UK must strengthen relationships with allies after damage to reputation abroad, says think tank

Britain has embarked on its post-Brexit journey facing daunting economic, political and security challenges and its international reputation tarnished by the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, according to a leading think tank.

Fallouts from the devastating pandemic, including the likely rise in protectionism and the fading prospect of a “golden era” of lucrative trade with China, means that huge global commercial gains – a supposed windfall from leaving the EU – are unlikely to be achieved.

At the same time, says the Chatham House report, there will be a “diminished special relationship” with the US, with Joe Biden’s administration expected to view the EU, rather than the UK, as its main partner in a host of strategic issues, as it also seeks to repair the damage done to European relations by Donald Trump.

“What a time for Britain to strike out on its own… it could hardly have chosen a more difficult moment to reinvent itself as a global actor. It’s most important bilateral and institutional relationships are in flux”, says the report.

“On paper, the UK may have more sovereign power than before, including over its immigration, environmental, digital and trade policies. In practice, its continued interdependence with European and global markets will severely limit its sovereign options. The country will no more be able to protect itself from global challenges, whether pandemics, terrorism or climate change, than it could as a member of the EU.

“The UK will no longer be directly subject to EU decisions and laws. But it will be just as dependent on its European neighbours for its economic health and security in 2026 as it was in 2016.”

The effect of Covid-19 on national finances will take many years to recover and will impact on the UK’s options on world politics while, at the same time, its “competence is being called into question as a result of the government’s handling” of the pandemic.

The study, Global Britain, global broker: A blueprint for the UK’s future international role,  written by Robin Niblett , the director and chief executive of Chatham House, warns that there will be important shifts in Washington’s approach to London.

“Biden and his administration will know that the UK has lost one of its most important assets as an ally, which was to bring its influential voice to bear in EU decision-making” it says. “And EU decisions will be of ever greater importance to the US – whether on sanctions towards Iran and Russia, or on the regulation and taxation of US technology giants. Future US administrations will therefore target a greater share of their diplomatic effort towards the EU and key EU bilateral relationships, principally with Paris and Berlin.”

But the report also points out that the UK will continue to have important advantages in the new landscape. In a decade’s time it “will still be the sixth- or seventh-largest economy in the world… at the heart of global finance, and among the best-resourced behind the US, China and India in terms of combined defence, intelligence, diplomatic and development capabilities”.

The UK will remain a member of the UN Security Council, with the power of veto, one of the world’s few nuclear powers, a leading member of Nato, and keep benefiting from extensive “soft-power” reach through diplomacy and international aid.

“Even outside the EU it will be better networked institutionally than almost any other country… and the soft power inherent in its language, universities, media and civil society can enhance the influence of British ideas”, the report says.

But it stresses that progress can only be achieved through understanding the new reality and “only if its leaders and people set aside the idea of Britain as the plucky player that can pick and choose its own alternative future… Rather than try to reincarnate itself as a miniature great power, the UK needs to marshal its resources to be the broker of solutions to global challenges. It should prioritise areas where it brings the credibility as well as the resources to do so.”

This will, however, require the British government to show “willingness and ability to be a team player and replace its quest for individual glory”.  The announced increase in defence spending is an important recognition of the value of “hard power”. But the proposed cut in development assistance to 0.5 per cent of gross national income means a dilution of “soft power”, and aspirations of a global role would need significantly more spending on diplomatic resources, says the study.

Britain’s G7 presidency and co-chairmanship of COP26, the climate summit, this year will be the first tests for “Global Britain”. These can be the launchpad for focus on six key objectives – protecting liberal democracy; promoting international peace and security; tackling climate change; enabling greater global health resilience; championing global tax transparency and equitable economic growth and defending cyberspace.

Despite Brexit, shared geography and policy mean the EU and its member states will be the most closely aligned with Britain across all these objectives. The US will also continue to be a vital partner despite adjustments in the relationship and there should be a drive to forge further links with democracies in the Asia-Pacific such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, especially with the pressure they face from China seeking hegemony.

“If the UK is to be more secure, prosperous and influential in the future than it was as an EU member, it needs, above all, to recommit to its European relationships, as much as to its transatlantic alliance. It will also need to deepen its circle of relations with like-minded friends in the Asia-Pacific”, the report concludes.

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