British Strategic Interests After Brexit: Navigating Between Isolationism and Globalism | Dan Mikhaylov
Dan Mikhaylov is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on the Middle East, global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.
Whether Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is a fortunate escape from administrative bureaucracy and intrusive barriers to global trade or a triumph of isolationism, it is conducive to a drastic transformation in the country’s international standing. Discussion of the methods and complications surrounding the avoidance of isolation both presents an opportunity and proves that much hangs in the balance. The United Kingdom certainly deserves to be optimistic regarding its diplomatic and strategic priorities in the new decade. The government has not forgotten the “Global Britain” narrative, formulated by the Leave campaign to sugar-coat Brexit as outward-looking and dispel accusations that it would undermine Britain’s leverage and significance in international politics. Free trade agreements were secured with the largest economies within the Commonwealth, while cordial economic relations with Europe and Japan were also reinforced. The Royal Navy was returned to the Middle East, with the military securing a valuable outpost in Bahrain. Meanwhile, the Foreign Office has been promoting the D10, a new alliance of liberal-democracies to incorporate the G7 member-states as well as India, Australia, and South Korea. From this viewpoint, insularity is but a fear-mongering project, as Britain is poised to reassert itself as an important geopolitical actor.
However, uncertainty about Britain’s strategic interests persists. Although Brexit has revived the public appetite for ‘Great Power’ behaviour, its military capabilities preclude the UK from acting independently to advance our national interests abroad. Instead, we are consigned to the role of “a leading member of NATO” with comparatively high defence expenditure of £36 billion. Attempts to forge a stronger Commonwealth identity promise not to be a walk in the park either. The Anglophone community’s collective linguistic and cultural heritage is hardly sufficient to construct an ambitious and potent international bloc, and integration itself might encounter opposition from the self-same demographics that voted to restore the country’s political autonomy by departing from the European integrationist project.
Certainly, isolationism is not a forgone conclusion, but the government would benefit from foreseeing an inherent contradiction between how the public wants Britain to conduct itself on the international stage and the role that other states and international organisations are prepared to allocate it. Only this pragmatic foreign policy understanding would help us steer clear of not only isolationism, but also the kind of globalist arrangements which 52% of Britons wanted to abandon.
Our strategic thinking had hitherto predominantly operated and matured within the EU paradigm, as much as the Eurosceptics
in government might argue otherwise. As an entity aspiring to dictate regional economic policy and transcend state boundaries in such fields as security, the EU used to provide an avenue for Britain to champion its vision of European development, which would understandably prioritise our interests, and negotiate with external powers from a position of greater strength. According to international relations scholars Michael Smith and Christopher Hill, Britain – together with Germany – was thus instrumental in promoting low-deficit, tax-disciplined macroeconomic policies and facilitating their widespread implementation within the European community. EU membership had at the same time cemented the nation’s position as an indispensable bridge between Europe and the United States in NATO, while helping improve our relationships with Asian countries through such initiatives as the ASEAN-EU dialogue.
Naturally, withdrawing from that arrangement increases the immediate likelihood of isolationism and calls for action to prevent this scenario from materialising. By and large, the government has grasped this. While many of our international partners viewed Brexit with askance and initially pronounced their reservations about their post-Brexit trade relations with the UK, the Johnson administration has made strides to prove them wrong by securing trade agreements with Turkey, Canada, Japan, and Australia. These developments bear considerable importance to Britain’s strategic interests, since politics is often merely the continuation of economics – political decisions tend to reflect economic realities and pressures, while alliances are frequently strengthened by common commercial interests and strong trade relations.
However, this does not presuppose that Westminster has dismissed, let alone should dismiss, international security. With HMS Juffair becoming the country’s youngest and most technologically sophisticated military base in the world and with the nation’s armed forces carrying out joint training exercises with Japan, it would be unreasonable to accuse the Conservative government in neglecting military pressures. Their plan to keep the UK relevant in the interstate domain is not without vision and direction, as evidenced by these initiatives and the recent push to form the D10 alliance.
