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The success of Global Britain will require tough choices in this era of upheaval

(Alamy)

3 min read

When a country is discomfited within, and unsure of its place without, it resorts to rhetoric. Just when the IMF confirmed its forecast that the United Kingdom would have the lowest growth of any developed country, including Russia, Rishi Sunak declared Britain to be a “foreign-policy superpower”.

To be fair to the Prime Minister, he has tried to demonstrate the virtues of technocracy and sobriety. Yet, like his predecessors, he too has succumbed to the temptations of rhetoric. On taking over last October, Sunak vowed to “fix” the economy, unite his party, and “deliver” for the country. These promises were vague enough to enable him to put a good gloss on performance at the next general election. 

In foreign policy terms, his biggest success so far has been the Windsor Framework. Given the acrimony that preceded it, the deal was a breakthrough, even if the DUP is holding out against wider progress in Northern Ireland. Sunak’s bear hugs with Emmanuel Macron (a man even more embattled) and the successful royal visit to Berlin reflect a change of mood with the European Union’s two most important countries. 

This is just the start of a global push-back against liberal democracy

Assistance to Ukraine – military and political – has continued unabated, even if shorn of the love-in of the Johnson era. Whatever happens in coming months – and optimism is beginning to seep away about the likelihood of forcing the Russians out of territory they have invaded – Britain has been a dependable ally. China presents Sunak, and the wider West, with a far tougher challenge: in short, a calibration of trade with security. There is no easy answer. British business needs market access, and yet those markets are diminishing as concerns mount over Beijing’s malign intent. This is just the start of a global push-back against liberal democracy. 

The recent update to the government’s Integrated Review was commendably candid about the threats. Escalating tensions between the United States and China point to a bifurcated world, but one in which many states – including members of the Commonwealth – are hedging their bets. Meanwhile international institutions continue to struggle to harness a common approach to climate change and future health emergencies.

Having deprived itself of its biggest card, as the bridge between the US and Europe, what role can the UK play? The answer given by ministers is that it can be a major player pretty much anywhere: it can be at the forefront of Nato activity on Ukraine; it can simultaneously be pivotal in the Indo-Pacific and countering China. It points to the partnership with the US and Australia on defence technology, AUKUS, with nuclear-powered submarines as its centrepiece. It points to the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Britain has just joined (though it doesn’t like pointing out that even by its own figures membership of the CPTPP will boost British GDP by up to 0.1 per cent, compared to the four per cent loss of growth thanks to Brexit). 

It is not declinist in any way, however, to juxtapose what ministers think the world is thinking about the UK with what they actually are. The relationship with Washington has not been so special for many years. Bilateral ties with Europe will improve only when London learns to engage seriously with the EU again, as a constructive outsider. Everywhere else, states are picking and choosing allegiances.

When they think ahead to the end of the decade, Sunak and Keir Starmer are sensible enough to appreciate that they cannot pursue a global policy on five continents based on the western world’s sickliest economy. Britain can still play a significant part in this era of upheaval, but in order to do so it will have to make some tough choices and show greater self-awareness. 

 

John Kampfner, author, broadcaster and foreign affairs expert 

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