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Towards ‘Global Britain’ ? Theresa May and the UK’s Role in the World after Brexit

Thibaud Harrois
p. 51-73

Résumé

This paper seeks to examine Theresa May’s government foreign and defence policy choices in the light of decisions made by previous governments, especially the Conservative-led coalition, and assesses the impact of the June 2016 Brexit referendum. By adopting a role theory perspective on these events, the paper identifies the various institutional actors and the constraints on their action. It shows that the ‘Global Britain’ narrative is meant to meet the British public’s great power expectations. However, this narrative is far from supported by evidence and post-Brexit foreign and defence policy confirms and intensifies Britain’s already-growing isolation on the international stage.

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Introduction

1On 17 January 2017, Theresa May delivered a speech in which she was expected to provide details about the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU and the rest of the world. In that speech, the Prime Minister said :

  • 1 May, T., 17 January 2017.

A little over 6 months ago, the British people voted for change. They voted to shape a brighter future for our country. They voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world. […] That means more than negotiating our new relationship with the EU. It means taking the opportunity of this great moment of national change to step back and ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be.1

2Following the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, Theresa May and prominent members of her government have claimed they wanted Britain to be a truly ‘Global Britain.’ Yet the phrase, which had been widely used by pro-Brexit campaigners and later by some of May’s ministers, like Boris Johnson, Liam Fox or David Davis, is specious and might only hide the current government’s lack of preparedness as to what the foreign policy consequences of Brexit will be.

3This paper will seek to analyse how Britain sees itself after the Brexit referendum and more precisely what members of government think the UK’s role is on the international stage. In order to understand the foreign policy discourses and decisions made by foreign policy actors in the UK, this paper will use the concept of ‘role’ as defined by Kalevi Holsti in the field of Foreign Policy Analysis. Holsti used ‘national role conceptions’ in order to describe

  • 2 Holsti, K. J., 1970, pp. 245-246.

the policymakers’ own definitions of decisions, commitments, rules and actions suitable to their state, and of the functions, if any, their state should perform on a continuing basis in the international system or in subordinate regional systems.2

  • 3 Ibidem., p. 260.

4According to Holsti, there are 17 basic national role conceptions, to which he adds other role conceptions that are unique for some states. These role conceptions were presented in a typology that ‘[reflected] the degree of passivity or activity in foreign policy that the role conceptions seem to imply.’3

  • 4 See for instance Shih, C., 1988, pp. 559-631; Wish, N. B., 1980, pp. 532-554; Chafetz, G., Abramson (...)
  • 5 Cantir, C. and Kaarbo, J., 2012, p. 6.
  • 6 This is for instance what Alexander Wendt argues when he states that the definition of a state’s in (...)
  • 7 Putnam, R., 1988, pp. 427-460.

5Holsti’s typology has been challenged and completed by several authors.4 But the most recent developments in role theory focus on another aspect of Holsti’s seminal work. Role theory originally focused on foreign policy elites and the conceptions these elites had of the national role. However, Cristian Cantir and Juliet Kaarbo insisted that this raised the question of ‘why foreign policy elites can stand for the entire country with regard to its role conceptions.’5 Indeed, as they point out, there is no information that would allow one to say whether elites are sole responsible for designing the state’s role conception. Besides, they insist on the study of how elites obtain support from public opinion with the aim of imposing their role conception. Hence, links have been made with constructivist theories of International Relations that argue that role conceptions are socially constructed.6 Role theorists also argue that in cases when elites and society disagree about role conceptions, the former cannot make decisions that would not be acceptable to the country’s public opinion. This idea is inspired by Putnam’s two-level game theory which states that diplomacy happens simultaneously at an international level and at an intra-national level.7

  • 8 Rogers, J. F., 2013.

