The UK’s New Diplomatic Agenda

When the United Kingdom’s relatively new Foreign Secretary, the former soldier and salesman James Cleverly, spoke about his foreign policy vision late last year, he chose a particularly revealing Shakespeare quote to describe the state of foreign affairs prior to the rules-based system. Quoting the bard’s Trolius and Cressida, Cleverly noted the inevitable pattern of power in a lawless world: “Power into will, will into appetite; and appetite, a universal wolf, so doubly seconded with will and power, must make perforce a universal prey and last eat up himself.”

Cleverly has given away more than intended about Britain’s recent diplomatic shortcomings. The Shakespeare passage he chose is believed to be a variation of a Ullyses line from the Illiad: “We must not all be kings. The rule is most irregular where many rule. One lord, one king propose to thee; and he to whom wise Saturn’s son hath given both law and empery to rule the public, is that king.”

Cleverly’s reference is unknowingly apt: since Brexit, UK foreign policy has been stuck between that of a “king” (or at least kingmaker) and making the rule “irregular.” Despite the government professing an intention to “shape the international order of the future by working with others,” UK foreign policy has often left the island nation isolated, overriding parts of the rules-based international order when and where it benefits Britain.

This divide owes much to the two competing visions for Brexit: the first is an economically protectionist, socially communitarian (as opposed to cosmopolitan) departure from the EU, championed by ‘national conservatives’: an ideological branch of conservativism focussed on conserving the nation states’ boundaries. This proposal focusses on using legislative autonomy to reduce the free movement of economic and illegal migrants, removing Britain from a free-trading agreement that sometimes failed to protect UK-based manufacturing jobs and cutting the amount of public money contributed to supranational budgets.

The other strain of Brexiteer thought, contrastingly, foresees Britain further embracing neo-liberalism. Advocates had resisted the standardising nature of EU dictats, hoping that newfound legislative freedom (in both trading rules and labour laws) would allow Britain to compete in international free markets.

Both of these approaches have been, and continue to be, prevalent in the broadly Eurosceptic Conservative Party: the party of government both immediately before, during and after the Brexit referendum.

Post-Brexit Prime Ministers have been torn on how to deal with the ideological split within their party. The result has created a degree of diplomatic inertia.

Boris Johnson — a pro-leave Brexit campaigner and the Prime Minister under whom Britain left the EU — attempted to combine both strains of foreign policy thought: adopting the neo-liberal moniker ‘Global Britain’, pushing for rapidly negotiated bilateral trade agreements (to the chagrin of protectionist British farmers) and encouraging the UK to exert influence to shape democratic norms in the Indo-Pacific.

Johnson simultaneously enacted communitarian domestic policies in line with the national conservatives’ agenda, signing agreements to deport illegal migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda, threatening to discard the Northern Ireland Protocol he agreed with the EU and, occasionally, insinuating he might remove Britain from the ECHR (a policy that, admittedly, is not new amongst Conservative Party leaders).

Johnson’s ‘cakeist’ foreign policy promised something for everyone, whilst delivering little overall.

Liz Truss, Johnson’s short-lived successor, had no qualms about leaving partisan interests unbalanced. She committed to the neo-liberal vision for Brexit; clarifying her diplomatic priorities early on in her time at the Foreign Office, urging Britain to be “unashamedly commercial” when interacting with other nations.

Despite her conspicuous neoliberalism, Truss’ leadership campaign contradicted her agenda, undermining her foreign policy vision. Finding herself trailing Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak – two candidates from the ideological middle of the Conservative Party – Truss sought to unite the party’s ‘right’, hoovering up support from right-leaning factions as their candidates dropped out of the contest. This necessitated an alliance between Truss’ neoliberal grouping and the communitarian wing of the Conservative Party. The ploy allowed Truss to compete with Sunak, but gave her a shaky policy platform on which to govern.

Considering Truss’ aversion to compromise, clashes were practically inevitable. It took only seven weeks for Suella Braverman, Truss’ uncompromisingly communitarian Home Secretary, to feud with her Prime Minister over work visa policy. Ideological clashes within cabinet didn’t collapse the Truss administration; had they been allowed to fester, they could have severely stunted Truss’ foreign policy agenda.

These political realities have stopped the government forming a coherent post-Brexit foreign policy. Pulled in different directions by the independent groups to whom they owe their mandate, post-Brexit Prime Ministers have employed the rhetoric of international ‘kings’ whilst isolating themselves with ‘irregular’ policies.

Despite these ideological inconsistencies, Britain has made progress in some specific policy areas: the UK have consistently led the international community’s response to Ukraine’s invasion: it’s often the first nation to provide military assistance to Ukraine, lobbied G7 members to exclude Russia from the Swift international banking system and established a scheme to house nearly 200,000 Ukrainian refugees.

The UK has also committed to upholding international law in Ukraine: forming a core group of likeminded partners to assess the feasibility of developing a ‘hybrid’ tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression; joining the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group with the US and EU and donating the services of Sir Howard Morrison KC – a former International Criminal Court judge – to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General to train judges in conducting war crime trials.

