The notion of ‘Global Britain’ has emerged roughly 20 years ago and became since then the UK’s official government slogan, widely used by the Prime Ministers Cameron, May and Johnson. The concept aims to define the UK’s new role in international politics and its domestic adjustment.
“Global Britain” follows the “Realist School” of International Relations Theory, emphasizing the anarchic nature of world politics and the importance of national, autonomous policy of self-interest.
The UK’s exit from the EU is presented as the main success of the campaign, with the country gaining sovereignty back again and facing new paths outward.
The Chatham House, known to tend towards the concurring “Liberal Theory of International Relations”, has embarked on the debate on ‘Global Britain’. The influential British Think Tank has published January 2021 a report titled “Global Britain, global broker: A Blueprint for the UK’s future international role”, signed by the institution’s director and chief executive, Robin Niblett. (All following quotes are from the Chatham House report except otherwise indicated.)
The report discusses Britain’s role ahead, formulates 6 fundamental goals, identifying UK’s potential allies and adversaries and proposes a new resource policy.
Niblett especially proposes a reconsideration of relations with China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India and Russia, that is, nearly half of the world’s population.
6 GOALS FOR BRITISH FOREIGN POLICY
The influential Think Tank defines 6 different global goals for British foreign policy and states the according assets. These can be summarized as follows:
1. Human rights and democracy
“The UK should protect human rights and liberal democracy around the world, and help other countries undertake their own journeys to systems of democratic governance”, states the report (30).
The report wants to promote “liberal democracy” with “assets” that deserve more the adjective ‘imperialistic’ than ‘liberal’: UN Security Council, NATO membership, UK’s control over “financial centres” and its recently gained independence from the EU are named as assets (30-31).
2. Peace and Security
For “Britain’s own security and prosperity”, the UK should “support the emergence and maintenance of peaceful and thriving societies”, says the report within the context of “increased geopolitical competition, failures of governance, and growing environmental stresses” (32).
Explicit threats to peace and security as understood by the Chatham House are illegal migration flows, violent extremism, international terrorism, and communicable diseases.
The Chatham House considers again the UN with its Sustainable Development Goals and according institutions, the UK’s foreign aid, its diplomatic and military capabilities, especially the infamous Stabilization Unit, as instruments for this goal.
3. Climate Change
As the UK profits from “the world” through trade, investment, financial flows, tourism and migration, it is “exposed” to it, resulting in the need to “tackle climate change” (34).
In order to protect “domestic infrastructure and agricultural production”, and to avoid “weaker global economic growth and climate refugee flows”, the UK shall use “green finance”, its chair position of COP 26 and “financial packages” to low-income countries (34), proposes the report.
4. Global Health
A very actual but not detailed goal in the report is “improving standards and coordination on global health” (35).
National resources in medical research, vaccine development, funding of international programs and membership in the WHO are underlined here as assets.
5. More transparent global economy
The Chatham House report calls to continue “global economic progress” towards “free trade” and “open markets” in the face of “popular frustrations of globalization”. (35-36). “Tackling international tax evasions”, further sanctioning “money laundering” and “demand for greater social and economic equality” are called for (36-37).
6. Defending cyberspace
The goals of liberal democracy, peace and security are continued in the cyberspace, with the report targeting “state-sponsored and criminal cyber attacks” as well as “digital disinformation”.
Without open reference to recent US elections and the role the cyberspace played, states the report that “integrity and public trustworthiness of cyber infrastructure will also be central to democratic governance” (37).
“Signal intelligence, electronic surveillance, intelligence-gathering and cyber defence and offence” (37) are Britain’s assets, and the report leaves no doubt that cyber warfare has already begun:
“On 19 November 2020, the government revealed the creation of a National Cyber Force, linking GCHQ, the Secret Intelligence Services and the Ministry of Defence’s UK Strategic Command into a new unified command capable of disrupting, degrading and destroying the communications capabilities of state and non-state actors posing threats to the UK and its allies.” (37)
CHURCHILL IS DEAD: CORRECTION OF GLOBAL BRITAIN
It has been reported that with the change of Administration from Trump to Biden, a statue of Winston Churchill had to leave the Presidential Office in the White House too. And the Chatham House report recalls the legendary British politician, serving as idol for many Global Britain followers, critically as someone who “tried to retain the British Empire” and therefore rejected to be “a founding member of a more united Europe.” (7)
The report states in that context the following:
“The first thing to recognize is that there is no past model to return to. The UK will not be a powerful enough country to make much of a difference on its own”. (37)
“Rather than try to reincarnate itself as a miniature great power, the UK needs to marshal its sources to be the broker of solutions to global challenges.” (2) Hence, the “global broker” in the title is rejection of great power posture – and Churchillian approaches – and a call to the traditional transatlantic alliance.
The 6 goals lead to a “new divide in international affairs between open societies” and countries where “citizens are denied rights” (12).
The centrepiece of the Chatham House report is a balance sheet on world countries concerning Britain’s interests formulated as the goals above. The result on who the allies are, is not very surprising. The report reproduces the classical transatlantic alliance with the EU as the closest partner, and the US with the “special relationship”.
China interchanges between being a partner and an adversary, India is considered a useless ally, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are former allies tending to be adversaries, while Russia is openly called the “enemy”.
Admitting that international organizations “which the UK and US jointly conceived in the 1940s, have lost much of their influence”, the report warns, in an implicit criticism of Trumpism, still against a “return to realist, ‘me first’ international relations and weak international institutions” (13).
Instead, the UK shall “double down on current institutional memberships while engaging in more informal agreements” (64).
CLOSEST ALLY: THE EU
Given the fact of Brexit, are UK-EU relations of great interest in the report. According to the Chatham House, will the EU keep on to be “the nearest, best-resourced an most similarly motivated group of countries” (39), and both will work on “constant compromise around their future co-existence” (8).
The report warns the UK against approaches towards third countries that diverge from EU positions:
“For Britain to strengthen its relations with Hungary or Turkey, for example, with no regard for the ways this could undercut the policies being developed by their European neighbours would not only be hypocritical; it would be counterproductive, whatever the potential near-term economic benefit for the UK.” (39)
Another third country where divergences should be avoided is China.
Thus, the report implicitly distances itself from voices within the Global Britain framework that declare the EU and especially Germany and France as main competitors and centrifugal European actors as possible allies.
Instead, the report proposes between the UK and the EU “common policy approaches to Russia, including sanctions, Ukraine and the Balkans” (40), climate policy reform, Internet governance, Sustainable Development Goals and deepening security cooperation.
According to the report, “common positions” have already been established between the UK and EU on Iran, the Middle East Process, the WTO reform and the UN Climate Change Conference, indicating further cooperation.
END OF MEMBERSHIP LEADS TO MORE “PROACTIVE POLICY”
While cooperation with the EU prevails, the UK has since its departure from the EU taken a “more proactive stance” in various policy fields. It has pursued a more radical and aggressive policy than the EU for instance in implementing the so-called Magnitsky sanctions on Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea, and or measures against China in the context of Hong Kong (31).
“SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP” RECONFIGURED: UK – US RELATIONS
The US remains a very important partner due to security cooperation and economic relations. Still, the Chatham Report highlights two factors that will recalibrate the UK – US “special relationship”.
Firstly, following the UK’s exit from the EU, the US loses an “influential voice to bear in the EU decision-making” (9). The UK will have to “fight its way to the table in transatlantic negotiations”, while Washington will exercise “greater bilateral pressure (on the UK, YS) than before to demonstrate its loyalty to the US” (9).
