Composite sketch of Global Britain

The UC proudly reprints an analysis of British post-Brexit foreign policy and implications for Russia by our HSE UC Fellow Sergey Shein. The text was originally published in Russian on RIAC website.


On March 16, 2021, the UK's post-Brexit foreign policy finally found a conceptual framework. Boris Johnson's government has published a 114-page document ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’. The review has been portrayed as the largest one since the end of the Cold War. The Prime Minister's foreword to the document, which contained a note of vanity, demonstrated the ‘centrality of the review to the priorities of a conservative government’. As the first conservative prime minister in 30 years who did not experience a failure with the ‘European issue’, Boris Johnson took the liberty to  to do what his predecessors could only envy: conceptualize his vision of life in Britain ‘after the European Union’.

However,  the document leaves with ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, it does have a noteworthy conceptual novelty. First of all, it relates to the reversal of the course towards nuclear disarmament, modernization of the armed forces and the already announced "turn" towards the Indo-Pacific region (ITR), which creates room for interpreting Britain's post-Brexit foreign policy in terms of neo-imperialism. On the other hand, more than a hundred pages of the text did not contain the main thing: a coherent and detailed description of "Global Britain" for its practical implementation. It is not a colorful portrait, but rather a sketch, made up of separate and disparate parts, and therefore characterized by incompleteness and a number of contradictions.

The review itself is an attempt to prove that after the end of the traumatic Brexit process and the exit from the third lockdown, the future of Britain will sparkle with rainbow colors. ‘Geopolitical loneliness’ does not threaten the UK. To the conservative government the question posed by "The Economist" about whether the UK will follow the path of Switzerland after Brexit, abiding by the EU, or Turkey, constantly bullying and provoking the European Union, is not relevant. The government is trying to demonstrate that the obsession of British foreign policy on Europe is a thing of the past. Now Britain is thinking and acting globally.

A careful choice of the moment for publication of the review is worth mentioning. On the one hand, at the end of March, the spring conservative forum of party members will take place, where the party leader needs to demonstrate that he has not only implemented the divorce with the EU but also has an idea about how and where to move on. On the other hand, the United Kingdom assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council in February, and is also due to host the G7 Conference and the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change this year. Each of these international events provides the Johnson government with an opportunity to advance the priorities of "Global Britain" in the areas of security, economy and climate change. And finally, it became obvious that the senior partner of the UK, the United States, has become more predictable with the election of Joe Biden, and demonstrates a desire to continue building cooperation with the UK in the wake of ‘special relations’.

Global Britain ‘in the system of political coordinates’

Since the foreign policy course vectors outlined in the document will be clarified in the government's "white books", it is more important to focus on the system of political coordinates in which Britain's global ambitions will be realized.

The British political class is firmly on the ground in its understanding of the changing international environment. In contrast to the 2015 review, the conservative government is no longer prepared to defend the status quo of the international order, but takes its transformation for granted. The report describes the geopolitical and geo-economic shift from the West to the East, increased competition between states, technological changes and global problems as the main trends of the modern international environment. In these circumstances, the UK should flourish as a ‘science and technology superpower’ and a ‘responsible democratic cyberpower’.

In the United Kingdom, which used to be ‘the world’s workbench’, resources suffice. The report provides various arguments to demonstrate this, from the number of Nobel laureates to the indicators of "soft power". Britain's global role will be to protect and support open economies and societies (Britain as a "global broker" and its main instrument is free trade). However, national sovereignty and national security still remain foreign policy priorities.

Nonetheless, problems emerge when trying to determine the specific place of Britain in today's world order. According to the document, the "three connected circles" proposed by Winston Churchill at the time (the Commonwealth and the Empire, the United States and a United Europe), in the center of which Britain should be, remain the supporting structure of foreign policy. It should be stated here that the process of decolonization has made several adjustments: the word empire has disappeared, and the Commonwealth has gone to the last place on the list of priorities.

In the review, the "connected circles" are reversed again. If the priority place of "special relations" with the United States in the foreign policy perception of the British elites does not raise questions, then some British neglect has become visible in relation to the EU. The 2018 Foreign Office Memorandum declared that "relations with the European Union will continue to be a top priority", which was most likely due to the incompleteness of Brexit. Now Europe, represented by the EU and its leading member states, is moving to third place on the list of priorities, behind the Indo-Pacific region, allowing us to talk about the reincarnation of the empire in the imagination of British Tories. Although not everything is so clear here.

ITR seems to be a kind of "pearl" of the empire in terms of markets and investments, but it is absolutely logical not to perceive it as a compensation for the European direction in security issues. The review clearly indicates that the UK's immediate  place of residence, the Euro-Atlantic region, remains a priority, and much of its focus will remain on security.

Thus, the essence of the ‘turnaround’ to the ITR will be expressed in more active participation in regional trade through the TPP, supporting for action to combat climate change and promote British values, revitalizing relations with India and engaging with ASEAN. The UK is aimed for the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific region, basing on its historical ties and the effective forms of interaction developed in the region.

In general, the document highlights the problem of Britain's inability to make a painful geopolitical choice. A popular among British political scientists thesis, especially after the 2003 Iraq war, sounds as follows: ‘the future of British politics depends on whether the choice is made in favor of Europe or the United States’. The March review demonstrates that, while losing the role of the "transatlantic bridge" with the exit from the EU and making its role in the architecture of European security uncertain, Britain is still trying to sit on all chairs, now including the ITR.

