Although the phrase has recently become more pervasively used in the public domain, it still remains stubbornly ambiguous to many observers on the both sides of the Atlantic.
In order to fully grasp the post-Brexit narrative of Britain—which is crucial to make conscious strategic decisions in an increasingly complex and interconnected world—we should turn to its inception by the British government and its subsequent conceptualization by a number of high government officials as well as through the government’s policies concerning the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, alongside the historical and intellectual origins of Britain’s ‘Global’ thinking.
The phrase ‘Global Britain’ was coined shortly after the historic Brexit referendum, when Prime Minister Theresa May first outlined her vision for the country in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 2 October 2016 and called for “truly global Britain.”
May concluded that “Brexit should not just prompt us to think about our new relationship with the European Union,” but also “make us think of Global Britain, a country with the self-confidence and the freedom to look beyond the continent of Europe and to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world.” She believed that Brexit “was a vote for Britain to stand tall, to believe in ourselves, to forge an ambitious and optimistic new role in the world.”
Interestingly, in the same year on 2 December, PM Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, gave his first major speech at Chatham House tellingly titled Global Britain: UK Foreign Policy in the Era of Brexit, in which he affirmed the government’s intention to pursue a “truly global foreign policy.”
Ever since that time Theresa May has been referring to ‘Global Britain’ in a similar manner in her major speeches, including the January 2017 Lancaster House speech and her speech to the US Republican Party Conference in Philadelphia the same month. May also referred to ‘Global Britain’ in her addresses to the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the UN General Assembly 2017 in New York.
A month later, in a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 2017, Boris Johnson restated his belief in the ‘Global Britain’ brand by expressing the following words:
“We are big enough to do amazing things. We have the ability to project force 7,000 miles, to use our permanent membership of the UN security council to mobilise a collective response to the crisis in North Korea. We contribute 25 % of European aid spending and yet no one seriously complains that we have a sinister national agenda and that is why the phrase global Britain makes sense because if you said Global China or Global Russia or even alas Global America it would not have quite the same flavour.”
Crucially, it is important to mention that at the centre of the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, free trade is its core element—something clearly visible both in Theresa May’s October 2016 speech to the Conservative Party Conference and at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, where she expressed the hope that the UK “will step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world.”
Furthermore, Boris Johnson described the UK’s role of an advocate for global free trade as the country’s “historic post-Brexit function” in his Chatham House speech in 2016. Yet, by that time many, like Professor Richard G. Whitman from the University of Kent, have argued that “we know little more than Global Britain means Global Britain.”
PM Boris Johnson’s announcement in 2020 to increase defence spending by £16.5 billion ($23 billion) over the next four years—dubbed as “the biggest spending boost since the Cold War” and said to be aiming at catching President Joe Biden’s attention—was a strong message in the direction the ‘Global Britain’ policy narrative has been turning towards.
Simultaneously, in 2020 the UK’s foreign aid budget was announced to be cut by £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion), so that in 2021 the UK will not meet the UN-recommended target of spending 0.7 % (decreased to 0.5 %) of its Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the first time since 2013—steps said to be taken in line with the government’s attempt to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
With the commitment to retain the target enshrined in law by the Coalition Government in 2015 and the Conservative Party’s manifesto of 2019, the cut—which was met with strong condemnation both by David Cameron and Tony Blair, who warned the decision would jeopardise Britain’s ‘soft power’ status—resulted in Foreign Office minister James Cleverly’s pledge at the March 2021 UN virtual conference to donate £87 million ($120 million) to Yemen relief efforts in the coming year, which is less than half of the £196.6 million donated in 2020 and around 40 % of the £214 million total donations made in 2020-2021.
Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs, described the UK government’s decision as an attempt to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen” and warned of a long-term damage to the country’s reputation—bearing in mind that British MPs were prevented from having a vote on PM Johnson’s controversial move, which is why he is said to be running the risk of setting an illegal budget.
At the same time the UK government continues to be deeply involved in the Yemen conflict by remaining the leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Once the ban on weapons sales to the Gulf country was lifted London authorised the export of £1.4 billion-worth ($1.9 billion) weaponry to the Saudis between July and September last year, refusing to follow the U.S. moral lead in this regard.
Taking this into consideration it is difficult to imagine how to quote Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, “Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good”—the very slogan repeated by Raab in January last year as part of his three pillars defining the “truly global Britain.”
