British Foreign Policy: Maximising Influence in an Uncertain World

By Dr Sarah Tzinieris, Research Fellow, King’s College London

With the UK’s withdrawal from the EU reaching a critical point, it is useful to revisit traditional  strategies of British foreign policy. The Brexit negotiations are the toughest in a generation, with major ramifications for the economy, politics and public life. Notwithstanding the government’s assurances that its deal is the best the UK can achieve, the acrimony in British politics is raising the prospect of a constitutional crisis. Whilst British governments have dealt with turmoil in the past, the scenario of the UK leaving the EU without a deal would signal a break in the way that foreign policy has historically been formulated. 

In the modern age, British governments have frequently needed to respond to the reconfiguration of strategic alliances and, since the two world wars, the corresponding loss of empire. In the post-war period, successive governments have attempted to counter the steady decline in global influence by maximising available opportunities – often pursued within multilateral alliances or overlapping bilateral goals. Pragmatism over sentiment, economic interests over ideology, and shared interests over isolationism have tended to characterise the UK’s relations overseas. British foreign policy strategies can be conceptualised as three typologies, as detailed below.

1.‘Punching above its weight’

The boxing metaphor, ‘punching above its weight’ – foreign policy lexicon coined by former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd – is often used to describe the UK’s role within global affairs beyond its actual capacity for influence. By the end of World War Two, Churchill had realised Britain’s former imperial power could no longer be sustained. The government had to come to terms with limiting Britain’s global reach to mitigate even greater losses. A number of overseas territories were granted independence, most joining the Commonwealth. The British economy was also now dependent on American loans and investment, and foreign and defence policy became generally aligned with Washington.

Despite the austerity and pragmatism of the post-war period, it was difficult to accept Britain was no longer a ‘great power’. Antony Eden’s dismal failure to regain Suez in 1956 followed by Washington’s economic reprimand had a major bearing on future overseas engagement. Although it was widely acknowledged that Britain’s colonial past was over, governments during the Cold War endeavoured to arrest the process of decline by developing a nuclear deterrent and sustaining military capabilities on a vast geographical scale. Other features of ‘punching above its weight’ included Britain’s leadership in the Commonwealth and growing influence within the European Communities (now the EU). The UK also vehemently defended its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a privilege that worked through the international system more broadly.

The UK was relatively cushioned from geopolitical pressures at the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, domestic turmoil prevented John Major’s government from undertaking any comprehensive re-evaluation of foreign policy objectives in the new world order. The Tony Blair government attempted to do so with its 2003 white paper, ‘UK International Priorities: A Strategy for the FCO’. Yet, in the wake of Iraq, the paper was more focused on the threat of terrorism and bridging Euro-Atlantic security differences than developing a broader strategy. The ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’ (SDSR) of 2010 under the coalition government of David Cameron, together with the 2015 SDSR, were more successful in conceptualising the immediacy of security challenges faced by the UK. However, austerity underscored painful choices in defence spending and proposed solutions focused on responding to events, rather than shaping favourable outcomes in international affairs. 

Part of the problem stems from the UK’s military and security obligations continuing to outstrip actual capacity. Meanwhile, British officials have been ineffective at planning ahead, at least in a formal sense – leading to a tendency to reactive policy-making. Governments have also gratuitously played up Britain’s military reputation to emphasise great power status and independence, especially under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. What is striking about the metaphor ‘punching above its weight’ is the sense of national pride tinged with insecurity that Britain does not quite deserve its place at the top table. 

2. The ‘three circles’ doctrine

Churchill provided a vision of Britain as inhabiting ‘three majestic circles’ of international influence: the Commonwealth, transatlantic relations, and Europe. By playing a role in all three arenas, Britain might sustain relationships with multiple allies to exercise its interests. Notably Churchill believed that, of the three, Britain gained most from the transatlantic relationship and least from the European. A precedent was set for succeeding governments to prioritise relations with Washington over those in the Commonwealth and Europe. Churchill’s ‘three circles’ doctrine advocated employing international frameworks of cooperation – today known as multilateralism. 

