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Foreign Policy Analysis
Brexit: what future for British foreign policy? | Professor Richard G. Whitman

Brexit: what future for British foreign policy? | Professor Richard G. Whitman


I want to talk about Britain’s place in
the world and the future of Britain’s foreign policy. In June of 2016 the
British public voted to leave the European Union, and it’s a moment that
raises all sorts of questions about Britain’s place in the world because for
over 40 years membership of the European Union has been a core aspect of
Britain’s foreign security and defence policy. And alongside that, with the
election of President Trump in the US, you have question marks around the UK’s
relationship with a key ally. So for the UK, it’s in a situation in which
it’s uncertain as to what the key organising ideas for its foreign policy
should be, and therefore there are question marks about what Britain’s
future foreign policy should look like. Now, most discussions about Britain’s
foreign policy, and if you go and look at textbooks on Britain’s place in the
world they always start by looking at Winston Churchill’s ideas, which are
articulated just after the end of the Second World War.
Britain, of course, had been on the victorious side of the Second World War
but had come out of the Second World War as a sort of exhausted power, one which was seeing itself retreat from Empire and seeing itself in a context in which you
had two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill
was then an opposition politician and gave a speech in 1948 in Llandudno where he set
out the idea that Britain really had to balance three things. It had to balance
on the one hand the fact that it had a relationship with what was then its
empire and has become the Commonwealth. Secondly, it had to balance a
relationship with the English-speaking world and by that he meant the United
States, but also what were then called white dominions: places like Canada and
Australia, for example. And it also had to balance those two things with its
relationship with the European continent and Churchill talked in terms of a
united Europe which was a Europe that was united for others not for the UK but
the UK had a relationship with and was invested
in. What we’ve seen subsequently, and since Britain joined the European Union,
European Community as it was in the early 1970s, is that Britain has thought
about its foreign security and defence policy in terms of a number of things.
One is that it’s thought about its relationship with the United States as being some
kind of privileged partnership, special relationship, the UK has wanted to be its
primary partner for whatever the US decides to do in terms of its foreign
security and defence policy. We sometimes hear this described as the special
relationship. It’s also had to think about what it can actually do in terms
of its capacity for influence. You know the UK is what we would call a middle
power. It doesn’t have the capacity to provide order within the international
system, it’s not a superpower. It has significant capabilities in terms of
diplomacy, its armed forces and so on but at the same time it also is constrained
by what it can do globally and what it can’t do which is generally not make the
system or make international relations to its own advantage.
What the UK has tended to do or what the UK decided to do from the early 1970s
onwards to join the European community as was in 1973, European Union as is now, as a way really of sort of amplifying Britain’s foreign policy, providing a
vehicle that allowed the UK to project its foreign policy interest through a
bigger organisation of more countries and which has become, or moved on to, 28 countries since the UK joined. That route or that approach to Britain’s
place in the world is now closing as a consequence of the decision to leave the
European Union. So where does the UK go next?
Well the UK faces what I call a two-union problem. On the one hand it’s going to be
preoccupied with negotiating its relationship with the European Union. But
also, on the other hand, and as a consequence of the vote to leave the
European Union, the UK is also going to have to work at its relationship with
its own Union, the Union of the United Kingdom. Because of course there has been
the move to seek another independence referendum from Scotland and that raises
questions about what the UK looks and feels like and whether the individual parts
of what’s currently the UK will relate to the outside world in a different way
in the future if Scotland was to get independence. So even as the UK decides
to leave the European Union it can’t escape the European Union in terms of
either a negotiating preoccupation or on the other end a preoccupation for
its domestic politics and which has international consequences. There have
been moments in Britain’s history where Britain has thought about breaking free
from Europe and if you look at this wonderful cartoon from James Gillray, who is a political cartoonist, this was drawn in the early 19th century. It
represents what he saw, what Gillray saw, was a deal being done between Napoleon
on the one hand, who is being given the continent of Europe as his sphere of
influence and William Pitt, the then Prime Minister, carving off the rest of the
world for UK influence. The UK looking outside Europe, looking to the high seas,
looking for other places where it would seek to have influence. Just after this
cartoon was drawn and published, the UK found itself sending troops to Portugal
and to Spain to engage in a military conflict with Napoleon and it
illustrates very well that even at those moments in which the UK may feel its
most confident in terms its ability to sort of break free from
the continent, it gets drawn back in. And so the essential or the core aspect of
Britain’s foreign policy has always been its relationship with Europe and
even with leaving the European Union it will still be invested heavily in the
political economic and security arrangements that exist on the continent.
Thank you very much.

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