6A survey conducted after the British Parliament voted against military intervention in Syria in 2013 revealed that public opinion still expected the UK to play a ‘great power role’ in the world but was also largely in favour of a reduction in defence and foreign aid budgets.8 This dilemma between role conception and the means that are actually made available for foreign and defence policy has also inspired decisions made in the latest National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review. Brexit entails a loss of influence on the international stage and raises doubts about the nature of Britain’s future relation with its closest allies, especially in the EU, in the field of defence and security cooperation. However, there has been no major alteration of the British national strategy following the results of the June 2016 referendum. In a context of increasing strategic uncertainty and economic difficulties, Britain’s approach to international relations is characterised by a return to the kind of realism that had inspired its choices until the end of the Cold War, which contrasts with the more liberal and interventionist approach that had prevailed in the 1990s and 2000s, especially under Tony Blair. The UK is thus refraining from intervening military when its interests are not directly under threat. But non-intervention, as this paper will seek to show, also allows to spare the already strained armed forces and to satisfy the public’s mood of hostility towards any new military action. Therefore, Britain’s role as a global power is presented by Theresa May’s government as being first and foremost a commercial role. But it remains to be seen whether Britain will actually be able to promote its national interest by trying to revive old partnerships and by forming new ones when it is out of the European Union and does not benefit from the advantages that the single market provides both regionally and globally.

The UK on the international stage : losing influence

7A number of past political leaders have warned that one of the consequences of Brexit would be for Britain to lose influence on the international stage and that ‘Global Britain’ would prove to be nothing more than a slogan void of any meaningful content and reality. Those who spoke out on the consequences of Brexit include Tony Blair, who wrote in July 2017 :

  • 9 Blair, T., 2017.

This time last year we were the fastest growing economy in the G7. We are now the slowest. The international investment community is negative on us. The savings rate is at its lowest in 50 years. Incomes are stagnating. The international reputation of Britain is rapidly losing altitude. There is a daily drip of worrying news on Brexit.9

8Former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg launched a blog on the Liberal Democrats’ website to warn about the negative consequences of the current Brexit negotiations.10 But criticism also came from the Conservative side of the political spectrum, with Sir John Major declaring :

  • 11 Major, J., 2017.

I have watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic […] Outside the European Union, we become far more dependent upon the United States and – for four and possibly eight years – upon a president less predictable, less reliable and less attuned to our free-market and socially liberal instincts than any of his predecessors.11

  • 12 ‘UK to lose global influence after Brexit – Lord Hague’, BBC News, 6 July 2017.

9Former Conservative leader and Foreign Affairs Secretary William Hague also told a House of Lords committee that Britain would lose foreign policy influence in the world after Brexit : ‘If you are less influential in crafting the overall approach of the EU you end up with less influence in the rest of the world.’12

  • 13 Sawers, J., 2017.
  • 14 See for instance, Behr, R. 2017. Blanchflower, D., 2017.

10But (former) politicians are not the only ones to have expressed such negative evaluations of the consequences of Brexit. The same view is held by John Sawers, who was Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) from 2009 to 2014 : ‘Britain on its own will count for little in deciding how the West deals with the threats that face us.’13 The view that Britain’s role on the international stage is waning is thus widely shared by those who have played a part in shaping that role in the past, and some pro-Remain media have been instrumental in relaying that message, as shown by the many articles published in The Guardian or the Financial Times that promptly underlined the dire consequences of Brexit and pointed out how deceptive discourses on ‘Global Britain’ were.14

  • 15 Kuper, S., 2017.

11A cartoon by Harry Haysom of a humble cat looking at a mirror and seeing a proud and impressive lion accompanied Simon Kuper’s article in the Financial Times in which the journalist underlined Britain’s self-delusion.15 Indeed, the thoughts expressed by politicians and journalists are not the mere exaggeration of ‘Remoaners’ but point out the fact that Britain is already an isolated former power, as shown by the latest developments in EU defence cooperation.

  • 16 Le Drian, J.-Y., van der Leyen, U., 11 Septembre 2016.
  • 17 European Union, 2016.
  • 18 European Commission, 2016, pp. 17-19.