Into the post-Cold War period, the global system became increasingly interdependent and Britain was reliant on the behaviour of other states to secure its foreign policy objectives. Globalisation also limited the capacity of governments to take autonomous decisions over the economy. In view of diminishing global reach, the UK had a direct stake in employing multilateral frameworks to realise global interests and took these seriously, often more so than other states. However, it was only after Labour came to power in 1997 that multilateralism, globalism and Europeanism became foreign policy priorities. Blair’s foreign secretary Robin Cook advocated for the UK to feature prominently in all multilateral fora. A legacy of this thinking was that British officials became better equipped at lobbying through the operational aspects of multilateral arrangements. 

During the Blair years, the UK’s Atlanticist loyalties ultimately superseded commitments to multilateralism, confirmed by controversial unilateral action in Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, the UK remained committed to multilateral fora, especially where they related to trade and overseas development aid (ODA). Indeed, the UK took a leading role from the late 1990s in promoting best practices in the management and disbursement of ODA. The EU provided more ODA than any other donor, and as a relatively powerful member state, the UK was well-placed to influence negotiations over development and enhance its presence on the ground. Yet in so doing, the Blair government sometimes exploited multilateral fora for unilateral purposes. 

3. The ‘bridging’/‘pivotal’ strategy

By the mid-twentieth century, the three circles doctrine developed into a more explicit strategy to prioritise relations with Washington and Europe (whilst the Commonwealth dimension became somewhat ceremonial). After the 1956 Suez debacle, Britain was forced to come to terms with its inability to act without US support. This was the origin of the ‘bridging’ approach in British foreign policy. The conclusion was Britain should never again come into open conflict with Washington, but also that it should retain a stake in the European project – even countenancing this might evolve into regional integration. Rather than choosing between Europe and the US, Britain could maximise strategic influence by acting as a ‘bridge’ between them.

The Thatcher, Major and Blair governments alike employed the bridging rhetoric to maximise strategic influence within global affairs. Notwithstanding her tough negotiating style, Thatcher did not believe a choice was necessary between the US and Europe. And despite his difficulties in engaging Washington, Major declared “to be straddled between these two economic and political giants has served us well”. Blair came into office with the explicit intention to place Britain “at the heart of Europe” and to “deepen” relations in Washington. Blair subsequently started identifying Britain as a ‘pivotal power’. Yet the ambiguities of his position were apparent after Blair boldly committed to European defence integration at St Malo in December 1998 but then supported controversial US-led airstrikes in Iraq a few weeks later. 

Concluding thoughts 

British allusions to ‘punching above its weight’ or acting as a bridge in international affairs often seem simplistic, even solipsistic. Contemporary prime ministers – most recently, Theresa May with her post-Brexit vision – have endeavoured to make Britain a global power once again. Such ambitions perhaps signify misperceptions of the UK’s global standing – unable to accept declining influence, and also that the world has become increasingly interdependent. Nevertheless, the UK’s decline since World War Two has been relative. The UK remains one of the world’s most powerful states, with the fifth largest economy, veto power on the UN Security Council, leadership in the commonwealth, a nuclear deterrence, and wealth of soft power.

Difficulties arise from ambiguity and inconsistency in British foreign policy. When faced with global crises, the UK has often prioritised Atlanticism – ultimately resulting in London doing Washington’s bidding in Europe. Suspicions from European partners linger over Britain’s underlying motivations when engaging in EU negotiations, leaving the UK as the perpetual ‘awkward partner’. For its part, Washington has seldom accommodated British interests when devising strategy, even when British parliamentary or public opinion has been on the line. Maintaining a bridging role also entails a tricky balancing act in the face of vociferous resistance to Brussels from domestic constituents. 

Nevertheless, navigating the complex and overlapping spheres of Europeanism, Atlanticism and multilateral fora to exercise its interests is the most viable option for the UK in a globalised world with new security threats, not least the resurgence of Russia. Salient in decision-making over Brexit, rather than privileging international partners over others, the UK would be advised to adopt a more strategic approach to foreign policy, which seeks to shape international affairs, whilst building in contingencies and not overcommitting outside traditional spheres of influence. As Sir Lawrence Freedman puts this in his seminal work Strategy, “It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest”. 

Sources and Further Reading 

Image: Eric Huybrechts @flickr

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