One can already hear the protests from ministers and senior officials disputing the fact that Britain’s influence on the major foreign policy issues of the day has been diminished by the 23 June vote to leave the EU. The mantra runs something like this – fifth largest economy in the world, permanent member of the UN Security Council, member of the G20 and the G8, leading member of NATO, what rubbish to suggest that our role in shaping foreign policy has in any way been adversely affected.
And that is about where the story ends, as if such international status symbols were like a row of silver cups on a shelf which one shows to visitors to demonstrate how important one is (or once was). But foreign policy influence is not just about the clubs to which one belongs – although that does matter – but also about a country’s ability to shape the decisions which are taken collectively within those clubs. For the last 40 years Britain’s influence in them has been enhanced and multiplied by the fact that it was at the same time a key player in the EU and had a capacity to make its voice heard in Washington. Both parts of that equation have been undermined, perhaps destroyed, by the decision to leave the EU. Take as an example Britain’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. It is not axiomatic that that position bestows great influence on the holder of it. Chiang Kai Shek’s China was a permanent member for more than two decades and was not notably influential. Britain could easily become a “me too” member of all these clubs, waiting for deals to be struck between more powerful members of them and then falling in behind.
What can be done then to avoid falling into a situation where that mantra is trotted out to convince ourselves that we still matter but no one else actually believes it or treats us as a significant player? Well, one remedy to be avoided is deliberately to stake out positions which are different from those of our principal Western allies, the US and the EU. That was General de Gaulle’s remedy and over time it brought nothing but friction and marginalisation. Cosying up to the two major authoritarian powers, China and Russia, will bring few, if any, dividends and would be a betrayal of our values and of our interest in promoting a rules-based international community. The Commonwealth,valuable though its links are, is not a viable entity in terms of power politics and will not become one just because we want it to. So we end up more or less where we began, attempting to reconstruct an intimate foreign policy relationship with our erstwhile EU partners and to operate effectively in Washington, albeit from less promising platforms than we had before.
It could be that that can be made to work. It would be easier if the new Foreign Secretary had not, during the referendum campaign, damaged his chances of being credited with integrity and professionalism. But in the end the big foreign policy decisions are likely to be taken by the Prime Minister who does have those two essential qualities. It will however be an uphill battle – and, do not forget, an unnecessary one.
Edited by Hugo Dixon