In March 2020, before the long-anticipated Integrated Review was published, Oxfam took an opportunity to voice its view on the UK’s approach to foreign policy in its research paper.
The organisation argued that in order to be “taken seriously as a future partner, the UK must tread carefully and intentionally remedy the historic power imbalances institutionalised in the UN and Bretton Woods institutions” in its contacts with the Commonwealth and the Global South, warning that “‘Global Britain’ could too easily be (mis)interpreted as ‘Empire 2.0’” if it fails to carry out deliberate action.
September that year, Tradecraft Exchange published a research paper which argued that in prioritising trade negotiations with richer nations, Britain risks falling short on its commitments to tackle global poverty and climate change. Moreover, with the UK engaging in striking trade deals with poorer nations like in the recent case of Kenya, it is evidently doing this to their detriment.
That same month, the UK government decided to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and establish the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The newly published policy paper is said to be the blueprint for the work of this new department.
The document states that “the UK is one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments… where we can have the greatest life-changing impact in the long term.”
It goes on to state that Britain will “maintain our commitment to Africa,” particularly emphasizing importance of its partners in East Africa and Nigeria, “while increasing development efforts in the Indo-Pacific.” Sadly, the very pledge stands in stark contrast to the recent government leaks concerning plans to cut aid to Nigeria by 59 %, South Sudan by 59%, Somalia by 60%, not to mention the DRC (60%), Syria (67%), and Libya (63%).
While the UK’s International Development Committee chair, Sarah Champion MP, commented that “the Integrated Review appears to be more centred towards rubbing shoulders with trading partners than creating a level playing field for the global community to prosper”.
On that note, it is fair to say that the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy puts much less emphasis on development than it does on the other parts constituting its title, while revealing “the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.”
The review published in early March this year, dubbed as “the most radical reassessment of our place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, is said to be “an attempt to put meat on the bones of the ‘Global Britain’ concept,” as Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), argues.
“This was something the Tories banged on about a lot, this was something that Brexit was supposed to be all about, but no one has any idea what it means,” Pantucci added.
The 100-page document—visibly inspired by the Policy Exchange’s Making Global Britain Work (July 24, 2019) and A Very British Tilt (November 22, 2020)—sets a vision for “Global Britain”, in which the country is “tilting” towards the Indo-Pacific region to become a bigger player there, as the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” moves eastwards towards countries such as China, India and Japan.
“The Indo-Pacific is this incredible hub and so is somewhere the UK is looking to have a larger say in […] Where navies go, trade goes, and where trade goes, navies go,” Adm. Tony Radakin, explained.
It is important to note that a similar narrative was seen in the past. The former First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir Philip Jones, argued in his speech delivered at the 2017 DSEI Maritime Conference that “the Asia-Pacific region contains two of the three largest economies in the world and five of the largest 16. If the U.K. does wish to forge new global trading partnerships, this is somewhere we need to be.”
Sir Jones also stated that the new aircraft-carriers, including HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will enable the country to resume its old role in Asia and the Pacific, which was abandoned in 1971 after the UK’s withdrawal of forces from Singapore.
As Richard Reeve already observed in his article, “Global Britain’s post-Brexit identity is a return to neo-mercantilist maritime control,” which is driven by the need to secure new trade and arms deals by establishing a strong ‘Global Britain’ brand through the Royal Navy and aligning the country’s objectives and alliances with those of the U.S.
Reeve warned that such a strategy risks the UK’s involvement “in a potentially very hot Korea-US conflict” and even more dangerous “creeping cold war” between the U.S. and China. Both are burdened with the high risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange.
Furthermore, he reminded his readers of “the UK’s doomed inter-war Singapore Strategy and of the Imperial Russian Navy in 1905,” notably after the Commons Defence Committee was presented that month with evidence that new carriers are unlikely to be able to operate within range of China.
At the time, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s pledge made at the Lowy Institute’s lecture in July 2017 outlined that one of the first tasks of the new carriers will be to conduct freedom of navigation operations around Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea.
Most recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnsons planned dispatch of an aircraft carrier group to the Indo-Pacific in order to face-off China, is viewed by some as a defeatist delusion suggesting “that the best thing we can do is ingratiate ourselves with the Americans,” as senior policy fellow Nick Witney (ECFR) suggests.
Mr Witney, like Professor Anatol Lieven, believes that such strategic theatrics could result in the same disastrous outcome as the invasion of Iraq.
