Feb 09, 2023

A Reality Check on Britain’s Role in the World

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has brought a modicum of stability and political sobriety after the melodramas of recent years. When it comes to foreign policy, while he recognizes the challenges ahead, his room for maneuver is perilously small.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meet outside Number 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, February 8, 2023.
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On January 31, British newspapers were spoilt for choice, with three dramatic stories to choose from. They could have focused on preparations for the worst day of strikes the United Kingdom had faced in a decade; they could have chosen a report by Transparency International, showing a fall of seven places, to 18th, in the global corruption perception index. Most opted for a report by the International Monetary Fund predicting that the UK was set for the worst performing economy in 2023 among all developed states, including Russia.

If nations are regarded as brands, if their influence around the world is only as strong as the way they are perceived, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has inherited a dud. Appearances do matter. When Foreign Policy magazine argued recently that Britain was in a worse state than it was in the 1970s (when it was labelled “the sick man of Europe” and had to go begging for a bailout to the IMF), it was following a wider trend.

For sure, many of Britain’s woes are shared by others. The cost-of-living crisis, rampant inflation, and energy precarity can be attributed in large part to Russia’s war against Ukraine and to other global factors. It is possible that the IMF might be excessively gloomy; the many industrial disputes—ranging from the railways to schools, from ambulance drivers to passport and customs officers, from university lecturers to nurses—will eventually get solved. France, after all, is also in the throes of a wave of strikes.

But, given that the economic and social malaise is particularly entrenched in the UK, what is the effect on its wider foreign policy? When he became prime minister in October, Sunak vowed to “fix” the economy, unite his Conservative Party, and “deliver” for the country. These promises were vague enough to enable him to put a good gloss on his government’s performance at the next general election, which he is likely to call in summer or autumn 2024.

Foreign policy will influence the election result, only to the extent that it impacts the economy and the wider public mood. Of the three major challenges in that arena, one is a slam-dunk winner (Ukraine), the other two—China and the European Union—present him with far more difficult dilemmas.

Close British-Ukrainian Partnership

The visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to London on February 8 provided the exact contrast between the UK’s over-arching problems and the one area where it has a good, or rather great, story to tell. The British do pageantry with aplomb, and though Zelensky’s trip was shrouded in secrecy, his hosts managed to arrange for members of both houses of parliament to be present for the speech, and for King Charles to give the Ukrainian president the royal seal of approval of his defiance of the Kremlin.

Zelensky showered praise on the British, as well he might. Although the actual number of weapons delivered is only marginally higher than that by the Germans, the unequivocal political endorsement provided from London has been recognizably different. His subsequent stopover meetings in Paris and Brussels reflected that.

For those, such as myself, who prize deliberative politics, as practiced in Berlin, over the theatricality of the likes of Boris Johnson, Ukraine has posed difficult questions.

The problem for Sunak, in respect of Ukraine, is that he is no Johnson. However, in respect to other international issues, his quieter personality will be a benefit. Relations with European partners have in the last few months already started to improve, admittedly from a dreadfully low base. The much-photographed bear hugs with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Bali G20 meeting were intended to send a message. The British government has also been fastidious in not publicly criticizing German Chancellor Olaf Scholz over his slowness in approving tanks for Ukraine.

Waiting for a Northern Ireland Solution

On relations with the European Union, nothing will fundamentally change until the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol is resolved. Britain’s trade with the EU has fallen sharply; inward investment is down; customs rules are a constant headache for business. As for the economy generally, Brexit is estimated to have cost the UK a net 4 percent of GDP.

No slouch on finance, Sunak knows that it makes sense to improve relations. Yet when he looks behind him to his backbenches, he sees nothing but trouble: friends of Johnson, who feel betrayed, friends of Liz Truss, embarking on a “comeback tour” as bizarre as were her 44 “disruption-is-good” days in 10 Downing Street. As for the hordes of arch-Brexiter European Research Group (ERG) members, they remain hell-bent on scuppering any rapprochement with the EU. Economic good sense versus political flag-waving. Which will win out?

Difficult Trade-Offs on China

The latest incumbent in Downing Street (the fifth in six traumatic years for the UK) faces a similar calibration when it comes to relations with China. In this case it is trade versus security. There is no easy answer. The publication of the update of the 2021 Integrated Review of security and foreign policy has apparently been delayed until April, as officials seek to tackle this thorniest of all issues. British business needs market access, and yet those markets are diminishing as concerns mount over Beijing’s malign intent.

Sunak’s task is to get through the next 18 to 20 months to the election relatively unscathed. He is accused by some of cowardice, of seeking endless compromise with his MPs, but such is the febrile and sometimes self-destructive nature of the Conservative Party that it is hard to see what he else he can do. He still holds out hope of a surprise victory, even though opinion polls show a strong and sustained lead for the opposition Labour Party. A more realistic goal is to avoid humiliation. Given the vagaries of British politics, however, nothing should be ruled out.

The Need to Prioritize

Whoever wins in 2024 must confront some tough long-term questions. A succession of British leaders has failed to explain to voters the need to accept a more realistic role in the world. The bombast of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and finally Johnson has merely sought to stave off the day. Sunak and Labour leader Kier Starmer know Britain cannot pursue a security policy on five continents based on the Western world’s sickliest economy. They know it has to prioritize.

Perhaps, ever so gradually, signs of change are emerging. The self-serving “Global Britain” mantra is being replaced by “patient diplomacy,” a term used by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in December. Britain, he told a gathering of diplomats, is no longer interested in “dictating or telling others what they should do.” Instead, it wants relationships “based on shared interests and common principles.”

Sunak, for all his weaknesses, has brought a modicum of stability and political sobriety after the melodramas of the Johnson years and the Truss weeks. At home and abroad he is correct to see dangers all around, but his room for maneuver is perilously small.

John Kampfner is Executive Director of the “Britain in the World” project at Chatham House and a columnist for The Times of London.

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