and intelligence. A royal navy presence would  reinforce the evolving quadrilateral  security dialogues  held by India, Japan, the US and Australia, and the Quad’s determination to uphold respect for ‘international law and freedom of navigation’. The UK would also add a counterweight to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and the South Pacific, whilst reinforcing ASEAN’s commitment to a rule based multilateral order across the Indo Pacific.

At the same time, Australian experience in negotiating trade deals across the Asia Pacific could also enhance the UK’s calculation of the links between trade and security . Since 2002 Australia has negotiated 23 FTAs including ones with China, South Korea and Malaysia, Singapore and the United States. Australia is also committed to the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement with 11 Asian and American economies (but not the US).  A 2014 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade study found that ‘Free trade agreements lead to an increase in exports, production and GDP relative to what would have been the case without the FTA’.[12] The Australian –US FTA alone accounted for ‘a massive increase in trade and investment’ since the agreement entered into force in 2005.[13] In this  strategic context, Australia would  have referred high profile decisions like Huawei or Hinckley Point  to its  independent Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) The UK does not  have an FIRB, nor any effective mechanism to adjudicate whether such acquisitions  and investments are in the national interest.Given the UK’s inept handling of Huawei and its potential to undermine long term strategic calculations, Australian trade advice cannot come soon enough. 


Global Britain has opened a Pandora’s box which requires careful handling if Brexit is to fashion a positive global event rather than an extended damage limitation exercise. Examining the options open for industrial strategy, free trade and free trade agreements suggests that some version of the FTA model offers the UK an environment to embrace global market prices rather than the regulatory intense environment of Europe. In this context, the fact that English is the language of international trade and business and that the UK can draw upon its Anglospheric connections with the US, India, Singapore and Australia means that the UK already enjoys a comparative advantage in dealing on a global rather than a regional basis.

Moreover, contrary to the logic of living with giants, national power is born of more than a large land area, a large population, or even a large economic output. Power is also generated from a country’s geography, culture, and political institutions. A realist as opposed to an idealist foreign policy would allow for the best elements of Britain’s post- Cold War global approach to be adapted and updated in accordance with the changing character of the international system. At the same time, by re-emphasising the importance of the British union-state, ‘Global Britain’ provides the political foundations for the development of the capabilities needed to actively and forcefully protect British interests.

David Martin Jones wrote the article “Ian McEwan does La Cucaracha” in the September issue


[1] See Brendan Simms Britain’s Europe Penguin: London 2016 p.229

[2] John Bew and Gabriel Elefterieu, Making Sense of British Foreign Policy after Brexit Policy Exchange Britain and the World Project July 2016 p. 2

[3] James Rogers, Core Assumptions and British Strategic Policy: Towards the next Foreign, Security and Defence Review Henry Jackson Society Global Britain Programme, January 2020 p.9

[4] Ibid p. 10

[5] Ibid p. 37

[6] Ibid p. 40

[7] Bew and Elefterieu Ibid p.5

[8] Bonnie Glaser and Deep Lal cited in B. Schreer, ‘Should Asia be afraid?’ The National Interest 20 August 2014 p.2

[9] Gideon Rachman, Easternisation War and Peace in the Asian Century London: Bodley Head, 2016

[10] A. Cowley, ‘Of Liberty’, The Essays of Abraham Cowley (London: Scribner 1869) p1.

[11] According to the World Bank http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD

[12] Australian Government The Impact of Free Trade Agreements upon Australia 2014 http://www.thecie.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/RIRDC-north-Asian-FTAs-report.pdf

[13] Australian Government Australia United States Free Trade Agreement 2016 http://dfat.gov.au/trade/agreements/ausfta/pages/australia-united-states-fta.aspx

2 thoughts on “Foreign Policy and the New Global Britain

  • Wayne says:

    High profile decisions like leasing the Darwin port to a Chinese firm? Allowing huge tracts of land and food production firms to be bought by Chinese firms? Like Victoria joining China’s belt and road program?

    We have nothing to be smug about.

  • DG says:

    Editor: no need for this apostrophe: “Globalisation and the End of History As Roger’s shows…”

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