Despite this, the scope for Britain’s diplomatic renaissance is limited. Firstly, the Biden administration, having replaced Donald Trump’s, threatens to hinder the conclusion of a British-American trade deal. The Democrats have previously been hostile to Brexit and our centre-right government, with Nancy Pelosi warning the Prime Minister that proceeding with the Brexit deal might subvert any future bilateral trade negotiations. Now that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris control the US government’s executive branch, they will likely aim to distance themselves further from Johnson, remembering his relationship with their loathed predecessor, preferring to indulge the party’s uncompromising progressive wing.
In Britain, opposition to liberalising trade in goods and the scope of capital investment across the Atlantic has also been vocal, and included calls for the government not to allow chlorinated chickens in local supermarkets, and conversely to protect the NHS. Without this deal, however, Britain’s “special relationship” with America would not have enough weight for it to garner the corresponding global significance. Thus, Britain faces the labyrinthine task of being obliged to secure a deal further propelling the UK-US “special relationship” whilst working within the framework of opinions at home or risk dwindling American support and the wider ramifications which would make isolation more likely.
Secondly, turning to the Commonwealth is a comparable ordeal. Doubtless, many Anglophone states would cherish the chance to cultivate more resilient and polyhedric ties with Britain. For Indian companies, for instance, Britain remains an indispensable gateway into the European Single Market, with the recently signed EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement reinforcing this status by removing protective tariffs and most other financial barriers for products entering the EU from Britain. Australia and Canada are among the UK’s twenty largest trading partners and have plentiful opportunities to improve their standing thanks to similar manufacturing and employment standards as well as to their shared cultural and linguistic heritage. Similar per capita GDP figures between Canada and Britain could supplement economic integration with an equitable distribution of talent across the countries in question.
However, Commonwealth integration has a mixed appeal from the geostrategic perspective. True, by 2023, Australia, Canada, and Britain will all receive their jointly developed Type 26 frigates, which, if successful, could pave the path for greater weapons technology research and production cooperation. Similarly, the efficacy of the Five Eyes arrangement clearly demonstrates that intra-Commonwealth security collaboration is both realistic and worthwhile.
Yet, there is an easy retort to the boastful misconception that Britain could easily centre the Commonwealth around itself in a geopolitically meaningful manner. Some governments, including New Zealand and Australia, have expressed doubts about balancing their European trade with a well-defined and ambitious Anglosphere partnership. Although this will not necessarily deter these countries from cooperation, such scepticism might decelerate it or circumscribe integration to areas that benefit the UK’s strategic interests little. Furthermore, some Commonwealth nations have inherently little to offer Westminster. This is particularly in the Pacific, where many states do not share Britain’s view of China and Russia as strategic adversaries: Vanuatu has received $145 million from China and has toyed with inviting Chinese naval presence, while Russia has successfully cajoled Nauru into recognising its proxy states in Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With this in mind, by focusing on leading the Anglophone world, Britain might struggle to overcome diplomatic isolationism, when dealing with its strategic adversaries or championing its resolution to pressing international crises.
Amidst this diplomatic ambiguity, two premises nonetheless remain applicable. Brexit might metamorphose into an isolationist catastrophe for our country, which has lost a powerful vehicle for national projection. Britain’s future international status along with its strategic ambitions and preferred modes of pursuing them predicates as much on what role it seeks to assume as it does on the roles foreign governments would be willing to assign it. Overawing the looming threat of isolationism will require that our government presents convincing arguments to legitimate Britain’s claim to leadership within the Commonwealth or within the liberal-democratic world at large, and these arguments will only sound convincing, when we heed both external perceptions of the UK and its role in international politics and account for these in our grand strategy. Otherwise, pursuing our goals might end up becoming an unsustainable ordeal.