Boris Johnson Finally Tells Us What “Global Britain” Means
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Until Tuesday “Global Britain” was a slogan and little more. Just over a year ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered a punchy speech in Greenwich where he likened post-Brexit Britain to superman. The U.K., he said, was “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
The long-awaited Integrated Review into foreign and security policy, published this week, is the first serious stab at setting out how post-Brexit Britain fits into a changing world. It tells us how the U.K. government ranks the threats and risks it faces, where it sees opportunities and what role it wants to play in the world. It’s as close to a Johnson Doctrine as we’re likely to get.
To the question, “What is Global Britain?” this provides an answer of sorts. Britain is a middling power in a multipolar world where, as the review puts it, “the geopolitical and economic center of gravity” is moving toward the Indo-Pacific region. The country is no longer a bridge between the U.S. and Europe.
Johnson is taking several steps to back up the Indo-Pacific pivot. The HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft-carrier strike group is being sent on a maiden operational mission to the region, and Johnson will visit India in April. Britain has been hoping for a free-trade deal with New Delhi (India is the U.K.’s sixth largest trading partner outside the European Union). Indeed, it’s hard to see how an Indo-Pacific pivot succeeds without a strengthened relationship with the country.
The new tilt has economic, security and broader foreign policy implications. The prime minister has invited the leaders of Australia, South Korea and India to attend the G7 summit in June — to be held in Cornwall — and submitted the U.K.’s application to join the Trans-Pacific free trade agreement. Like a new kid on the block eager to make friends fast, Britain will become a “dialogue partner” of the Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN).
The problem with all of this is China. Members of the China Research Group — an influential group of Tory lawmakers who want a harder line on Beijing to acknowledge security threats, the treatment of the Uyghurs and the crackdown on Hong Kong — were left disappointed by the review. While Russia is described as an acute security threat, the risk from China is wordsmithed into a “systemic challenge.” The paper describes it as “the biggest state-based threat to the U.K.’s economic security,” but leaves plenty of room for partnership in some areas. There’s fence-sitting on Iran, too.
Even so, the Integrated Review isn’t short on ambition or direction. Britain will strengthen its defenses by increasing the number of nuclear warheads on Trident submarines and modernizing its armed forces. It will enhance “resilience” at home through new counterterrorism capabilities, rebuilding the economy, preparing for another pandemic and fighting climate change. It will seek to become a “Science and Technology Superpower.” It will expand (recently reduced) international aid, promote a rules-based world order and use Magnitsky-style sanctions to hold human rights abusers to account.
While it’s hard to fault any of those goals, achieving them will be much trickier than setting them. Funding a grand strategy is where big planning often comes apart. The 114-page document reads like one of those glorious to-do lists that provide a flush of satisfaction when written down until you realize you actually have to deliver each item (and fund them).
Security experts giving evidence to U.K. lawmakers ahead of the review warned there was often a gap between the ambitions of a wide-ranging policy review and the resources allocated to meet them.
Given the pandemic’s vast cost and Johnson’s many promises to improve the lives of working-class communities, there will be a fight for cash. To take one example, the document describes action against climate change and biodiversity loss as Britain’s highest priority, but there has been no serious conversation about how to meet annual costs estimated at 50 billion pounds ($69.5 billion) to meet the U.K.’s net zero target.
There’s also a glaring omission in the grand vision: Europe. Almost nowhere is the EU mentioned, except with regard to security cooperation. Anyone looking at the U.K.’s goals objectively — or even a map — might wonder how the U.K. can omit an economic superpower and neighbor whose security and prosperity are so closely entwined with its own.
One answer to the Europe question is that it’s too early for realism. Relations are poor, strained by a dispute over vaccine supply, the policing of goods into Northern Ireland — over which the EU has just launched legal action — and areas of the broader trading relationship that were left only loosely resolved after Brexit. Trade flows dwindled in January and it’s yet to be seen whether that was temporary.
The other answer is political: Johnson’s goal is to rebuild Britain in a way that vindicates the decision to separate from Europe. Even after Brexit, a little punch-up with Europe has its political uses. I suspect a gradual realignment will happen over time, but neither side is in a hurry. In the meantime, Britain has set its sights elsewhere.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.