By Jack Horrigan
September 15, 2021, witnessed one of the most profound shifts in global politics since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. AUKUS, a new military alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, strengthens military ties between the nations and arms Australia with nuclear submarines. It has solidified the new Sinocentric tinge colouring all aspects of American foreign policy. The rivalry between the US and China was already turning bitter, with former President Donald Trump’s myopic tariffs – and China’s retribution – often being referred to as a trade war. But beyond some years-old performances in the South China Sea, this is the most significant military posturing between the two nations in decades.
But some international observers – most notably France – have questioned Britain’s role in the alliance. America, as a superpower and China’s primary rival, is an obvious member, as is Australia, a regional power and the target of Chinese sanctions. But the United Kingdom is a European island. Its influence in the region is Lilliputian compared to its partners’.
One of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promises when selling Brexit was that of “Global Britain”: a callback to a Disraeli-era expansion of British power. Now, it is the centerpiece of his foreign policy. A detailed review of the UK’s foreign policy objectives was entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”. Mr Johnson’s vision: once freed from the constrictive binds the EU placed on foreign policy, the United Kingdom could be both crusader and buccaneer, acting abroad with far more dexterity than the sclerotic EU ever could.
During the five years since the Brexit vote, this vision fizzled. Britain overestimated its global influence when deciding to leave the EU. Having strained its friendships on mainland Europe, Britain sought to reaffirm the ephemeral “special relationship” with the US. However, this faces constraints on both sides of the Atlantic. The US, rather than looking to Britain for a partner when dealing in Europe, instead looks towards Germany. Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is loath to appear as America’s sidekick. The very phrase “special relationship” is anathema to him – he believes it makes Britain seem cloying.
Thus, Britain’s expansion into the South Pacific. It is attempting, in effect, to become a mini-America. Britain is not an obvious candidate to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a southeast Asian trade agreement forged by American President Barack Obama and then promptly abandoned by his successor. But nevertheless, Mr Johnson is trying his luck at gaining membership. The USMCA, Mr Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA, is also a regional, North American agreement; Mr Johnson is considering applying for membership there as well. The UK is attempting to ingratiate itself further with powers like Japan, Korea, and India, independently of the United States.
Yet, it is unclear if Britain will be able to succeed in its new role. Both America and Britain suffer from a lack of trust; after years of nationalist governments, both countries suffer from a bruised reputation. Not to mention Britain’s domestic struggles: two of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom – Northern Ireland and Scotland – are dubiously unionist. The UK is the only great power in the world that faces a domestic secession.
Beyond just stability, the UK’s current image is not particularly soothing. At home, Britons contend with massive petrol queues unseen in Europe or America (though, petrol prices are rising there too). Mr Johnson was embarrassed earlier this year when his advice to Mr Biden to delay America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was rejected out of hand. Mr Johnson, for all his global aspirations, won by spouting nationalist rhetoric. The UK needs to rehabilitate its image – but Mr Johnson would prefer to reap the benefits without putting in the work.
The United Kingdom is no superpower. Neither its population nor its economy is large enough to aspire to that role anymore – and both are only likely to shrink in proportion to the rest of the world. The power the UK does have is that of influence. It is a member of the G7, the G20, the UN Security Council, and NATO. But as world power shifts from Europe towards Asia, it is unclear how much that influence will be worth.
For his part, Mr Johnson recognizes the importance of Asia. In the government’s foreign policy review, the UK aims to become the preeminent European power in the Indo-Pacific by 2030. This does not come out of nowhere; the UK has seven military points of presence in the Indian Ocean, and Mr Johnson is still attempting to join the various trade blocs of the region. The UK’s involvement in AUKUS is yet another sign of the state’s growing role in the region. But Global Britain is still hindered by nostalgia. Russia, not China, is still listed as the country’s most acute threat in the government’s foreign policy review.
However, the UK is not alone in its ambition to be Europe’s de facto ambassador to the South Pacific. The region has a long history of French control, and France still feels a claim to it – that is, in part, why the announcement of AUKUS so irked France. France also has military points of presence in the region, along with a large naval presence. So far, Britain has only a framework for how to become the Indo-Pacific’s primary power. It is showing up late to a party several decades in the making.
This competition is a consequence of a simple failure: Britain has not yet found its post-Brexit foreign policy niche. Global Britain is ill-defined and too ambitious to work: it seems that every voice in the British government has a different definition of what it will mean – and whether Britain will be leading or merely collaborating.
Yet, all can agree that Britain will need friends. The US and China have been rather insouciant about the prospect of Britain becoming a major player in the next theatre of conflict: both dismiss the possibility out of hand. Were Britain to begin forming blocs with countries independently, it may be taken a bit more seriously.
In a way, AUKUS is the perfect example of “Global Britain” in action. On one hand, it is a bold and ambitious new coalition, designed for the bipolar world of this century, not the last. On the other hand, Britain’s role is still unclear. Is it merely following the US, supporting it where needed? Or is it acting as an equal partner?
If the UK would like to expand its influence, it must first settle its domestic politics. The US is a troubled power; after the storming of the Capitol and four years of Mr Trump, it no longer serves as an adequate example of a functioning democracy. There is a niche that needs to be filled – that of the great global example of democracy. Britain is perhaps better suited, though only barely. Mr Johnson should abandon his populist instincts and work to make Britain a new example of a global democracy. Its entrenched position in global institutions has kept it on the world stage. Thus far, Mr Johnson has used that stage for burlesque displays; it is time he uses it to portray Britain as democracy’s last bastion. Rather than populism, Mr Johnson should focus on policy. British politics currently lacks a certain sobriety that makes it suited for emulation.
And emulation may be Global Britain’s last hope. There are few areas where the UK can thrive that the US cannot do better: the US is richer, more populous, better armed, and better connected. Both its hard and soft power is unmatched. Britain’s last chance may be to profit off of the US’s current doldrums – the US has been discredited, and Britain may be able to take charge.
Of course, this is a difficult prospect. Britain’s global status is in flux. Mr Johnson needs to consider what “Global Britain” can realistically include – and how “global” the UK population still wants to be. (A recent poll shows nearly 40% of UK citizens believe Britain should stop pretending to be an important global power). Mr Johnson thus far has been reticent to engage in some necessary self-reflection. He apparently sees no connection between his actions at home and abroad. This is a mistake. Until Mr Johnson becomes willing to sacrifice for his plan, the UK’s global reach will never satisfy its global ambition.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.