Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plane has had a patriotic makeover. RAF Voyager, the aircraft used by Johnson and the royal family for official travel, was painted red, white, and blue to “better represent the UK around the world.” The news brought some consternation over the use of $1 million of taxpayers’ money, as well as amusing comparisons with Austin Powers. For those convinced that a U.K. outside the European Union would be diminished on the world stage, Johnson’s jet is a technicolor illustration of the unserious, amateurish nature of this government’s ambition to use Brexit to forge a new “Global Britain.”
Yet something more interesting is happening. In a series of important decisions in recent months, one can discern the outlines of Global Britain. Taken together, these signs amount to an encouraging vision of Britain’s place in the world and a firm rebuttal to the fatalistic claims made about life outside of the EU.
The central foreign policy critique of Brexit was that outside a bloc of European nations, the U.K. would have no choice but to align with a superpower, either the United States or China. In other words, what it gained in sovereignty, it would lose in real-world influence. A recent New York Times story typified the view: “With rivalry and antagonism between China and the West on the rise, Britain as a free agent will be caught uncomfortably in between, constantly forced to choose sides in a post-pandemic world.” Ignoring the nonsensical description of Britain—a core Western power—as in any way “in between” China and the West, newly independent Britain hardly seems to be slavishly in hock to any major power.
When President Donald Trump announced his intention to invite Russia back into the G7 last month, Johnson was the first to rule the move out. Without equivocation, the prime minister’s spokesperson made clear that the U.K. would veto Vladimir Putin’s return to the fold. In addition to stepping out of America’s shadow on Russia, Britain has toughened its stance on China. The “golden era” of Sino-British relations—proclaimed by then-prime minister David Cameron when Xi Jinping visited the U.K. in 2015—is over. Instead, Johnson has launched “project defend,” a review of the U.K.’s vulnerabilities to potentially hostile foreign governments. China is at the top of that list. The British government also recently announced plans to downgrade Huawei’s controversial role in the country’s 5G network and wants to launch a new club of democracies. The “D10” would comprise the G7—plus Australia, South Korea, and India—and would help invest in strategically important technologies, such as 5G, and reduce reliance on China. This U.K.-led initiative could even prove the basis for wider cooperation and a multilateral counterbalance to China.
Global Britain skeptics have scorned Britain’s about-face on China as pro-Trump “neo-poodleism,” designed to do nothing more than impress the U.S. government into signing a trade deal. In fact, Britain’s new approach centers on something comparatively low on the Trump administration’s list of grievances: the Chinese regime’s devastating crackdown on Hong Kong. Britain denounced the imposition of a new security law—and the beginning of the end of “one country, two systems”—in a joint statement with Canada and Australia, not the U.S. It supported this demarche with an act of surprising boldness, pledging British residency, and a path to full citizenship, to up to 3 million Hong Kongers.
These moves aren’t just early evidence that Global Britain is more than a slogan. They also compare favorably with the EU’s handling of the same issues. Brits were told that without Brussels, they couldn’t possibly stand up to Beijing, yet it’s EU officials who were caught bending to Chinese pressure and softening criticisms about China’s handling of Covid-19. Meantime, on Hong Kong, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell shows no sign of doing anything that might risk closer EU–Chinese economic ties.
Another important pillar of the Global Britain promise is trade. Since leaving the EU, U.K. trade negotiators have been encouragingly hyperactive, starting negotiations with the U.S., Australia, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and others. Last month, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss declared Britain’s desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Truss’s zeal for free-trade deals may not necessarily be shared by all her cabinet colleagues, and it remains to be seen whether other priorities, and noisy interest groups, get in the way of the realization of this liberalizing agenda. But these barriers are the ordinary business of trade politics—and they’re far from insurmountable.
Global Britain is also identifiable in the recent decision to merge the U.K. government’s Department for International Development, which spends the nation’s sizeable aid budget, with the Foreign Office. This piece of Whitehall rewiring prompted criticism—including from three former prime ministers—but it is intended to better align Britain’s aid spending with its strategic interests. For better or for worse, it points to a more hard-nosed approach to foreign affairs.
This week, Britain unilaterally imposed sanctions on human rights offenders from Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Myanmar. They include individuals who Britain believes are responsible for the killings of Sergei Magnitsky and Jamal Khashoggi. Critics warned that Global Britain would turn a blind eye to foreign powers’ moral shortcomings. The U.K. government is proving that prediction wrong.
All this amounts to a serious, encouraging reimagining of Britain’s place in the world. It certainly has some Imperial echoes (Britain’s special obligations to Hong Kong serve as a reminder). But it’s about more than nostalgia, and it builds on the nimbleness that comes with being a medium-size power outside of a bloc like the EU. So far, its defining features include a realization of the threat posed by China; a desire to forge closer ties with Asian and Australasian democracies to counter that threat; and a determination to reinvigorate old friendships and avoid both the superpower clientelism and the unambitious safety-in-numbers mentality of the EU.
Even as Britain puts flesh on the bones of Global Britain, criticisms of the government as a band of Quixotic Little Englanders continue. “Global Britain sounded more like a good weather motto and today we are in the middle of a hurricane with international tensions higher than ever,” said French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, an ally of President Emmanuel Macron. Loiseau is right to say that the world has changed in the four years since the EU referendum—but so has the idea of Global Britain. In 2016, the slogan was shorthand for the idea of a commercially savvy Britain breaking down barriers to trade and investment. Now, the U.K. government is creating a less mercantile, more geopolitically savvy, and morally alert role for Britain on the world stage. Increasingly, it’s London that looks more willing than Brussels to adapt to that changing world.
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