Without the ability to bring substantive change to the table as far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, the UK is said to be “risking of reminding the Chinese of how we treated them in the nineteenth-century Opium Wars,” as argued by Professor Lieven in his recent article.
As far as the British public’s opinion is concerned in their perception of deploying security resources to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, the British Foreign Policy Group’s recent report suggests that only 18% of respondents would be comfortable with this move, while 45 % of them do not want the UK to be drawn into conflicts. Another 35 % believe that the country’s track record of involvement abroad is bad.
Unfortunately, the government’s Integrated Review call to increase the number of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260, which some perceive as violating international law and breaching Article 60 of the NPT, risks the possibility of creating another conflict according to Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University.
“At the NPT Review Conference this August, HMG will have to explain its reversal on nuclear warhead numbers not just to Russia or China but to a sceptical international community,” Sir Adam Thomson, director of the ELN and former diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to NATO between 2014 and 2016, rightly observed, also wondering how this corresponds with the UK’s commitment to the world without nuclear weapons.
Dominic Raab recently announced that he will “rally NATO allies to face down the threat from Russia and ensure it faces real world consequences for hostile activity”–potentially go to the detrimental to U.S. efforts in attempting to “chart a new course” for Moscow, as discussed by David Keene and Dan Negre–despite being more nuanced with respect to China.
As Jo Johnson, the former universities minister and the prime minister’s brother argues, the reason for this ambiguous approach to the Middle Kingdom by the Johnson government is the Conservative Party’s problem with Sinophobia, which is said to be the new Euroscepticism.
“It’s the new political machismo, but it would be economic madness to decouple from China and incredibly destructive of this idea of Global Britain, because there are many countries […] across the Global South who are increasingly interdependent with China. There won’t be a global Britain if we are not engaging with China, and all the other countries enmeshed with it,” Johnson believes.
“The reality is that if we follow a hard Brexit with Chexit [decoupling with China], then Global Britain is going to be an aeroplane that has dropped both engines,” he added.
In fact, it is really difficult to imagine the government succeeding in accomplishing all of these competing goals in a situation where the national debt has already exceeded £2 trillion (and growing), with the pandemic adding an extra burden to the country’s economic condition, which is said to be ‘heading for a new era of austerity.’
Interestingly, ahead of the review last year, security experts giving evidence to the UK lawmakers warned there was often a gap between the ambitions of a wide-ranging policy review and the resources allocated to meet them.
The mentioned analysis of ‘Global Britain,’ however, would not be full without paying attention to historical and intellectual influences related to the term and associated topics.
“Global Britain,” writes Oliver Turner in his 2019 peer-reviewed article stresses that it “is more than a notion, an idea, or a vision for UK international engagement, and more than the foreign policy blueprint it purports to provide. It is an autobiographical narrative about what Britain is and what it envisions the world and its actors to be.”
Turner informs that the significance of this distinction lies in the fact that narratives seldom stand alone and are often “written to construct particular realities and shape policy choice.”
The academic argues that “Global Britain is principally authored as a ‘painkiller’ in anticipation of domestic trauma following the loss of EU membership, just as the British Commonwealth once was to assuage the loss of empire.” In order to be marketable, Turner believes, it requires “pre-existing knowledges of past imperial ‘successes’ and accepting images of empire among the British public.”
The said narrative has significant consequences, as the ‘Global Britain’ advocates tend to selectively exploit the past to imagine the future and effectively turn history into a “proxy for ideology,” as Robert Saunders from Queen Mary University of London argues.
He further mentions, one of the most famous figures of the British right, Enoch Powell, who argued that “all history is myth” in a sense that “the stories told about the past carried political meanings.”
Saunders continues, believing that the post-war Britain suffered from a special kind of myth known as “the myth of empire,” which caused “grave psychological damage” to the British people.
This manifested itself in a dual way: first, as “a pervasive sense of decline that had sapped the British of self-confidence” and second, “as a longing for empire-substitutes, such as the Commonwealth or the European Community.”
Professor Paul Gilroy (UCL) made similar observation in his book arguing that after the end of World War II, British life has been “dominated by an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, […] the end of the empire and consequent loss of imperial prestige.”