12One of the unintended consequences of the results of the June 2016 referendum was the new momentum given to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and in particular ideas about how to further defence cooperation. Some proposals have been made that would encourage member states to reinforce that cooperation in a field where the EU has never been particularly strong. Of course, one reason that explains why the EU was so prompt to encourage renewed cooperation in the defence sector is that the UK was one of the most reluctant member states in that field : the UK has been reluctant to engage with CSDP military operations ; it opposed further developments for the European Defence Agency (EDA), and vetoed the creation of a permanent military EU operational headquarters (OHQ). Following the Brexit vote, the EU mainly proposed to revive these projects, with France and Germany at the helm. A joint proposition paper was sent by then Defence ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Ursula von der Leyen to Federica Mogherini in which they set out a number of ideas that include an EU operational headquarters, a common budget for military research and joint procurement capabilities but also the use of the ‘permanent structured cooperation’ provisions of the EU treaties that allow for smaller groups of EU member states to further their cooperation even if all states do not want to take part in the programme.16 The Franco-German declaration followed many of the ideas already introduced in the European Union’s Global Strategy document that High Representative Mogherini had presented in June 2016 and which also encouraged further collaboration between EU member states.17 Le Drian and von der Leyen’s initiative was thus warmly welcomed by the EU institutions, and European Commission President Juncker’s 2016 State of the Union had many common points with what the French and German ministers were calling for.18

  • 19 ‘Michael Fallon: UK will oppose plans for EU army’, BBC News, 27 September 2016.
  • 20 Fallon, M., 21 July 2016.

13The immediate British response to the Union’s projects was to threaten the enactment of these proposals while the UK was still a member of the EU. Michael Fallon, the Secretary of State for Defence, announced in September 2016 that the UK would oppose any attempt to create an EU army, or an EU army headquarters.19 On the one hand Fallon explained that Brexit would not ‘inhibit’ bilateral, or minilateral, cooperation involving the UK and other European states, such as the Northern Group, a defence forum that brings together the defence secretaries from Britain, Germany and Poland as well as from Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), or bilateral cooperation with France, that was reinforced by the signing of the Lancaster House Treaties in 2010. On the other hand, when he stated the themes of Theresa May’s government approach to defence, Fallon insisted on three points : defending the UK’s values of democracy, the rule of law and freedom ; ensuring a stronger NATO for a stronger defence ; and the US-UK partnership.20 Just as Britain was a cautious participant in CFSP and CSPD before the Brexit vote for fear it would undermine NATO, it would continue opposing any move towards an EU army in order to protect NATO’s role as the main organisation for European defence :

  • 21 Fallon, M., 4 October 2016.

Leaving the EU does not mean we are stepping back from our commitment to the security of our continent. We will continue to have the biggest defence budget in Europe—meeting the 2 percent NATO spending target. And we will lead in NATO—the cornerstone of our defence—putting troops on to its eastern border next year. But we will go on blocking an EU army, which would simply undermine NATO. We will step up, not away from, our global responsibilities.21

  • 22 Department for Exiting the European Union, 2017.
  • 23 Ibid., par. 3.

14This was confirmed in September 2017, when the British government published a document entitled Foreign policy, defence and development : A Future Partnership Paper in which the UK states its will to cooperate on foreign policy with the EU and continue to contribute to joint military operations after leaving the EU.22 Yet the paper also makes it clear that ‘the UK will also continue to ensure that NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence’.23

15Thus Theresa May’s government has reinforced Britain’s historical commitment to NATO and more than ever sees it as the main instrument for defence cooperation on the European continent. But this commitment to the ‘special relationship’ with the USA and the emphasis on NATO as the main defence actor in Europe is surprising in the 2016 context, given the attitude of the Alliance’s main participant, especially after the election of President Donald Trump.

16Even before Donald Trump was elected President, the US insisted European member states of NATO should contribute more to their own defence. Americans have been calling for better burden-sharing in the Atlantic Alliance at least since the end of the Cold War, and President Barack Obama’s Asia-oriented foreign policy confirmed the need for Europeans to play a greater role in the defence of their own continent but also in military operations in their immediate neighbourhood. This was made particularly clear in 2011 when the USA refused to play a forefront role in military operations in Libya – as well as in 2013 when they altogether refused to intervene in Syria.

  • 24 Parker, A., 2016.
  • 25 ‘Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World’, New York Times, 21 July 20 (...)

