In Caspar David Friedrich’s German Romantic masterpiece, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, a man cuts a solitary figure at the top of the mountain. He boldly looks out to an unknown, slightly scary future. His hair is ruffled by the cold wind. We feel his exhilaration: his buccaneering, adventurous spirit. I’ve thought a lot about this painting when looking at Johnson these days, wondering, ‘Does he imagine himself as this bold adventurer? A modern Columbus? Leading a ‘Global Britain’ to unexplored treasures?’
I think he does like to think of himself like this. The problem is that it’s simply not true. Britain these days cuts a solitary, slightly mad, deluded figure on the world stage. The story that we tell ourselves is that now we’re free from the Byzantine bureaucracy of the European Union following the 2016 vote to leave, we’ll be able to chart our own course, remain open and inclusive, and make trade deals with countries which we previously couldn’t. In short, following Johnson into the fog will bring incredible economic and political wins.
The crisis in Afghanistan has brought this delusion to its bitter end. In an incredibly short amount of time, the US has withdrawn all its forces and the country has fallen to the Taliban. But the crisis has shown how little influence Britain has on the world stage.
Take this example: after the UK government was blindsided by the speed of the Taliban takeover, it took President Biden 36 hours to return Johnson’s call. Then, pleads to extend the deadline beyond the 31st of August were quickly rebuffed by the Biden administration.
What this rather humiliating event showed was that the UK has no influence anymore over US strategy. It’s even worse that Johnson (in a speech on the government’s foreign policy review in March) stated: ‘In all our endeavours, the United States will be our greatest ally’.
If we combine this deterioration of Anglo-American relations with our waning influence in the EU, it’s a bleak picture. Where once Britain could confidently state its influence on the world stage, it’s becoming clearer that we’re diminishing in importance. Even a United Nations Association report stated that ‘there is still no clarity on what ‘Global Britain’ might mean, even from a UK perspective’.
And the government keeps making more isolationist decisions: take the £4bn cut to the UK’s foreign aid budget, which has been reduced from 0.7% of the GDP to 0.5%. The British army is due to shrink to its smallest size since 1714. Johnson’s current vision of ‘Global Britain’ is completely bankrupt.
And yet, if the vision were updated, it could be compelling. The Afghan refugee crisis is a perfect opportunity to remake the vision of ‘Global Britain’. At the moment, the UK government has committed to welcoming 20,000 people over the next five years. In comparison, Germany had 147,994 Afghan refugees in 2020, with 33,100 asylum seekers.
If the UK government was to do a sincere reform of its asylum system and commit to taking a lot more refugees – not measuring by numbers but by the need of those seeking asylum – it could find itself at the centre of the world stage by the virtue of its ‘soft power’.
Currently, our government actively punishes those seeking asylum by often detaining refugees. For instance, take the case where four hundred men were housed in 28-bed dormitories with two toilets and two showers in the middle of the pandemic. This doesn’t stir the heart of Patel, whose wilder suggestions include building a wave machine in the English Channel to ‘deter’ asylum seekers. Her Home Office reign has been malignant.
Still, if the government made an asylum-seeking system based on needs not numbers; increased the foreign aid budget; repaired the damage to the Anglo-American relationship; started to rebuild relations with the EU, then there’s a chance that Britain could be ‘world-beating’. As a country, we could lead by example: a buttress of democracy, human rights and peacekeeping.
The UK is still one of NATO’s leading military powers, the world’s sixth largest economy and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In a very real sense, this country still has the ability and the means to become a positive influence in the world. All it needs is the will.