Likewise, Britain’s involvement in AUKUS indicates a willingness to engage on long-range security. Winning the contract to design and build AUKUS’ nuclear-powered submarines adds manufacturing clout for a country with an inconsistent defence industrial base.

These developments have helped to increase the UK’s standing amongst its democratic allies. In some cases, they have even set international standards. But none of it amounts to a fundamental reshaping of the international order.

Despite progress in security and upholding international law, UK diplomacy has largely been mired in post-Brexit inertia. This was somewhat inevitable considering the bridges burned when negotiating Britain’s departure from the EU and the communitarian demands of the Conservative government’s mandate. Regardless, it doesn’t fit with the government’s stated objective to “shape the international order of the future by working with others.”

Instead of increased engagement with the international community, the potential to exit the ECHR has been politicised. Borne out of their concern with continually increasing asylum claimants and illegal small boat arrivals, leaving the ECHR has become a tempting wedge issue for the Conservative Party’s ‘national conservative’ cliques. It’s a move that would make Britain the only European nation – outside of Russia and Belarus – to not subscribe to the Council of Europe convention. Moreover, the lack of a supranational alternative – beyond a domestic Bill of Rights – seems incompatible with Britain’s international order shaping goals.

Likewise, with his grip on the Conservative Parliamentary Party loosening, Boris Johnson attempted to placate his hardline Eurosceptic factions by reneging on the Northern Ireland Protocol his government had negotiated with the EU. In October 2019, the then Prime Minister recommended his government’s deal to the House of Commons, claiming “I believe that this is a good arrangement, reconciling the special circumstances in Northern Ireland with the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences.” In June 2022, Johnson’s administration tabled legislation disapplying parts of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and giving ministers the power to alter the Northern Ireland Protocol. Prompted by rioting in Belfast and the Stormont impasse (both caused – at least in part – by dissatisfaction with the protocol) Britain’s relationship with the international rules based system had, again, been made “irregular.”

We have, however, seen a diplomatic shift under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The Conservative Parliamentary Party’s yearning for stable leadership – resulting from a sharp dip in public opinion polling post-Truss – and their desire to deliver a finalised Brexit deal has gifted Sunak the leeway to compromise for the sake of tangible delivery. The new Prime Minister has a parliamentary mandate to pursue a – broadly – unideological foreign policy.

Having accepted that his predecessors made “some mistakes”, Sunak is using this mandate to “fix them.” 

The Windsor Framework, renegotiated to replace Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol, seems to have averted a potential trade war with the EU. Where the Johnson administration threatened to “make the rule irregular,” neglecting the deal he had negotiated, Sunak has sought diplomatic engagement.

Despite the inbuilt Stormont Brake, significant royalist rhetoric and the Northern Ireland assembly in deadlock, Sunak was unable to convince the DUP to back his deal. The Labour Party’s support negated this dissent, whilst also stymying parliamentary rebellions from the Conservatives’ hard-line Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) and the remaining Johnson loyalists. This saga isn’t quite over: The DUP still refuse to return to Stormont and the ERG’s agenda remains.

Regardless, by accepting that Northern Ireland would need to cooperate with just 3% of EU law, Sunak has delivered a deal that keeps the UK in control domestically and engaged internationally.

The Windsor Framework seems to have signalled to the international community that Britain has re-opened for business. It’s possibly no coincidence that the framework was agreed just in time for the final stage of Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) membership negotiations. The talks culminated in the UK’s accession; achieving Global Britain’s post Brexit trade panacea.

In order to secure this multilateral deal, Badenoch has agreed to settle issues around Canada’s access to Britain’s sheep and beef markets on a bilateral basis; a last-minute quid pro-quo agreed with the strategically sceptical Canadians. Negotiations with Canada might necessitate political pain from beef and lamb farmers. The government’s majority and Badenoch political capital are high enough to pass a compromising deal with the Canadians, regardless of parochial influences acting on rural representatives.

Again, compromise and cooperation have allowed the government to make practical improvements to their international standing.

Combined with forays into democratizing digital trade regulation with the G7, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Ukraine, post-Brexit Britain finally has some trading weight to throw around.

It’s too early to tell whether we’re seeing a permanent shift in UK diplomacy. There’s still time for the media-fuelled modishness and intrigue of day to day politics to push the Sunak administration in a different direction.

For the moment, at least, we’re seeing a diplomatic Prime Minister working to secure the foundations of an auspicious post-Brexit foreign policy. It’s a government willing to engage and compromise with international neighbours and a government that no longer threatens to “make the rule irregular.” In order to shape the international order of the future, the UK Government is now embracing cooperation with the global community.

[Photo by Number 10, via Wikimedia Commons]

Daniel Gorringe is a Parliamentary staffer. Prior to working in Parliament, he worked in a junior capacity at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in the Asia Studies Department, where he helped research and write numerous projects. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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