17Doubts about the USA’s commitment to the NATO alliance in the future were reinforced by the election of Donald Trump. During the 2016 American presidential election campaign, Trump described NATO as ‘obsolete’ and suggested that if elected, he would ‘let NATO go’ or insist for other members to increase their defence spending or leave the alliance.24 Later, he also insisted the US would only take part in a military intervention in support of an ally if their contribution to the costs was sufficient25, something that goes against the principle of collective defence inscribed in Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty.

  • 26 Ackerman, S., 2017.

18Since his election, Trump has held a different discourse on the role of NATO, stating in April 2017 that the alliance was ‘no longer obsolete.’26 Yet the question of defence funding remains an issue for most of its member states. Indeed, even if NATO Member States set themselves the aim of spending at least 2 % of their GDP on defence, only four European states meet that target (the UK, Estonia, Greece and Poland), which legitimately raises questions about the future of NATO and the role it will play in European defence in the years to come.

19Thus both the June 2016 referendum and the election of Donald Trump constitute strategic dilemmas : the UK’s influence in the world and its role on the international stage have been challenged by the decision to leave the EU, and there is great uncertainty about the future role of NATO. However, the strategic response and the policies set out by May’s government have been very limited and are still based on the choices made in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Is the UK still ready for military interventions ?

  • 27 HM Government, 2015.

20A few months after David Cameron arrived at Number 10, the Conservative-led coalition government published the first strategic documents since the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, which had only been updated once in 2003. To avoid such gaps in strategic planning, Cameron announced that new National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review documents would be published every five years and would be regularly updated in between. The first documents being published in 2010, a new review was published at the beginning of Cameron’s second term in office.27

21The first annual update on the NSS and SDSR 2015 was presented to Parliament in December 2016. On that occasion, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, declared :

[…] much has changed since the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review was published in November of last year—not least the United Kingdom’s historic decision to leave the European Union. But the principal threats to our national security remain the same. We are witnessing the resurgence of state-based threats—as displayed most obviously by Russia’s actions in Syria and Ukraine; terrorism and extremism threaten our security; cyber attacks are on the increase from both state and non-state actors, and we face renewed challenges to the rules-based international order that provides the bedrock of our security. Some of the great global challenges of our time, such as the phenomenon of mass migration, have become more pronounced in the last 12 months

  • 28 House of Commons, 2016.

We should be confident of the United Kingdom’s ability to rise to these challenges, drawing on our great strengths as a nation, and the relevance and strength of our National Security Strategy.28

  • 29 Peach, S., 2016.

22Thus the 2015 strategic documents were not updated because the government considered that the defence commitments outlined in the 2015 SDSR allowed the UK to deal with the threats and challenges it was facing. This was confirmed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Chief of the Defence Staff when he said that the NSS had been re-examined ‘as a result of the turbulence this year’ and there was no plan to change it as it was ‘really pretty good.’29 The 2015 strategic decisions – and the 2010 choices before them – being largely constrained by spending cuts, the lack of major update after Brexit can be interpreted as a sign that Britain did not have the financial means that such an update would require. Therefore, however much the strategic context had changed, government and military officials agreed that no changes could be brought to the decisions made in 2015.

  • 30 HM Government, 2015, par. 1.3.
  • 31 Ibid., par. 4.37.

23In the November 2015 SDSR, the Government stated its intention to ‘strengthen our Armed Forces […] so that they remain world-leading’, able to ‘project our power globally’, and to ‘fight and work alongside close allies, including the US and France, to deter or defeat our adversaries’.30 Accordingly, the Armed Forces were given eight missions, the first four being routine missions and the last four missions stating how they were expected to contribute to the Government’s response to crises. The Armed Forces were thus expected to 1. defend and contribute to the security and resilience of the UK and Overseas Territories ; 2. provide the nuclear deterrent ; 3. contribute to improved understanding of the world through strategic intelligence and the global defence network ; 4. reinforce international security and the collective capacity of our allies, partners and multilateral institutions ; 5. support humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and conduct rescue missions ; 6. conduct strike operations ; 7. conduct operations to restore peace and stability ; 8. conduct major combat operations if required, including under NATO’s Article 5.31

  • 32 Ibid. par. 4.38-4.42.
  • 33 Ibid., par. 2.5.
  • 34 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, 2016, par. 72.

