Boris Johnson formally kicked off on Friday what he asserts will be the most sweeping UK defence and security review since the end of the Cold War. Yet, while he is eager to explore the potential opportunities of the post-Brexit landscape, the challenges are mounting too.
For two of the long-standing pillars of UK policy in the post-war period, its alliances with the United States and Europe, are in flux. Not only is Johnson in dispute with Donald Trump on issues from Huawei to digital taxes, he also faces a massive negotiation this year with the EU to agree and ratify a new trade deal before December 31.
This creates a major headache for London at the same time that it must also now recalibrate its foreign and defence policy in every part of the globe from Asia-Pacific to the Americas. So this latest (2020) Strategic Defence and Security Review, which will conclude in Autumn, will look at Britain’s key post-Brexit foreign goals and what this will require from the armed forces, security, diplomacy, foreign aid and intelligence communities, including in space and cyberspace. One of the themes will be that of ‘fusion’, the Whitehall jargon for cooperation and partnering between UK departments, services and agencies, and also with key international allies.
Almost a half-decade on from the 2015 SDSR, with the United Kingdom having left the Brussels-based club, the new SDSR is as urgent as it is necessary. In a previous generation, former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd asserted that Britain had been able to “punch above its weight” in the post-war era, despite it no longer being a great power. That statement may still be true today, but is under increasing scrutiny as the UK risks fading into what some have called foreign policy irrelevance.
Continuing Britain’s proud traditions as a long-standing promoter of democracy, human rights and the rule of law long into the 21st century would be best secured by a different approach to UK foreign policy.
Only last month, multiple UK allies questioned the absence of high-ranking UK officials at the annual Munich Security Conference, one of the premier international events in the foreign and defence policy calendar. Take the example of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, part of the largest ever US delegation to the event, who said “I hope this is not an indication of [UK] commitment to multilateralism”. Meanwhile, former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt asserted that “The one nation that is completely absent is the UK … Has ‘Global Britain’ gone introvert?”.
These comments are not isolated and, in fact, much of the last decade has seen Britain lose its global influence at the fastest pace for years, despite the fact that it retains the fifth largest defence budget, the second largest aid budget and the fourth largest diplomatic network internationally. And this has happened because successive Governments have moved away from the world, rather than confidently embracing it.
It is a flawed approach that has weakened Britain and diminished its international standing. And this at a time when the UK faces a massive range of challenges from Russia’s stridency, to a continued terrorist threat.
UK’s heritage as a great global trading nation
Post-Brexit, Johnson has asserted that he wants to rediscover the UK’s heritage “as a great global trading nation”. To this end, London is agreeing new post-Brexit UK trade deals with dozens of countries, but this process is not straight forward.
Take the example of a potential new UK-US trade deal where there may be key areas ripe for agreement, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods, but potential disagreements too. This includes over harmonising financial services regulations, while other possible political icebergs lie on the horizon too, not least given the president’s commitment to “America First”.
Outside of trade, Johnson has reaffirmed his vision that — post-Brexit — the United Kingdom will continue to play a major role in international security, including through its membership of Nato. While he says that London will play a genuinely global role through continued membership of forums such as the UN Security Council, this month’s experience at the Munich Conference belies this, and its continued commitment to Europe will also be very important going forward too.
A window of opportunity for London
To be fair to Johnson, he has sought to emphasise that while the United Kingdom is departing the EU, it is not leaving Europe. And he claims that London will seek to continue, if not intensify, cooperation with EU partners in areas including crime, counter-terrorism and foreign affairs.
At this stage, the EU has not yet formally commented in great detail on wider post-Brexit security and foreign policy cooperation with the United Kingdom. However, it is likely that many national leaders, including in Germany, France and Eastern Europe will particularly favour a continued strong working relationship given the growing array of external security challenges facing the union, presenting a window of opportunity for London to re-engage.
This underlines that, ultimately, the issue of UK foreign and defence policy is not just a burning issue for Britain, but also the rest of the world as if London no longer punches so strongly on the international stage it is also less able to bolster international security and prosperity at a time when both remain fragile. Continuing Britain’s proud traditions as a long-standing promoter of democracy, human rights and the rule of law long into the 21st century would be best secured by a different approach to UK foreign policy which the new government should seek to enable.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics