Saving British internationalism from Brexit

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This article is part of our Britain in Europe series.


Even if the UK is a diminished power after Brexit international partners will still need its cooperation in the UN and NATO.

British diplomats will need the stiffest of upper lips in the coming weeks and months. Their political masters are in absolute disarray in the wake of last week’s vote for a Brexit. At least a summer of uncertainty beckons as officials in London and Brussels try to hash out exactly how to negotiate their divorce.  In the meantime, Britain will also face some distinctly unpleasant questions about its future role in the international system, not just in Europe.

In the absence of real political leadership, it falls to British officials at NATO, at the United Nations, and in major capitals to reassure their foreign counterparts that the UK will continue to be a constructive player in diplomacy during the Brexit negotiations and beyond. For all their irritation with London, other European diplomats also have an interest in propping up the UK as an international player.

British diplomats will need the stiffest of upper lips in the coming weeks and months. Their political masters are in absolute disarray in the wake of last week’s vote for a Brexit.

Until Thursday, Britain was a more or less firm bulwark of the international system.  For all his faults, David Cameron deserves a little credit for defending the UK’s global role. During his first term, Parliament put Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid into law, and fulfilled it in practice. Having won a majority in last year’s election, the Tories promised to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence, to maintain UK’s defence capabilities, including for expeditionary missions. Britain also remains a key player in humanitarian assistance, plowing extra money into crises like Syria, and British officials have led the UN’s Department for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs since 2007.

Now, departure from the EU is liable to cause economic ructions that put both its aid and defense spending commitments in doubt. The Leave camp’s leaders talked up their love of Britain’s armed forces during the campaign (and talked nonsense about the threat of an “EU Army”) but if they face a serious Brexit-induced recession once in power, they will surely prioritise the NHS or other domestic costs over defence. 

Overseas humanitarian and development spending is in an even more perilous position. Many of the politicians, newspapers and voters who backed Brexit think spending money on poor foreigners is a waste.  Straight after the referendum, The Sun demanded that the government should shift money away from foreign aid and instead “put billions into equipping OUR communities with the infrastructure to cope with a population soaring out of control.” Nearly a quarter of a million people have signed an online petition calling for  the legislation enshrining the 0.7 percent of GNI aid target to be repealed. It is easy to imagine a future pro-Brexit government slashing the development budget as a populist gesture.

If Britain steps back from its defence pledges and lets its military shrink, it will lose traction in NATO, and if it gives up leading on international development, it will sacrifice a good deal of its clout at the UN – even if its permanent seat on the Security Council is not at risk, given the difficulties to reach any agreement on UN Charter reform.

If Britain steps back from its defence pledges and lets its military shrink, it will lose traction in NATO, and if it gives up leading on international development, it will sacrifice a good deal of its clout at the UN

Leaving the EU also means less diplomatic clout for Britain: it will be harder for the UK to use the collective leverage the EU offers in dealing with foreign trouble-spots.  To take only one example, Mr. Cameron has commendably treated stabilisng Somalia as a major UK priority, and the UK has led on this in the Security Council.  But Britain has been able to play this role because the EU as a whole has offered massive financial support to an African-led peace operation, while three different EU security missions work in parallel support the Somali defence forces and to fight piracy off the coasts of Somalia. It will be hard for the UK to keep driving policy on Somalia at the UN if it is no longer able to base its strategy on European funding.

It will be just as hard for the UK to defend and promote its interests when the EU adopts sanctions, defines priorities for development and humanitarian assistance, negotiates free trade agreements or goes to international fora to curb arms sales or greenhouse gas emissions. The UK was a major player in setting ambitious goals for the EU in the run-up to last year’s Paris climate conference, for example. In future it my only be able to exhort its neighbours to take the environment seriously.

So Britain may be on a path to being a smaller, weaker and more miserly member of the family of nations. Yet, while the portents for post-Brexit Britain may be bleak, these remain hypothetical outcomes. Liberal advocates of the Leave campaign claimed that they wanted to escape the EU so Britain could be a free actor in a changing world. If the country’s future leaders genuinely want a globally engaged Britain rather than an isolationist-chauvinist one, they will need to keep contributing to international stability through the UN, NATO and other channels, and find the money to do so.

Whether or not the UK will manage this may take a few rounds of elections and foreign and domestic crises to sort out.  But in the meantime, British officials have to persuade other powers that the UK’s retreat from the international stage is not guaranteed – and that, in many areas, its policies will continue unchanged for now.

If the country’s future leaders genuinely want a globally engaged Britain rather than an isolationist-chauvinist one, they will need to keep contributing to international stability through the UN, NATO and other channels, and find the money to do so.

It is fairly clear how to communicate continuity on European security priorities, such as defense of the Baltic States from a potential Russian attack. Next month’s NATO summit in Warsaw offers a clear opportunity for David Cameron - who still plans to attend - to underline London’s ongoing commitment to the Alliance.  The UK has already promised 1,000 troops to act as a tripwire force in Eastern Europe alongside US and German contingents. While the military value of this offer is not entirely certain, it is now a political imperative for Cameron to reconfirm it. It would be helpful if the likely contenders for the Conservative leadership made statements to the same effect before Warsaw. It is perhaps futile to hope that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn would do so, given his distaste for NATO-related matters.

There is no comparable opportunity for Britain to emphasise its commitment to the UN in the next few weeks.  The next two notable political events in the UN calendar are a summit involving defence ministers in London in September on boosting blue helmet peace operations, and the annual UN General Assembly circus in New York shortly afterwards. Given Mr. Cameron’s stated intention to hand over to his successor before the Conservative party conference on 2 October – and party bosses have indicated the contest should conclude as early as 2 September – these two events could coincide fairly precisely with the selection of a new prime minister.

The London summit on peacekeeping will not be an event of world historical import: it will involve defence ministers reeling off statistics about dispatching engineers to African countries of which they know little. But Mr. Cameron agreed to host it as a favour to President Obama, who arranged something similar in New York last year. If his successor is confirmed by the time of the meeting, however, it will be a good platform for him or her to talk about Britain’s collective security obligations.

The high-level session of the General Assembly, which kicks off on 20 September, might provide an even more prominent opportunity for the next prime minister to reassure fellow leaders about the UK’s global future.   In diplomatic terms, it would be optimal if a new leader could use an address to the UN to make a rousing case for Britain’s continued relevance, even though the new prime minister may want to keep some of their best lines for their party conference just under a fortnight later.

The General Assembly will, however, also involve a side-summit hosted by President Obama on dealing with migration and refugees. All participating countries are expected to either promise to take in more refugees – not exactly the sort of thing the average Brexit voter wants to hear – or offer alternative forms of assistance. A lot of leaders will attend. If the British skip this event, it will be a strong signal that the UK is turning into Little England. The Cabinet Office and Foreign Office should knock heads together in Whitehall to ensure that, whoever represents the UK at the UN in September, they have a big package of assistance for refugees to promote – this would be an exceptionally useful way to show that the UK is not in total retreat.

But if British diplomats want to project an image of continuity and stability, they will need some help from their international friends, and European allies in particular. 

In both the North Atlantic Council and Security Council, it is essential that France in particular signals that it will continue to collaborate closely with the UK on security issues. In recent years, Paris and London have bickered over some multilateral matters – such as France’s insistence on launching UN peace operations in former colonies such as the Central African Republic – but they have generally achieved far more on a diplomatic front when, as in Libya in 2011, the have worked closely together.

Even if the UK is a diminished power after Brexit, Paris will still need its backing at the UN in particular to help manage complex Security Council diplomacy with China, Russia and the United States.

Even if the UK is a diminished power after Brexit, Paris will still need its backing at the UN in particular to help manage complex Security Council diplomacy with China, Russia and the United States. Germany, which has taken an increased interest in UN affairs in recent years but still has much less clout in the organisation than Britain or France, also has good reasons to keep the UK on side as a close ally in New York. 

A year ago, ECFR suggested that the British, French and Germans should increasingly address tough issues at the UN in the “E3” format based on that which worked well in the Iran talks. It could now make sense for the “E2+1” permanent representatives to the UN in New York and Geneva, possibly joined by the heads of the EU delegations in both cities, to set up informal working groups to coordinate policy initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of Brexit on their common priorities. 

Such diplomatic mechanisms can only mitigate the political damage Brexit has done, and will continue to do, to Britain’s international reputation. If the political turmoil of the coming months culminates in a significant gain in power for UKIP and the most obstreperous parts of the Conservative party, trying to protect the UK’s status as a sensible and committed internationalist power is doomed to fail. Under these circumstances, British diplomats would be well advised not merely to give up trying to represent the national interest in Brussels or New York, but to use their excellent international contacts to find private sector work in places far away from London.

But in a scenario in which Britain’s future leaders recognise that maintaining the country’s internationalist traditions is in its national interest – and additionally figure out that this actually means deepening practical cooperation with European allies in NATO, at the UN and beyond – there are still diplomatic mechanisms available to manage the fallout of Brexit in the international arena, or at least make the UK look a little less a power that has embraced its decline once and for all.

Read more on: European Power,European Strategy,Transatlantic relationship,Politics & Cohesion,Britain in Europe

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