24In order to allow the Armed Forces to conduct these missions, the SDSR 2015 committed to ‘develop a new Joint Force 2025’ that would enable the Armed Forces to deploy an expeditionary force of around 50,000 or a large number of smaller operations simultaneously.32 But, even if the paper acknowledged that, after the tough decisions made in the SDSR 2010 to balance the defence budget, it was ‘now in a position to invest in the highly deployable Armed Forces that we need to guarantee our security’33, concerns have been raised by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy that the Armed Forces would ‘not be able to fulfil the wide-ranging tasks described in the NSS and SDSR 2015 with the capabilities, manpower and funding’ allocated.34

  • 35 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 2017.
  • 36 House of Commons Defence Committee, 2016, par. 5.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 7.
  • 38 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, 2016, par. 66.

25The UK has the fifth largest defence budget worldwide with a 2017 budget of £ 43bn35 (only the USA, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia spend more) and it is one of the few NATO countries to meet the Alliance’s guideline to spend at least 2 % of GDP on defence. Yet, this is true only because the Government changed the criteria used to calculate the defence budget to include expenditure that was not included a few years ago, such as pensions.36 Furthermore, because the NATO threshold for defence spending is expressed as a proportion of GDP, fluctuation of the latter creates uncertainty about the level of future defence spending.37 As the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy underlined it, after UK’s referendum on EU membership, if GDP were to fall or grow less quickly than predicted, ‘a stagnant or contracting UK economy might mean that the defence budget would be reduced in real terms’, which would ‘impact on the ambition and capabilities’ set out in the SDSR 2015.38 MPs added that

  • 39 Ibid., par 68.

[…] the changed economic climate following the UK’s vote to leave the EU will see the defence budget reduced in real terms, reversing the November 2015 decision to make additional funding available for defence.39

26The fall in the value of the pound after the referendum could have an impact on defence equipment spending and many doubts were expressed as to whether the UK is committing enough of its budget to defence if it wants to reach its strategic goals. MPs wrote that

  • 40 Ibid., par. 74. See also par. 66.

Despite the UK’s high ranking, relative to other NATO members, UK defence expenditure has fallen far too low in our national priorities. The world today is at its most dangerous and unstable since the end of the Cold War. While 2% is arguably a useful metric by which to measure the sufficiency of the UK commitment to NATO, it does not solely determine whether our total expenditure on defence is sufficient, given that the UK has significant additional commitments such as our defence of the Falkland Islands. Some of the costs of these UK commitments are additional to the NATO requirement, and therefore constitute an additional requirement for UK defence expenditure. Until and unless the MoD quantifies the net additional costs of the UK’s commitments beyond NATO, we cannot be confident that 2% is enough, whether in political or capability terms. We remain to be convinced that the current financial settlement is sufficient to rectify the decline of defence as a national priority.40

27But beyond the questions of whether the UK possesses the capacity to launch new military operations, there are debates on whether the country is still willing to intervene. Indeed, the UK has reduced the number of its international interventions over the last few years, especially after the 2010 election.

28Even before he became PM, David Cameron, together with his Foreign Secretary William Hague, promised that a Conservative government would not engage in military operations in the way Tony Blair had. Hague and Cameron tried to define what they called ‘Liberal Conservatism’, a mix between support for so-called humanitarian interventions and recognition that ‘grand schemes to remake the world’ were an illusion. Britain’s leading participation in the military intervention in Libya stands out as an exception to the non-interventionist approach defined by Cameron’s government in 2010. The Libyan operation was justified on humanitarian grounds and was submitted to the approval of Parliament which voted to authorise it on 22 March 2011. Two years later, a proposed intervention in Syria against the Assad regime was rejected by Parliament on 29 August 2013. Yet, because of the threat posed by terrorism, and especially by ISIS, other military interventions were approved under Cameron’s government and are still going on today : in 26 September 2014, the House of Commons approved strikes against ISIS in Iraq and another vote was held on 2 December 2015 which extended the mission to terrorist-held positions in Syria. The UK has since been the second largest contributor to the air campaign in Iraq and Syria. Thus the coalition government indeed adopted a cautious approach to military interventions that contrasted with Blair’s liberal interventionism.

