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Is “Global Britain” a Viable Role for the Post-Brexit UK?

Is “Global Britain” a Viable Role for the Post-Brexit UK?

Andrew Glencross (Aston University)

The “Global Britain” slogan is the brainchild of Prime Minister Theresa May. She proposed the term in her first major speech on the UK’s post-Brexit posture as a way to fight off accusations that leaving the EU would lead to an isolationist, or “Little Englander”, posture in international relations. It is thus important to explore the meaning of this narrative for post-Brexit UK foreign relations and anticipate some of the challenges it engenders.

A good starting point for understanding the aspirations behind Global Britain is Boris Johnson’s comment as Foreign Secretary that after leaving the EU ‘we can be ever more internationalist, and indeed we can be ever more European’. In other words, what Global Britain invokes is an idealized version of the UK in its dealings with international society. Hence the challenge this new narrative poses is less one of idealism – although British leadership on the global stage has historically been far from benign – than of execution.

There are two general problems of execution that can be identified from the outset. The first exists because Brexit unsettles other countries’ expectations about how the UK will operate internationally. The study of international politics tells us that roles and rhetoric matter because they create audience expectations, from which a set of commitments, friendships, and rivalries derive. The second issue with turning the Global Britain aspiration into reality is that the Brexit referendum result came about as a result of an electoral coalition that included deep-rooted hostility to globalization and policy expertise.

Both these general considerations can be clarified further by focusing on the domestic and international audiences that are the two pillars on which Global Britain will ultimately rest. Starting with the international audience, what is most unsettling for this audience is the way that Brexit alters the UK stance towards multilateralism. Previously, multilateral leadership in the EU and on the world stage went hand in hand. The UK practiced a “multipronged European diplomatic strategy” that consisted of treating EU relations as a subset of its broader international diplomatic strategy for promoting free trade, human rights, and a rules based order. The UK openly sought to be a bridge, for instance, for the US, with the EU; the UK also cultivated EU support for its own approach towards economic relations with China or for dealing with security threats posed by Russia.

Outside the EU, the UK will have no seat at the table to influence EU foreign policy in a direction it favours. At the same time, the EU can change to become more protectionist in the economic sphere – there are intimations of this new direction apparent in how France and Germany want to restrict Chinese investment in strategic sectors. Most significantly, the UK will seek to engage with the EU on a bilateral basis by nurturing relationships with key member states and their leaders. This kind of engagement is more fickle, because it is based on personal relations and inter-governmental cooperation, rather than the institutional and law-governed relations that cover EU membership. The policy question that arises, therefore, is how the UK’s aspirations for a prominent role in multilateral leadership, notably in the UN but also in institutions such as the WTO, can be reconciled with an EU-UK partnership built on a web of bilateral relations. The fraught Article 50 negotiations have shown the limitations of the UK approach of expecting the EU to budge by appealing to Angela Merkel for example.

When it comes to the second pillar of Global Britain, the domestic audience, here the challenge is the electoral context. That is, the emphasis on globalism and openness to the world are at odds with the promises of preserving UK sovereignty and enhancing national interests that enabled the Brexit campaign to win. The 2016 referendum campaign exposed a deep vein of mistrust among certain voters about the merits of globalization as vaunted by politicians and numerous experts. Yet politicians and policy expertise are crucial for getting Britons to back the plethora of security and trade deals that Global Britain supposedly offers. We only need to look at the criticism of the UK foreign aid budget to get a foretaste of what a hard sell domestically new trade or security deals will be.

So does Global Britain offer a stable and successful narrative on which to build a new post-Brexit foreign policy? The specific challenges pointed out above suggest the answer is no. The risk is very real that adopting such a posture will mean either disappointing a domestic audience or else a foreign one.


This article is based in part on  Living Up to a New Role in the World: The Challenges of “Global Britain,” by Andrew Glencross and David McCourt.

Andrew Glencross is Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, Aston University; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute; and an Associate Editor at ECPR Press. He has a PhD from the European University Institute and is the author of Why the UK Voted for Brexit: David Cameron’s Great Miscalculation (Palgrave 2016).


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