This constant fear of reconciling with the past has managed to produce an extremely unbalanced identity of the nation burdened with a distorted vision of its country, called by Sathnam Sanghera in his latest book titled Empireland, which “recast a coercive military empire as a champion of “free trade”; and, in so doing, established entrepreneurialism, rather than empire, as the golden thread connecting past and present,” as Dr Saunder’s put it.
What is noticeable about the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, in the mentioned sense, is that it takes out the empire—one whose reach stretched from Africa and the Americas to Asia and Australasia, and also Europe if we count the colonisation of Ireland—from the equation leading to its status of “the world’s largest and most powerful trading nation,” as former international trade secretary Dr Liam Fox put it during his Free Trade speech in 2016.
Hence, when advocates of ‘Global Britain’ romanticize the vision of Britain trading across the Commonwealth—which they tend to describe as an association of “some of the world’s oldest and most resilient friendships”—they tend to forget to tell the complete story in what particular circumstances those very “friendships” were established and further sustained through “imperialism of free trade,” as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson explained in their peer-reviewed article of the same title published in The Economic History Review 1953.
To illustrate this in greater detail, it is best to turn to Shashi Tharoor’s insights provided in his book, where he says the following:
“Free trade was, of course, suited to the British as a slogan, since they were the best equipped to profit from it in the nineteenth century, and their guns and laws could always stifle what little competition the indigenes could attempt to mount. A globalization of equals could well have been worth celebrating, but the globalization of Empire was conducted by and above all for the colonizers, and not in the interests of the colonized.”
In other words, what ‘Global Britain’ advocates are doing is “use ‘trade’ as a euphemism for ‘empire’,” as Dr Robert Saunders argues.
What is also significant about the group is the attachment to the idea of ‘Anglosphere,’ which has its intellectual roots in the late 19th century’s Victorian discourses about “Greater Britain.”
Resurrected after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mythology of the “English-speaking peoples’” union served as a counter, and culturally more “natural,” narrative to the one embracing UK’s membership in the EU, as well as the British very own attempt to make sense of the post-Cold War moment.
Furthermore, as Professor Duncan Bell from University of Cambridge argues in his excellent article published in 2017 in the Prospect magazine, “dreams of deep Anglosphere integration, and of political unification, are symptomatic expressions of colonial nostalgia, underwritten by fears about Britain’s declining status.”
Importantly, it was British historian Robert Conquest who most comprehensively articulated—and inspired politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who referred to his idea of the broader alliance between the “English-speaking peoples” in her speech to the English-Speaking Union in December 1999 in New York—the idea of Anglosphere.
What is interesting about Conquest’s “bold charge that existing international bodies had failed,” as Professor Bell mentioned, is its similarity to the current language used by Brexiteers (and Trump supporters).
Echoing the famous historian’s concern, Theresa May told the audience at the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere—you don’t understand what citizenship means.”
The statement with a clear aim to rejuvenate patriotism after the Brexit referendum, which should be understood in the broader context of growing tendency among the Conservative Party voters to lean towards anti-globalism (as it was confirmed in the already mentioned BFPG’s survey published this year), has its roots in the Victorian era, namely in the ‘civic imperialism.’
As Duncan Bell argues in his book, civic imperialism “placed duty, individual and communal virtue, patriotism, disdain of luxury, and the privileging of the common good, at the centre of the political universe.” Bell also continues that “empire and liberty, it was argued, were intimately connected.”
What is visible here is that “the image of 19th century Britain has so far appeared to play an outsized role” in ‘Global Britain’ narrative, as Harvard University’s research paper published this year and titled Finding ‘Global Britain’: political slogan to hard economic policy choices observes.
Since the “conditions which allowed the UK to dominate global industrial production, such as a large lead in industrial productivity and the coercive power of the British Empire, no longer apply,” as the paper concludes, it is still safe to argue, repeating Dean Acheson, that Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role.”
Trapped in hubris, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative seems to be missing the true security challenges while pursuing its “quest for a unique role” in the world, which, like Christopher Hill wrote, is “like the pursuit of the Holy Grail” and can be “a fatal distraction to politicians with responsibilities,” who may find the levelling-up agenda more vital than the search for the long-lost imperial grandeur.
With a clear collapse in trust in the government in terms of its willingness to act in the British public’s interest when foreign policy decisions are concerned, the possible overload of ‘Global Britain’s’ often competing agendas run the high risk of not only turning into nemesis for Britain itself, but the U.S. and the very ‘special relationship’ which London is so desperately trying to preserve.