29Theresa May’s approach to military interventionism is close to her predecessor’s. In a speech she made to the American Republican Party conference on 26 January 2017, she denounced the ‘failed policies of the past’ and declared that

  • 41 May, T., 26 January 2017.

The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over. But nor can we afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene. We must be strong, smart and hard-headed. And we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our interests.41

30Contrary to the liberal ideas that had inspired Blair, May puts the emphasis on national interests in a manner that has a lot in common with the realist approach to international relations that inspired Britain’s foreign policy until the 1990s. This prudent attitude as far as interventionism is concerned holds to various factors, which are not all necessarily ideological. First, operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been particularly long and costly, both financially and in terms of human lives, which has led public opinion to be weary of such interventions. Any Prime Minister would have to take that weariness into account before committing troops in a foreign conflict. Second, spending cuts have reduced the means available for major operations and the UK is in danger of putting the security of its own territory at risk by multiplying the number of foreign operations.

  • 42 MacAskill, E., 2017.

31During the 2017 election campaign, there were reports about a potential new vote in the Commons after the general election to expand military action in Syria in order to be able to strike Bashar al-Assad in case of another chemical attack on the rebels.42 The possibility of holding a vote may have been used by the Conservatives to show they were tougher on defence than Labour, and especially Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has consistently voted against military interventions since he was first elected MP in 1983. But no new vote has taken place as yet, and May’s government seems to be focusing on other ways to find a new role for Britain on the international stage.

A new international role ?

32In January 2017, Theresa May argued she wanted the country to be

  • 43 May, T., 17 January 2017.

a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.43

33May wants Britain to be at the centre of concentric circles that include Europe but also reach far beyond and include old friends like the USA and new allies in all parts of the world. Even if British diplomacy in the 21st century has increasingly relied on the Prime Minister’s vision and personal commitment, the study of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s role should not be neglected, especially when it is under the responsibility of such an unruly minister as Boris Johnson. After May became Prime Minister, two new departments were created in the FCO : the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade – whose role it is to assist the FCO in its work, and also maybe to put a check on Boris Johnson’s turbulent temperament.

  • 44 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2016, p. 8.

34In May 2016, the FCO published a report in which it stated that its aim were the same as the ones defined in the 2015 SDSR. Its priorities were : to ‘protect our people […] project our global influence [and] promote our prosperity.’44 Yet, after Brexit, another aim was added to the FCO’s list of priorities, that of making ‘Global Britain’ happen. Boris Johnson said to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee :

  • 45 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2016; Q 101.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office […] is more energetic and outward-looking and more engaged with the world than at any time in decades. That outward-looking spirit is present not just in the Gulf but across the world, and I think it is going to intensify as we extricate ourselves from the EU treaty and we forge a new identity, as the Prime Minister has said, as a global Britain—and I mean global.45

  • 46 The concept of an ‘Anglosphere’ was first introduced in the late 19th century but was given renewed (...)
  • 47 Walker, P., 13 January 2017.
  • 48 May, T., Trump, D., 27 January 2017.

35Central to the aspiration of Britain to be truly ‘Global’ is the desire to renew its ties with ‘old friends’ in the ‘Anglosphere’,46 particularly the USA, but also Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Those in favour of Brexit had pointed out the possibility of signing trade deals rapidly with those countries, for instance with New Zealand.47 Besides, Theresa May was the first foreign head of government to meet Trump after his inauguration as President of the USA. During the press conference they held together she insisted on ‘the bonds of history, of family, kinship and common interests’ between the two countries on which closer ties in commerce, business and foreign affairs would be founded.48

36This discourse hardly constitutes a new theme. Quite the contrary, Brexiteers like David Davis or Nigel Farage often made reference to the Anglosphere in the past, most recently in the referendum campaign, to promise voters there was a viable alternative to the ties the UK had with the European Union. Davis in particular had insisted Brexit would be

  • 49 Wellings, B., 2017. See also Fox, L., 9 March 2017.

an opportunity to renew our strong relationships with Commonwealth and Anglosphere countries. These parts of the world are growing faster than Europe. We share history, culture and language. We have family ties. We even share similar legal systems. The usual barriers to trade are largely absent.49

  • 50 See for instance Watts, J., 2016. See also Sengupta, K., 2017.