There are negative characters, China and Russia, outside of the ‘three circles’ in the UK’s new picture of the world. Here it should be stated that the image of China in the review turned out to be contradictory. The growing influence of the Celestial Empire is described by the British government as ‘the most significant geopolitical factor in the modern world’ and ‘a systemic challenge to the security, prosperity and values’ of the country. At the same time, the report says that the UK ‘should remain open to Chinese trade and investment’. Even such a restrained tone and ambiguous message, which, however, met with a fair share of criticism from sinosceptics in the Conservative Party, clearly contrasts with the 2018 government Memorandum, where China was seen as a partner in the economy and solving global problems, and the opportunities offered by the Belt and Road Initiative were extremely welcome. The March review thus draws the bottom line to the ‘golden era" in British-Chinese relations, which has been noticeably dimmed after the suppression of protests in Hong Kong, the oppression of Uighurs, the Huawei scandal and the revocation of the license of the Chinese channel CGTN.

Discrepancies of the ‘Global Britain’

The most important contradictions in the description of ‘Global Britain’, from the perspective of its implementation, arise along the lines of ‘ambitious goals — modest resources’ and ‘Global Britain — Global England’.

The fight against global challenges and troublemakers of international peace, according to the authors of the review, requires maintaining and developing the resilience of economic and security systems both in Britain and around the world. Addressing the category of stress tolerance is, to a certain extent, a mainstream discourse in the field of international security.

The problem is that the concept of stress tolerance primarily involves responding to challenges and threats, rather than avoiding them. Hence the emphasis on system resources emerges. But "global Britain" may have special problems with resources. The stated global ambitions are not accompanied by the expansion of the resource base. The simultaneous run towards increasing military budgets, developing new technologies, and supporting "soft power" tools looks very strange for a country emerging dragged out from the coronavirus pandemic. The British economy has returned to the level of 2013. The scale of the economic downturn is unprecedented: The country's GDP declined by 9.9% in 2020, which is not only the sharpest drop in post-war history, but also the worst performance among the G7 countries.

In addition to questions about the resource base for Britain's new global role, there is another point worth noting. The Strategic Review, in fact, continues to identify ‘Global Britain’ with ‘Global England’. However, today the United Kingdom is a ‘union of four nations’, and ‘imperialism’ is a purely English phenomenon. A turnaround to the ITR will not replace Scotland, which voted against Brexit. Moreover, the decision to increase nuclear weapons by 40% caused a sharp reaction from the Scottish National Party, which campaigned for the removal of ‘tridents’ from the territory of the region even during the independence referendum.

However, the British government follows its own logic. In the context of growing contradictions between the center and the regions against the background of Brexit and coronavirus, B. Johnson considers the course to increase the global role of Britain as an opportunity to unite the four nations. The new defence industry strategy promises to build ships in Scotland, armoured vehicles in Wales and satellites in Northern Ireland, while the National Cyber Forces will be headquartered in the north of England.

It is appropriate to recall the tradition of ‘one nation’ conservatism, which is rooted in the policy of a conservative prime minister of the XIX century Benjamin Disraeli. Johnson's predecessor tried to unite the ‘two nations’ of the rich and the poor into one through social reforms and the translation of the contradictions that arise between them into the sphere of international relations. The document of the current Prime Minister, in its turn, offers to forget about the contradictions between the center and the regions, Brexiteers and Bremainers, and enjoy the role of Britain as a global power, being ‘one British nation’. At the moment, the unifying element of "Global Britain" is inferior to its perception by the regions as a manifestation of English foreign policy.

Throughout the document, there is a combination of a sober view of things (challenges and competitive advantages, especially those of ITR) and global ambitions that are not supported by resources. Hence, the presented document is rather an indicator that the conservative foreign policy thought after Brexit does not stand still, but it is not a guide to action to implement the concept of ‘Global Britain’. The disparate parts of the ‘sketch’ need to become something more solid and realistic.

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What does Review mean for Russia? It is obvious that the label «the main threat to security in Europe» limits the scope of possible cooperation with UK.

There are also a number of points that we need to take into account.

First, review demonstrated a mix of pragmatic approach «business as usual» and a value perspective in UK foreign policy. This creates tendency of «toxification» of UK-Russia relations even in areas where cooperation is possible.

Second, we need to take into account that the new US President Joseph Biden declared loyalty to a «special relationship» with UK. The special relationship between UK and the US is a powerful structural factor for the dynamics of UK-Russia relations. UK, as the main military ally of the United States, even more so after Brexit, will profess the same view of Russia as a threat as UK’s “big brother”.

Third, Britain needs an “alien” to form its own foreign policy identity after Brexit. Who will they be? China or Russia? Sino-sceptics are casting a voice in the Conservative Party, but given that there was a «golden age» in UK-China and cooperation with China creates significant economic opportunities, it is easier to give this role to Russia.

What should Russia do in this situation?

Let's start with the obvious things again. The dialog between governments is toxic. We need new tools and approaches. According to Keohane, it is necessary to use trans-governmental and transnational contacts. Given that multilevel government is a characteristic of modern British political life (UK as a union of four nations) and regions can play more significant role in UK foreign policy formulation, we need to expand the interaction between Russian regions and UK regions. An example is the Scotland-Russia forum. Although there is a risk that we will plunge into history with «Russian invasion». It is worth considering separately intensifying the dialogue at the expert level.

The most that Russia can do in this context is to avoid spilling the toxicity of security issues onto the level of trade, investment and cultural contacts (although they are reduced to almost zero at the moment).