In an increasingly divided world, the UK needs to show that it is a reliable and robust member of the community of liberal democracies: one that follows through on its commitments and lives up to its stated values. In the year since the release of the Integrated Review — a comprehensive articulation of the UK’s national security and international policy — the UK has taken important steps to pursue its four broad international priorities. It used its G7 presidency in 2021 to bring together a wider community of countries – including allies in the Indo-Pacific – that are committed to defending their own liberal democracies and to supporting others who adhere to a common set of values. This ‘G7 Plus’ is better able to challenge China in the development of critical technologies and global infrastructure, and has delivered a more powerful and concerted response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 than might otherwise have been expected.
The UK has also been a leading contributor to the defense of the liberal democratic community, its second main objective. In the crisis with Russia over Ukraine, the UK has lived up to its ambition to be the leading European ally within NATO, and has been one of the most robust supporters of the embattled government in Kyiv in its struggle to resist the invasion and ensure Ukraine remains a sovereign country. It provided critical military assistance to Ukraine in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion, strengthened its military presence in the Baltics, and implemented coordination mechanisms and exercises among the northern European group of countries that form part of the Joint Expeditionary Force. During 2021, the UK’s deployment of a carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific, and a series of bilateral exercises and new security agreements, underscored the country’s parallel strategic ‘tilt’ to the region. The UK cannot persistently bring the same resources to bear in the Indo-Pacific as in Europe, but it has deepened its commitments to its allies in the region within the constraints of its resources.
The government’s record has been more mixed on its third objective, of promoting global resilience to the challenges of climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and their impacts on poverty and inequality. The UK presided over a successful lead-up and conclusion to the November 2021 COP26 summit in Glasgow. But it failed to mobilize the G7 to deploy Covid vaccines in anywhere close to the numbers needed by the most vulnerable low-income countries. Combined with the government’s severe and sudden cuts to its ODA spending, the UK contributed to a growing divergence between the world’s richest and poorest countries during 2021, with all the risks this holds for the future.
In terms of the Integrated Review’s fourth objective, of ensuring the UK’s international economic policy supports the welfare of British citizens, the government can point to its successful renegotiation on a bilateral basis of all the trade deals the UK previously enjoyed with third parties as an EU member. The subsequent opening and completion of negotiations on a small number of new bilateral agreements, along with steps to pursue regulatory innovation in the financial, digital and biotechnology sectors, represent an important down-payment on the ambition to be a science and technology superpower, and on ensuring the UK remains one of the world’s more competitive economies.
In contrast, UK relations with its neighbors in the EU remained fragile and fractious throughout 2021. The UK focused its positive agenda almost exclusively on NATO and on bilateral relationships in Northern and Central Europe. At the start of 2022, there was a clear risk that relations with the EU would get worse before they get better, given the still rising barriers to the two sides’ trade and broader economic interaction following the UK’s exit from the European Single Market and Customs Union. But the urgent need to coordinate an effective response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affords an opportunity to rebuild the relationship between the UK and the EU around the fundamental values and security interests that unite them, as well as the deep economic interdependence that will always connect them. This means that the UK government needs to develop a positive agenda with the EU as an institution, and not just with individual EU member states or other selective groupings, as it has done recently with the Visegrád Four, for instance.
Given the EU’s central role alongside NATO in responding to the grave threat from Russia, and the Biden administration’s support for closer coordination between the two institutions, the UK could try to link its ideas for upgrading NATO’s Strategic Concept in 2022 with the EU’s new Strategic Compass and member states’ growing commitments to strengthen Europe’s defense capabilities. Allowing frictions to continue over bilateral trade and the Northern Ireland Protocol would pointlessly undermine these opportunities and weaken both sides at a moment of acute danger. The continuing centrality of the US, alongside the EU, to the UK’s long-term security and economic well-being was captured in the signing, by President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson, of a new Atlantic Charter, just ahead of the G7 Carbis Bay Summit in June 2021. And, most recently, the close UK–US coordination on military and intelligence support to Kyiv in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has served as a reminder of one of the ‘special’ aspects of this bilateral relationship.
Even so, the UK needs to be wary of being over-reliant on the US relationship for its future. The Biden administration is investing far more effort than its predecessors in strengthening the US relationship with the EU, including in economic and regulatory areas that cut to the heart of the UK’s own interests. The UK will inevitably be excluded from certain aspects of closer US–EU cooperation, as the world’s two largest markets coordinate better on everything from digital trade to carbon border taxes, to ensure that their collective economic and political strength can stand up to challenges from their autocratic rivals. This deepening of the US–EU relationship has been accelerated by the EU’s unexpectedly strong response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and its willingness to coordinate with the US on common steps. If the US does turn away from the EU in the future – for instance as a result of a change in the political environment in Washington between now and 2024 – this will present more rather than fewer problems for the UK, as it would also signal a retreat by the US from the global priorities that the UK shares with the Biden administration as well as the rest of Europe.
For both these reasons, the UK needs to think truly globally when it talks about a community of liberal democracies. Having been at the centre, during its G7 presidency, of the initiative to link up the G7 with members of the Indo-Pacific Quad, the UK would benefit from investing continued effort in turning this nascent G7 Plus into a more stable and persistent grouping: one that is capable of and willing to build an open, transparent and sustainable global economy, protect the foundations of its members’ own liberal democracies, and lend support to those countries committed to the same values and outcomes. Strengthening the coordination mechanisms and common purpose of this larger grouping could also help lessen the risks of the UK being sidelined by growing US–EU cooperation. Instead, the G7 Plus could become a vehicle for the UK to pursue its international priorities as a more equal partner alongside a wider community of allies.
The UK also now has the flexibility to negotiate and strike some new trade deals and sectoral arrangements with countries whose comparative advantages are complementary to those of the UK, some of which are struggling to make progress with the EU. Although the net benefits of these deals will not compensate in the near term for the loss of barrier-free trade with the EU, they will help some specific businesses and sectors. But perhaps more importantly, given the current geopolitical context, they will strengthen the UK’s diplomatic voice and geo-economic presence in parts of the world that are increasingly important to its foreign policy. This means that the UK needs to focus its trade strategy in 2022–23 on those countries and regions that could be important partners in the intensifying division between Russia and China on the one hand, and the G7 Plus on the other. Completing entry to the CPTPP would send an important signal in this respect. So would undertaking trade deals with countries outside the UK’s ‘network of liberty’, such as Egypt and Vietnam, which could yet be drawn into a network of autocratic states.
Finally, having promoted itself as a leading contributor to the resilience of the poorer members of the international community, the UK needs to live up to its commitments, whether on climate finance, on transfer of medical know-how, or on sustainable infrastructure investment. The disruptive spillovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, compounded now by spiking prices of essential commodities due to the conflict in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, constitute a huge shock to the most vulnerable parts of the world. Leaders and citizens in the worst-affected countries will not forgive the UK and other developed democracies if they do not support them through this turmoil. The UK is especially open to charges of hypocrisy following the severe cuts to its foreign aid budget in 2021, as well as its poor record on refugees and asylum policy. These are not the hallmarks of a truly global Britain.
As the UK endeavors to make its mark as a more autonomous global actor post-Brexit, justifiable accusations of double standards and evidence of hypocrisy will be deeply damaging – not least for its much-valued soft power. Conversely, there will be few more precious assets in the future for Britain’s influence in the world than a reputation for being a reliably robust member of the community of liberal democracies, and one that follows through consistently on its commitments.
‘Global Britain in a Divided World’ — Research Paper by Robin Niblett — Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.