37In the field of defence, the Anglosphere is particularly important as far as intelligence sharing is concerned. Indeed, the UK, the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are bound by a multilateral treaty for joint cooperation on intelligence, commonly referred to as the ‘five eyes’ network. But the commercial opportunities offered by the Commonwealth are far less promising than what Brexiteers suggested. Indeed, critics have pointed out that ‘Global Britain’ sounded like ‘Empire 2.0’ and that many Commonwealth members would not be particularly interested in signing new deals with Britain, favouring instead their partnerships with the larger EU single market.50

38Apart from these old partners, as May underlined, Britain is keen to find new allies. In a speech given at Chatham House, Johnson declared that Britain was

  • 51 Johnson, B., 2016.

a country galvanised by new possibilities and a country that is politically and economically and morally fated […] more outward-looking and more engaged with the world than ever before. When I speak of Global Britain – and the need for us to commit ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the world. I know that there will be some who are wary that this sounds pretentious, in a nation that comprises less than one per cent of the world’s population. I know there will be cynics who say we can’t afford it. I say we can’t afford not to. To those who say we are now too small, too weak, too poor to have any influence on the world, I say in the words of Robert Burns: ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!’.51

  • 52 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2016, Q 101.
  • 53 Holmes, O., Asthana, A., Mason, R., 2017.
  • 54 ‘Theresa May defends UK ties with Saudi Arabia’, BBC News, 4 April 2017.

39The aim for Britain is thus, in the words of the Foreign Secretary to ‘[go] out again to places where perhaps people haven’t seen so much of us in the past, and places where they thought we had forgotten them’ thanks to the UK’s networks of embassies.52 However this does not happen without causing some controversy. When Liam Fox, the new International Trade Secretary, visited the Philippines, he declared that the UK and Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines shared values, ignoring the fact that the Philippine leader has killed 7,000 people since the start of his war on drugs. Harriet Harman, the Labour MP who chairs the Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights promptly reacted, saying the government should never sacrifice core British values, even in its endeavour to find new partnerships.53 This criticism was aimed at Fox, but could just as well have been aimed at the Prime Minister herself. Indeed, on the same day Fox visited the Philippines, Theresa May was in Saudi Arabia and faced questions about the UK’s support to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia against rebels in Yemen.54 May justified her visit by saying it was in the interest of the UK :

  • 55 Ibid.

It’s in our British national interest to have good relations around the world so we can trade around the world - that brings jobs and prosperity to the UK. It’s also in our national interest to ensure we’re working with others around the world to maintain our safety and security - and yes, it’s in our national interests to ensure that the values that underpin us as Britons are values that we promote around the world - and that’s what we’re doing.55

  • 56 Walker, P., 31 August 2017.

40There is little evidence commercial partners will choose to convert to such values as human rights, democracy and the rule of law merely because they signed trade deals with the UK. Finding new partners thus seems to be first and foremost a matter of survival for the UK than a means they intend to use in order to efficiently influence their partner’s political decisions. Even if some countries, like Japan, have pledged to sign bilateral trade deals with the UK as soon as it leaves the EU56, uncertainty and doubts remain as to the actual content of these deals as Britain is bound to become less economically attractive for foreign companies and investors. Far from becoming the ‘Global Britain’ the government keep invoking, the UK, once it is outside the EU, is likely to find itself isolated and unable to effectively play a meaningful role on the international stage.

Conclusion

41After Britain joined the EEC in 1973, being one of the main economic powers as well as one of the two major diplomatic and military powers in Europe allowed it to successfully shape policy choices in the Union (even if it meant securing opt-outs in some cases). But with the UK set to leave the EU in March 2019, the country seems about to lose the influence that its membership provided in Europe and globally. As far as foreign and defence policy is concerned, the risk is for the UK to see the EU push further plans to which the country was resolutely opposed, especially as the American commitment to NATO and the defence of the European continent is waning. Britain will remain one of the most important defence contributors in Europe, but lack of resources and expedition fatigue – both on the part of the army and of public opinion – have already led it to renounce interventionism to adopt a more realist approach to international relations. In economic terms, May’s focus on national interests seems ill-adapted to the requirements of a globalised economy in which it will be dwarfed by the larger EU single market. May’s ‘Global Britain’ narrative is fraught with nostalgia of a past when Britain could flourish and stand on its own, but today, to misquote US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s famous remark in 1962, Britain has lost its role and is unlikely to find an Empire.

