Following withdrawal from the EU, policy makers are scrambling to redefine Britain’s place in the world. At least since the 1970s, it has been expected that Britain would gradually integrate with the rest of Europe. In the wake of the surprising referendum result in 2016, and the subsequent years of discussion, this view now seems outdated.
To understand Britain’s role in the world, we must understand the trends in its foreign policy since the end of the British Empire. Reduction from a global superpower in the Second World War to a regional power in the following decades has determined much of these policies.
The decline of Britain’s power after WWII made it necessary to find an alternative to controlling the world through ‘hard power’ such as the military and economic control possessed by the British Empire. Therefore, Britain adapted to a ‘soft power’ approach by utilising the BBC and projecting a strong ‘moral’ image. However, the dire state of Britain’s international standing in 2018 casts doubt on its hope to continue being a major power.
In a Conservative Party meeting in 1948, Churchill described ‘three majestic circles’ that shaped Britain’s foreign policy. These were the Commonwealth, the English-speaking world and Europe. He argued that Britain’s leading role in these three circles allowed us to remain a global power. For example, our role alongside the United States in NATO provides us with greater security capabilities. Similarly, our integration with Europe was seen to provide us with influence over our neighbours and mutual prosperity. By closer integration with Churchill’s concentric circles, we could gain more international prestige.
Nonetheless, the UK remains a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear power and the fifth largest national economy. The ‘majestic circles’ approach provides a useful way of measuring British influence over time, but Brexit is one among many factors that has contributed to its decline.
The Commonwealth of Nations is an intergovernmental organisation made up of mostly former British colonies. Faced with the end of the empire, British governments tried fostering good relations with their former colonies. Significantly, the British monarch is also the head of the Commonwealth. Thatcher once commented on this, arguing that it provided long-term stability and a personal relationship for member states. Nonetheless, she was not interested in a closer relationship and the Commonwealth is generally considered the least significant of the ‘circles’.
Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth has been complicated. For example, the British failure to condemn the South African apartheid attracted heavy criticism. Even the 21st century, the UK is not able to heavily influence its former colonies, who often have very different interests. In many industries, Britain can no longer compete with countries such as India. If it attempted closer relations with the Commonwealth, it risks its voice being drowned out by much larger members.
Turning across the Atlantic, since the end of WWII, the US has assumed the leadership of the Western world. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan compared the British relationship with America to the Greeks with the Romans. In his view, we passed on our culture and leadership of the English-speaking world but retained our position of significance. The idea of a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US is often discussed. This can be seen in the personal relationships of Thatcher and Reagan or Blair and Bush. The aim of this relationship, for the British government, is to influence the US government policy in our benefit.
However, the US support for Britain has been questionable at times. During the Falklands Conflict, the US at first remained neutral. Also, in the UN, the US argued that Argentina had a legitimate claim on the Falklands. Failure to strongly support the UK casts doubt on the ‘special relationship’ and it is clear that America’s role as a global power has meant that it often acts against Britain to preserve its other relationships.
Worryingly, the US dominates British foreign policy. For example, earlier in 2018, the US, UK and France launched strikes against Syria following Trump’s condemnation of the Assad regime. Other examples include wars in Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. No doubt, this relationship will occasionally be put to good use. Nonetheless, the idea of Trump dictating British foreign policy is terrifying.
The European project, now embodied in the EU, was deemed necessary following WWII. Three warn-torn decades created the clear necessity to secure peace in Europe. Also, Western Europe needed to recover economically and fend off the Soviet bloc. Even Winston Churchill advocated a ‘United States of Europe’. Once it joined the EU in 1973, the UK became one of the three predominant powers in the European Economic Community (EEC), which became the EU.
The sudden divorce of the UK and EU can only result in diminished British influence over the continent. Without membership of the EU, the British will be unable to participate in European decision making, in the world’s largest market 20 miles off the coast of England. If the goal is to remain a major European power, this presents a clear problem. The UK has some of the lowest growth and highest inflation of any major European country and this presents the risk that Britain will again be the ‘sick man of Europe’.
The problem post-Brexit is, firstly, that our influence over the Commonwealth has declined enormously. Secondly, our foreign policy is under the dominance of the US, who clearly regards the UK as just one of its many regional ‘special relationships’. Thirdly, by exiting the EU, we are seriously hindered in influencing our European neighbours.
Put simply, if Britain wants to be a major power, it cannot do this via ‘hard power’ as it cannot compete with countries such as the US, Russia and China. Therefore, it must retain ‘soft power’. This takes the form of our positive relationships with other powers and our ability to impact their policies. For a long time, Britain’s role in the world has been unclear. Post-Brexit, this issue is brought to the forefront.