Secondly, as the “focus of US security continues to pivot inexorably towards the Asia-Pacific”, Europe will be left behind by Washington as the field where UK’s “loyalty” will be tested (41):
“Britain’s role will be all the more important to Washington in helping deliver a more robust European capacity to deter Russian military adventurism on the eastern fringes of NATO. The US will also hope that the UK, Germany and France succeed in promoting peace and economic security around the southern and eastern Mediterranean.” (41)
UK – US cooperation especially in “cyber defence, intelligence-gathering, nuclear non-proliferation and counterterrorism” is proposed in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
BETWEEN PARTNER AND ADVERSARY: CHINA
The UK’s relations with China display according to the report a fundamental change. China was once, together with Japan, Russia and Saudi Arabia, one of the “small group of strategically important countries (…) with outsized effect on UK security and prosperity”, i.e., extraordinarily useful (7).
This had led the British government to announce in 2015 a “golden era” of UK- China relations, also within the Global Britain concept, leading the UK-US special relationship to “suffer”, because the UK has not considered China a threat to the same degree as the US, and instead focused on potential economic gains from the relation with Beijing (42).
But, states the Chatham House report, is the ‘golden era’, “if ever existed”, over, ceding to a “new form of economic Cold War” (10-11).
This “new Cold War” has even an “ideological dimension in the stand-off between China and the US” that “may lead to involving investment restrictions, targeted sanctions and decoupling of technological sectors, with Taiwan an ever-resent potential flashpoint” (11).
And Britain shall not, according to the Chatham House, “demonstrate its new global ambitions by prioritizing its economic relationship with China” (11).
The Chatham House states “an authoritarian and globally assertive China”, led by President Xi who “has reasserted authoritarian controls, is centralizing power”, while “1 million Uighurs are in re-education camps” and human rights lawyers arrested “regularly”. These tendencies “narrow the scope for China to maintain constructive relations with democratic states, including the UK.” (10)
The report’s proposal of China-policy treats the country sometime as a “threat” and sometimes as a “partner”.
“British interests are clearly threatened” states the report, by China’s violation of human rights and “through its emerging position as the nucleus of a cluster of authoritarian governments that want to change cyber norms and rules to favour states surveillance”, of course the point of criticism being that UK is not the leader of surveillance (43). The Chinese Belt and Road Project is also criticized for the “blind eye on environmental sustainability and political corruption” (43).
On the other hand, an “economic uncoupling from China” is rejected in favour of “circumscribed economic relationship” that limits Beijing’s investment on strategic sectors, and pursues a UK – China investment agreement. “This would bring greater clarity to investors and reduce the risk of unplanned political antagonism” (44).
“Partnership with China” should be continued, states the report, on issues like reducing greenhouse gas emissions or promoting economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa.
And part of the China-policy are of course Britain’s initiatives in the Asia-Pacific, the countries that surround China, where the UK is called to “add critical mass” to the group of democracies like Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, with a “supplementing role in regional stability”. (45)
THE “DIFFICULT FOUR”: INDIA, SAUDI ARABIA, TURKEY AND RUSSIA
The Chatham House report considers India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia as the “difficult four” (45). These countries have been “strategically important” (7) for British wealth formerly, but the “UK government has to reset its relations” to them now in accordance with the 6 goals.
The Chatham House presents a kind of school report card for each country.
INDIA: ECONOMICALLY AND DIPLOMATICALLY USELESS
In spite of the British colonial past and UK government engagement has India escaped London’s control when “the US has become the most important strategic partner” of Delhi (46).
India displays policies “most resistant to open trade and foreign investment”, is limited in “undertaking proactive foreign policy on global issues, for instance shying away from joining Britain and others in supporting liberal democracy beyond its shores” (46).
Thus, the UK government “needs to accept that gaining direct national benefit from the relationship, whether economically or diplomatically, will be difficult” (46).
On the contrary has India “participated readily” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization led by Moscow and Beijing, “designed to resist the penetration of Western interests and values in Eurasia” (12).
SAUDI ARABIA: IMPORTANT BUT ESCAPING CONTROL
The report states “a constant tension” between UK’s influence in Saudi Arabia and the pursuit of the 6-abovementioned global goals.
Saudi Arabia receives positives notes for the wealth it still commands, its recent draw down in the Yemen conflict and its deradicalization of Islamic thought as well as its central role in the Middle East Peace Process.
