The United Kingdom, as a divorcee of the European Union, faces a multitude of challenges to confront – both domestically and internationally. The last half-decade has, all thing considered, been a show of reputational fatigue. Plagued by internal insecurity about its identity and place in the international system, the UK must now confront a post-pandemic future without the explicit economic and security benefits assured by EU membership.
Yet, such a dramatic recalibration of foreign policy, however polemical or contentious, demands a fundamental shift in the epistemic suppositions of British priorities abroad.
What is required is a comprehensive re-evaluation of global relations and their strategic merits because, in leaving the EU, the onus is on the UK to refashion an international web of relationships that provides opportunities for growth, consensus and reciprocal diplomacy.
Such commitments are of exceptional importance for reversing the long-term denigration of international democratic principles, aggravated partially by the relative recklessness of the international community for which Britain has played its part in periodically undermining.
Indeed, as emphasised by the Foreign Policy Centre, the fulfilment of a ‘global vision’ is entirely conditional on the UK’s ability to reaffirm an ethos of ‘shared focus of international rules’. Any future success – or failure – will undoubtedly be drawn across these lines.
However, this ambition should not endorse a languid reiteration of international ideals. In its capacity as a middle power, the UK can forge alliances that simultaneously benefit its respective interests and those of the wider international community.
Primarily, an indelible objective for any post-pandemic vision should necessarily seek to maintain bilateral ties with EU member states and avoid the type of diplomatic headaches seen in recent Anglo-French relations. Such an approach will aid in matters of national security and, crucially, will replenish the workability of multilateral forums in streamlining cooperative issues of global interest.
Yet, pursuing a strategy of ‘flexible coalition’ forming, as was indicated in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, requires a certain level of humility – or, at the very least, respectability – that this government seems utterly incapable of replicating on the international stage.
The facile populistic sloganeering of British foreign policy corresponds to an inadvertent projection of intrinsic self-loathing – archaic self-aggrandisement and churlishness scarcely mask the strategic emasculation of the UK as a principal world player.
The controversial cut on foreign aid, too, was symptomatic of a country caught between two radically distinct identities – ‘Global Britain’ or ‘Shrinking England’? This paradox is one which needs to be abridged if any sustainable strategic al0liances are to be built.
Whilst ‘Global Britain’ may be a rhetorical facade as a cover for debilitated global influence, the UK – if serious about ditching populistic posturing – can still work to build international ties in areas previously constrained by its membership of the EU. Latin America, for example, offers Britain a compelling and competitive opportunity to balance internationalist concerns with its own strategic interests.
Gearing greater diplomatic and political attention to Central and Southern America offers a two-pronged dynamic: cashing-in on its favourable reputation in Mexico and Brazil could build influence with the region’s two leading nations, whilst greater economic ties could grant the UK heightened ‘soft power’ in South American circles.
This is hardly a call to neglect forging relations in other important parts of the world – historical cleavages, for one, will create complications that may prevent efficacious ties from being comprehensively established. Yet, potential influence in the region has been ridiculously overlooked – in 2017, Ireland exported £26.6 billion worth of goods to South America, dwarfing the UK’s £5.5 billion.
As the British Council notes, ‘laying better economic foundations’ can, however minutely, counter the rapid accumulation of Chinese soft power and grant Britain more of a basis through which to uphold its commitment to the western world architecture.
The repercussions of the pandemic are still yet to have been fully understood, but it is beyond doubt that Latin American countries have been some of the worst hit in the world. This is a good chance for Britain, be it through expanded economic trading ties or judicious strategic alliances, to become a reliable partner to nations of the region.
Unlike its European allies, the UK now has a more flexible path through which to engage with Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance, two of Latin America’s biggest trading blocs. Unrestricted by market protectionism and free from the condition of unanimous consent, Britain can capitalise on the desire for Brazil’s agricultural market to export more to Europe, whilst offering an embrace of extended liberalisation to Pacific Alliance-affiliated states, principally those of Mexico and Argentina.
Ethical considerations will still need to be centripetal to any UK case, though. Brazil’s ecological destruction would need to be counteracted by a build-up of British influence, with robust market standards an important means through which to nudge greater environmental consideration.
Yet, in learning from its disappointing Canning Review, the UK must learn to be more reciprocal and less transactional – it is more distant from its European allies and that needs to be acknowledged. If it does, there is untapped potential for Britain: 78% of the Americas population live in urbanised cities, with the chance for greater trade and investment more fruitful than previously imagined.
What is needed, then, is a more pragmatic understanding of geopolitical opportunities. Is the current mood of British politics capable of realizing such a dynamic shift? Sensitivity of its own cultural and political cleavages, as well as those of future partner, is a challenge the UK has yet to overcome. If it does, an ambitious post-Brexit path could still be achievable.