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Notes

1 May, T., 17 January 2017.

2 Holsti, K. J., 1970, pp. 245-246.

3 Ibidem., p. 260.

4 See for instance Shih, C., 1988, pp. 559-631; Wish, N. B., 1980, pp. 532-554; Chafetz, G., Abramson, H., Grillot, S., 1996, pp. 727-757; or, more recently, Hymans, J., E., C., 2006.

5 Cantir, C. and Kaarbo, J., 2012, p. 6.

6 This is for instance what Alexander Wendt argues when he states that the definition of a state’s interests depends on how it sees itself on the international stage, both at a national level and at a systemic level. See Wendt, A., 1992, pp. 391-425.

7 Putnam, R., 1988, pp. 427-460.

8 Rogers, J. F., 2013.

9 Blair, T., 2017.

10 Nick Clegg’s Brexit Challenge. Available online: <https://www.libdems.org.uk/brexit-challenge?page=1>, accessed 21 September 2017.

11 Major, J., 2017.

12 ‘UK to lose global influence after Brexit – Lord Hague’, BBC News, 6 July 2017.

13 Sawers, J., 2017.

14 See for instance, Behr, R. 2017. Blanchflower, D., 2017.

15 Kuper, S., 2017.

16 Le Drian, J.-Y., van der Leyen, U., 11 Septembre 2016.

17 European Union, 2016.

18 European Commission, 2016, pp. 17-19.

19 ‘Michael Fallon: UK will oppose plans for EU army’, BBC News, 27 September 2016.

20 Fallon, M., 21 July 2016.

21 Fallon, M., 4 October 2016.

22 Department for Exiting the European Union, 2017.

23 Ibid., par. 3.

24 Parker, A., 2016.

25 ‘Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World’, New York Times, 21 July 2016.

26 Ackerman, S., 2017.

27 HM Government, 2015.

28 House of Commons, 2016.

29 Peach, S., 2016.

30 HM Government, 2015, par. 1.3.

31 Ibid., par. 4.37.

32 Ibid. par. 4.38-4.42.

33 Ibid., par. 2.5.

34 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, 2016, par. 72.

35 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 2017.

36 House of Commons Defence Committee, 2016, par. 5.

37 Ibid., p. 7.

38 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, 2016, par. 66.

39 Ibid., par 68.

40 Ibid., par. 74. See also par. 66.

41 May, T., 26 January 2017.

42 MacAskill, E., 2017.

43 May, T., 17 January 2017.

44 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2016, p. 8.

45 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2016; Q 101.

46 The concept of an ‘Anglosphere’ was first introduced in the late 19th century but was given renewed interest in the 1990s as Euroscepticism rose, especially in the Conservative party. Its proponents insist on the potential of English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA as a counterweight to the EU.

47 Walker, P., 13 January 2017.

48 May, T., Trump, D., 27 January 2017.

49 Wellings, B., 2017. See also Fox, L., 9 March 2017.

50 See for instance Watts, J., 2016. See also Sengupta, K., 2017.

51 Johnson, B., 2016.

52 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2016, Q 101.

53 Holmes, O., Asthana, A., Mason, R., 2017.

54 ‘Theresa May defends UK ties with Saudi Arabia’, BBC News, 4 April 2017.

55 Ibid.

56 Walker, P., 31 August 2017.

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Thibaud Harrois, « Towards ‘Global Britain’ ? Theresa May and the UK’s Role in the World after Brexit », Observatoire de la société britannique, 21 | -1, 51-73.

Référence électronique

Thibaud Harrois, « Towards ‘Global Britain’ ? Theresa May and the UK’s Role in the World after Brexit », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 21 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 20 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/2119 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.2119

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Thibaud Harrois

Maître de Conférences en Civilisation britannique à l'Université de Paris III

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