But “Saudi Arabia stand on the opposite side of many of the UK’s global goals and values” (49), states the report.
It has been “obstructive in climate negotiations” and “stands in the opposite corner on issues of human rights and support for democratic governance” (49).
More importantly, 0“Saudi Arabia is deepening its relationship with China not only economically but politically” (49).
Saudi Arabia thus presents a “difficult balancing act” for British foreign policy (48).
TURKEY: UK SHOULD LOOK BEYOND THE GOVERNMENT
The Chatham House report states that “Turkey presents Britain with as many challenges as opportunities for partnership”, but the text details serious conflicts between British goals and Turkish policy (47).
The report acknowledges that Turkey has a “large, still youthful population and relatively low GDP per capita (…) offering strong incentive for the UK government to deepen economic relations post-Brexit” (47).
But, as mentioned above, calls the report the UK government not leave the common stance with the EU towards Turkey for economic benefits. There are a number of British complaints on Turkey:
As with India, Turkey also approaches the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and thus the Russian and Chinese deterrence of Western influence (12).
Furthermore do “Turkey’s own interests in Iraq and Syria (…) often clash with those of the US and other allies”, while the country “is testing the limits of what it means to be a NATO ally” by purchasing the S-400 defence system (48).
As if this was not enough, is “Turkey now in the perverse situation of challenging the territorial interests of Greece, another NATO member” in the Eastern Mediterranean (48).
The Chatham House report also harshly criticizes the domestic politics of the Turkish government, stating, “Turkish authorities have eroded the rule of law, stifled independent media, and imprisoned journalists and opposition political figures”.
The proposal of the report concerning UK – Turkey relations mounts to pressure the current government and prepare for a change in leadership:
“And yet the result of the 2019 mayoral election – which was won by an opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu – shows a strong appetite among Turkey’s increasingly urban population for political plurality. The British government must avoid personalizing its bilateral relations with Turkey around President Erdoğan and should take a longer view of this important relationship” (48).
RUSSIA: THREAT TO NATIONAL INTEREST
The Chatham House report has no balanced expressions concerning the UK – Russia relations. The report states, “the UK is a danger to President Putin’s understanding of the Russian national interest”, a diplomatic way to project the report’s evaluation of Moscow into Putin’s perspective (47). The sentence should be read as ‘President Putin is a danger to British national interest’.
The same applies to the sentence “whatever the logic for bilateral economic engagement or diplomatic cooperation (…) Russia’s interest (is) seeing the UK become weaker over the long term” (47).
Consequently, the report demands “UK will need to support European efforts to contest the Russian governments disinformation campaigns, financial support for illiberal parties and attempted subversion of democratic politics in Europe. It will also need to join European partners in countering Moscow’s overt or covert military threats against democracies in the region” (47).
As mentioned above, expects the Chatham House that the US will continue on focusing on Asia-Pacific, turning the UK into “a leading contributor to NATO’s cybersecurity capabilities, to its command-and-control infrastructure, and to the space, air, maritime and ground surveillance systems necessary to respond effectively to Russia’s on-going probes and provocations.” (53)
Says the Chatham House report:
“With one of NATO’s most deployable militaries, Britain should put itself at the heart of a more networked and flexible approach to security in and around Europe.” (53)
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
The Chatham House report faces as a “splintered world” (title, chapter 2), a world where the transatlantic alliance has received serious damage, where national autonomy rises and where the UK has left the European Union to embark on a future of its own.
The report struggles implicitly against certain currents of nationalism at home, against ruptures in the international alliance system and against old and new adversaries.
It is seeking to describe Britain a path where half of the world’s population, which also constitutes the economically dynamic geography, is declared adversaries, with China, India, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
It seeks to develop a strategy where the European Union embarks on its path of “strategic autonomy”, while the US loses focus an Europe and the UK shall take over the leading role of transatlantic alliance towards the adversaries, beginning with Russia and Turkey.
The frictions and conflicts the report tries to deal with and bears at the same time are countless. Therefore, one has to expect several more strategic papers and reports coming from London.