Britain, Europe and the World: Rethinking the UK’s Circles of Influence

Written by | Monday, December 14th, 2015

Robin Niblett (Chatham House)

The upcoming referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU will be crucial for both sides. The outcome of the referendum will strongly influence Britain’s foreign policy, which will have to undergo substantial change. The current direction of its diplomacy is in fact outdated and does not meet the security requirements of the state. On a global economic scale, British politics is basically based on the organizations of the Bretton Woods system created after the World War II, where it relies on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In its security policy, Britain primarily relies on NATO. It should be, however, noted that the institutions created in the second half of the 20th century no longer reflect the current distribution of the international influence. In the context of establishing closer cooperation between the United States and China, Britain has been sidelined, and the traditional US alliance with the British monarchy is thus jeopardized.

Ever since Winston Churchill’s era, Great Britain sees its foreign policy interests in three areas of influence. The first area is the inner zone, which includes Europe. This should be the sphere of influence that forms the basis of Britain’s geopolitical power. It is here where the United Kingdom should be a strong and active policymaker. The second area is the zone of the transatlantic cooperation with the United States. This area is characterized by strong economic and security ties, whereby the United States exercises a predominant role in this relationship. Britain’s third area of influence is the so-called outer circle, which includes the Commonwealth countries and also the states, with which Britain has bilateral agreements.

From this perspective, in the last decade, the United Kingdom has focused on expanding its economic influence in emerging markets of the outer circle, including countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore or India. In contrast, the relations within the so-called inner circle are tense and stagnating. The 1999 decision not to join the euro and the looming referendum on leaving the EU are both only reinforcing these trends.

Great Britain is now searching for a new position in the world’s politics. However, the more detaches itself from the integration process, the more it excludes itself from the sphere of world politics. The United Kingdom did not participate in the preparations of the Minsk Agreement with Ukraine, the negotiations on the Middle East, nor the meetings on contemporary security issues in Central Europe. Germany, France and Poland are the main policymakers in these areas. Owing to its reserved position, Great Britain does not have a chance to pursue its own objectives in international politics. Regardless of the outcome of the British referendum on leaving the EU, Britain will have to reassess its current reserved attitude towards Europe.

(The study can be downloaded here:

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