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A global role for Britain?

Published: Thursday, 12th November 2015

Is the UK really abdicating from its role as an influential power in the world, as many of our friends and allies fear? And does a diminution in our global role make sense? These were the questions a group of foreign and security policy experts set out to answer over the summer.

The perception of a Britain less engaged and ambitious internationally is certainly widespread, not least in Washington. Outsiders have observed cuts in defence spending and diplomatic effort, and uncharacteristic absence from key efforts at international problem-solving such as over Ukraine. They are not convinced that the size of our aid programme, welcome though that is, can compensate. The referendum on our membership of the EU worries them. The government itself strongly denies any strategic shrinkage. But they have not allayed concerns.

The challenges we face as a country have certainly not diminished. Tensions with Russia, violence and instability across the Middle East, an unprecedented movement of people towards Europe, the rise of China, climate change, uncertain global growth prospects – the list is long and growing. Global governance is meanwhile at a low ebb. The twin anchors of British post-war policy, the transatlantic relationship and commitment to a strong Europe, are both under strain.

Our conclusions were clear. This country is one of the most globalised in the world, economically, politically, and culturally. We need an open, liberal international order and cannot afford to leave the running to others who may not share our interests and values. An ambitious global role for Britain is therefore driven by our interests; the seriousness of the problems we face; our obligations, for example as a permanent member of the Security Council; our wealth and assets, including our soft power; and our continuing ability to make a positive difference.

There are some in Britain who believe that the UK is no longer rich or powerful enough to play a global role, and that recent interventions, notably in Iraq, have shown we are not well-placed to promote international stability. We reject such declinism. We certainly need to learn from our mistakes, but the answer is not to withdraw from the world. We need instead to be smarter and more discerning in our use of the instruments available to us. We must also be clear about the extent to which we need to work with others of like mind to achieve our goals.

In our view the UK should therefore seek to defend its economic and political interests through an international policy built around five characteristics: an innovative problem solver, a vigorous multilateralist, a pragmatic European power, a country with global not just regional reach and influence, and a responsible intervener where necessary.
We recognise the resource constraints faced by the government in present circumstances. Success internationally depends ultimately on domestic economic strength. However it is important not to run down essential elements of our international influence in ways which cannot easily be reversed later, and which are meanwhile contributing to the idea that we are retreating from the world.

In concrete terms, this means keeping defence spending at the recommended NATO level of 2% of GDP, without resorting to too much creative accounting. The government’s recent commitment to this is welcome. It means recognising that diplomatic spending has fallen well behind what both our allies and adversaries are doing - it needs to be at least maintained at current levels, and built up again as soon as economic circumstances allow. It means doing everything possible to ensure that aid spending is effective, and helps address the biggest problems we face. It means making sure that domestic policy contributes to our international interests in areas like visas, language teaching, area studies, the influence of the British Council and the reach of the BBC World Service. It means doing more to improve British representation in international organisations, above all the EU if we choose to stay in.

An effective international policy needs broad parliamentary and public support. The evidence is that people are ready to support a continuing British global role. They know that we face many dangerous challenges we cannot deal with on our own. They will support ambitious policies if the stakes are explained to them clearly. In these circumstances the government cannot have its cake and eat it: it cannot talk the rhetoric of being a global player without also willing the means to make such a role possible and credible. Otherwise it will simply be found out.

‘Strengthening Britian's voice in the world’, published by Chatham House on 3 November.

Sir John Holmes GCVO, KBE, CMG
The Ditchley Foundation