Self improvement

Britain needs a foreign policy reset

Britain needs a foreign policy reset

Britain needs a foreign policy reset

Britain needs a foreign policy reset

The party is over. Boris Johnson, king of British populism, is stepping down as Prime Minister. Perhaps future historians will mark this as the end of the “Brexit years” as well. That era began in 2016 when Johnson backed the campaign to leave the EU, arguably tipping the balance in his favour. Since then, under Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, Britain has pursued its foreign policy fantasy.
London wanted to be more globally influential despite leaving the world’s largest trading bloc. He wanted to be a “leading” global player, while hurling abuse and venom at his closest allies and neighbours. In the same way that US foreign policy has become less erratic since the departure of Donald Trump, Johnson’s departure could also offer Britain the chance to reset and reconsider its approach.
Like most addictions, Britain has clung to foreign policy fantasy in stages. Before the 2016 Brexit referendum, London already had an inflated sense of its own importance. Structural advantages, such as its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and its close alliance with the United States, have enabled it to rise above its weight in world affairs. Memories of empire and past power led some leaders and members of the public to believe that Britain had some sort of claim to global influence.
Yet after Britain voted to leave the EU, the architects and supporters of the Leave campaign, especially Johnson, increased the myth-making. Such was Britain’s exceptionalism, they argued, that London’s global influence might actually increase after it left the EU. They rejected the idea that EU membership had amplified British power, both by increasing its wealth and enabling it to play a prominent role in the bloc’s collective international relations. Instead, they insisted, an unfettered “global Britain” would be free to pursue its own, more influential path. Johnson promised in 2019 that Brexit would make Britain “the greatest place on earth”.

The UK government must first recognize that it has a problem before embarking on the road to recovery.

Christopher Phillips

Since then, a strange parallel process has taken place. On the one hand, the UK’s global influence has visibly diminished. The UK has one of the worst economic growth in the G7, while London is no longer the first port of call when a US president crosses the Atlantic, with France and Germany emerging as more important allies. Although Johnson has tried admirably to direct support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, his desperation to do so is more a sign of weakness than strength: trying to show Britain’s global importance in Ukraine because it is no longer evident elsewhere.
On the other hand, Johnson and his government are increasingly talking about Britain’s “world leader”. Johnson’s speeches, for example, are littered with references to her “leading-edge” response to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccinations, despite her having an above-average death toll. He protests too much: such exaggerations and falsehoods are now commonplace in government literature, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Plagued by this addiction, Britain under Johnson actually damaged the country’s international reputation. While leaving the EU in 2020 could have ended tensions with Brussels, they have instead intensified. London has blamed Brussels for cutting off Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain’s economy, despite Johnson signing an agreement to that effect. He even threatened to break his treaty obligations to change the situation, risking sanctions and even a trade war with Brussels. Similarly, the UK’s decision to start deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda has seen its credentials as a global human rights defender crumble as well as its reputation as a defender of international law.
Given Johnson’s well-documented ambiguous relationship with the truth, it would be relatively easy for his successor to reverse some of these excesses. The UK government must first recognize that it has a problem before embarking on the road to recovery. A new leader could tone down hostile rhetoric towards the EU and seek to restore ties with Brussels. Like recovering drug addicts, he might focus his attention on self-improvement, tackling his failing economy and cost-of-living crisis, before seeking to influence others. When he’s ready to face the outside world again, he could make amends with the friends he’s hurt in the grip of his addiction, like France, Ireland and other key European allies. Perhaps then it could begin to be rehabilitated as a responsible and productive member of the Western alliance, even if it remains outside the EU.
Unfortunately, however, neither candidate to replace Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak seems likely to do so. Both are quite Johnsonian in their politics, pro-Brexit and anti-EU. Their style may be different, but the foreign policy fantasies seem set to continue. It may not be until a new government comes to power, possibly under Keir Starmer, that Britain will finally get the foreign policy reset it needs. Hopefully he can help London kick the habit and avoid being tempted by foreign policy fantasies himself.

Christopher Phillips is Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary University of London and author of “The Battle for Syria” and co-editor of “What next for Britain in the Middle East?” Twitter: @cjophillips

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News

Leave a Comment