Apr 28, 2023

Britain Is Back

After seven years spent on inward-looking debates about the meaning of Brexit, the United Kingdom in its foreign policy is finally returning to its pragmatist self.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers remarks on the Australia - United Kingdom - US (AUKUS) partnership, after a trilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California March 13, 2023.
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Brexit was always going to present the British people and their government with more questions than answers. That became clear during the 2016 referendum campaign, when both sides resorted to increasingly exaggerated, at times outright ludicrous claims, obviously plucked from the realms of fiction. The promise, for instance, made by Vote Leave, to spend an extra £350 million a week on the National Health Service was just as absurd as the dire warnings of the Remain camp that a Brexit vote would instantly trigger an economic meltdown, the worst in the nation’s 1,000-year history.

Once the people had spoken, the most pressing question became what kind of an exit deal 10 Downing Street should negotiate with Brussels. In the first instance, this was about the future of trade relations between the two sides, which made it complex enough. The process produced more mud-slinging, political intrigue, and back-stabbing than Shakespeare could have come up with. As one Conservative cabinet after another tried to get its version of a deal through parliament, the daily work of government like running schools and hospitals ground to a halt.

And as if that wasn’t enough, there was still the much bigger, even more mind-boggling question of the United Kingdom’s wider post-Brexit identity. How should the old lady Britannia position herself in an increasingly fractured world with a technological revolution underway, any number of security challenges, and a climate crisis in full swing? Thus, over the last five years, policy initiatives of different Conservative governments have essentially reflected two broad visions of how Britain wants to embrace this century.

“Global Britain” or Euro-Atlantic Britain?

One, pioneered by Boris Johnson, is “Global Britain.” It wants to re-position the UK away from the Euro-Atlantic toward China as the global economic and political gravity continues to shift east. When Johnson presented the 2021 Integrated Review of Britain’s security, defense, development, and foreign policy, he was talking about “the tilt to the Indo-Pacific" being a “necessity for the safety and security of the British people in the decades ahead.”

The other world view sees Britain very much anchored in the Euro-Atlantic. It has been at the core of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s foreign policy since he took office last October. Russia’s war against Ukraine obviously focused the minds of British policymakers and its security and intelligence community on Europe. But Sunak also made Europe his immediate foreign policy priority and negotiated the Windsor Framework, which improves parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol to do with the handling of British goods traded across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland, without compromising the integrity of the EU’s Single Market. Sunak made it clear that “the security and prosperity of the Euro-Atlantic will remain our core priority, bolstered by a reinvigoration of our European relationships.”

The notion of a “Global Britain” establishing a more significant military presence in the Pacific and new economic ties with the region has been summarily dismissed by some as “neo-colonial” posturing and “desperately anti-European." Meanwhile, Sunak has been accused by members of his own party of being intent on “reversing Brexit by stealth.” Such claims echo the dogmatic debate of the past and ignore the various policies and their implications. For beyond the headlines, these worldviews are in no way mutually exclusive. Rather, they show a return to the level-headed and pragmatic approach that had been the hallmark of British foreign policy before 2016.


Last month, the British government reached agreement with the member states of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) to join the free-trade agreement of the Pacific rim. (Member states are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam). Although the bloc accounts for 500 million consumers and generates around 13 percent of global GDP, Boris Johnson’s idea of joining the CCPTP was widely ridiculed because, according to the government’s own calculations, the benefit to the British economy is going to be less than 1 percent of GDP over the next 10 years. Yet, there is another way of looking at it. Outside the EU Britain is free to enter into any trade agreement and it seems prudent to use that freedom to join a trading bloc, which, according to the International Monetary Fund, is likely to generate almost half of global growth between now and 2050.

AUKUS, a trilateral pact with Australia and the United States, is another recent UK foreign policy initiative. It will enable Australia to build eight submarines using the same nuclear propulsion technology American and British subs use and is a response to China’s recent military build-up and subsequent increased tensions in the South China Sea. AUKUS deepens Britain’s security involvement in the region, which dates back to colonial times, and after World War II led, inter alia, to the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It is, in other words, hardly a new departure in terms of the country’s security focus and must, in fact be seen mainly as driven by economic interests. As the House of Commons Defense Committee put it, “the pact will secure British jobs and lead to technology transfer in the joint development of advanced naval technology and artificial intelligence.”

Elsewhere in the region, Britain and Italy joined forces with the Japanese to develop a sixth-generation fighter jet, the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP). And as is often the case with ambitious defense projects, the future of aviation technology is highly contested. The Americans are in the race with their Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and France, Spain, and Germany are financing the consortium behind the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). Whoever develops the best product and can get enough international orders in to make production economically viable, will win the prize.

A recent review of the GCAP by consultants PwC estimates that it could support as many as 21,000 jobs in the UK alone and contribute as much as £26 billion to the British economy over the next three decades—enough to justify the development costs of at least $100 billion but not quite enough to not want to share the financial burden. Getting the Japanese on board is not so much part of a military and strategic reorientation toward the Indo-Pacific as making the cost-benefit analysis for the Exchequer and the British defense sector work.

Not Turning Its Back

In the history of international diplomacy, the Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU will probably go down as one of the most bruising episodes. Rishi Sunak is clearly committed to repairing scorched bridges to the continent. That he was able to agree the Windsor Framework with European Commission President Ursula von Leyen so quickly speaks of newfound mutual trust. Given that the goods and services Britain sells to Ireland alone amount to 6.5 percent of its total exports, it is hardly surprising that Sunak felt the need to step in where his predecessors had failed, or in the case of Boris Johnson, simply lied. Instead, previous governments focused on a free trade deal with the Japanese, which makes up just over 1 percent of total British exports.

As a sign of reassurance, Sunak has also been deploying the bazooka in the arsenal of British soft power: He sent King Charles on a state visit to the continent. Before he has even been crowned, Charles III and Camilla toured Germany (the French leg of the tour was cancelled because of the continued civil unrest in France over the government’s pension reforms) to show Europeans that Britain will not turn its back after all.

The British government also embraced an opportunity created by the war in Ukraine to hold regular talks with its European partners. The European Political Community is a new platform of 44 European nations to discuss policy cooperation in areas of common interest. “This is exactly what we needed,” says one of Sunak’s policy advisors. “A club like the EU that’s not the EU allows us to engage with our friends on the continent on a regular basis, share ideas, and work together where it’s in our mutual interests.” Sunak is so committed to the idea that he wants to host one of the community’s regular meetings in the UK next year.

Britain is not the only country that has needed to review its international relationships and define its role in the world. Germany started that process within 72 hours of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year when Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the Zeitenwende, which almost casually nullified Berlin’s political, economic, and military rulebook of 32 years. 14 months later, the world is still wondering where Germany is headed; it will take time to gain political clarity and win the argument in the national debate before new ideas can be turned into policies, institutions change their thinking, and a new status quo can establish itself.

The United Kingdom spent seven years having this debate. What is emerging is a pragmatic country that exploits every opportunity to increase its share in world trade. In a globalized world that makes it “Global Britain” as much as it remains a part of Europe. For that is where its economy remains anchored and its most immediate security interests are defined.

John F. Jungclaussen was DIE ZEIT’s London correspondent for over two decades; he now works as a journalist and writer.