How might the United Kingdom once again ‘Rule the waves?’



Diana Villiers Negroponte | Wilson Center

The UK’s dream after Brexit is to become a leader of global free trade and develop an independent foreign policy. How close is Prime Minister Johnson to achieving the launch of a global Britain?

In the first week of February 2020 at the historic Greenwich museum, Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepared a doubtful nation to set sail for global action. “This is the newly forged United Kingdom on the slipway:  this is the moment when it all took off.”   The Prime Minister (PM) was referring to the early 18th century, when British ships dominated international trade routes, carrying iron rods and porcelain across Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.  Now, “If we have the courage to follow the instincts and instructions of the British people, this can be another such moment on the launching pad.”  Johnson had recaptured national power, formerly tethered to the European Union and he knew where he wanted to go: “Leaving our chrysalis…. the United Kingdom will go out into the world.” 

How close is the Prime Minister to achieving the launch of global Britain one year later? The dream was for Britain to be the leader of global free trade.  It would beat back the mercantilists protecting their national or regional markets.  It would defeat the tariffs waved around like cudgels in foreign policy debates. It would reverse the trend of anemic trade and increasing global poverty. Poised with top-notch trade experts and economists, the PM said that Britain would engage in “the great multi-dimensional game of chess” in which UK officials would negotiate with several governments at the same time. Westminster would “use nerves and muscles and instincts that this country has not had to use for half a century.”  They would negotiate with the Commonwealth, including Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And, they would “get going with our friends in America.” 

Sovereignty is the lode star, guiding prosperity and international negotiations on trade, financial services and security policy. Thus, despite the commitment in the Greenwich speech not to seek lower standards or dump goods in the EU market, Johnson will amend UK standards to suit the role of a ‘global free trader.’ [The December 2020 trade agreement with the EU accepts the role of an independent arbiter to resolve disputes over diverging standards and regulations, but the lengthy process will enable the UK to postpone a settlement for several months and thus stay ahead of Brussels grumblers.]  Sovereignty remains key on financial services.  London ditched EU regulations and the so-called ‘equivalence’ principle in order to trade freely with international financial markets. Consequently, EU shares, valued at  £ 6.5 billion in trades a day, flew out of the City of London in the first week of January.  The PM may point to the freedom to trade with the Swiss stock exchange, but his Chancellor of the Exchequer will need more than the anticipated £ 1.2 billion in Swiss trades a day to compensate for the loss of the EU market.  In the meantime, financiers who made the City of London an international hub over centuries have moved to Amsterdam, Paris and other European cities.

Principles of independent foreign policy

Sovereignty is more than trade in goods and services, although the latter has held the golden key to the UK’s balance of payments for 100 years. Johnson also sought independence from the EU’s foreign policy, asserting the UK’s right to impose its own sanctions on breakers of international law. But what are the principles that should guide the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), particularly as the UK assumes the chairmanship of the G7?

The UK is currently living through a ‘pause,’ somewhat similar to the first 6 months of the George H.W. Bush presidency. Consequently, the PM has appeared conspicuously silent on foreign policy issues. He seeks to create original policies that make the UK distinctive from Brussels.  But the FCO recognizes that the EU and its member states are the most closely aligned with the UK in defending democratic institutions and human rights, promoting international peace & security, encouraging greater economic prosperity, and protecting intellectual property rights.   His predecessor, Prime Minister Teresa May, stated at the Munich Security Conference in 2018 that

  • “Europe’s security is our security, and the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining it. The challenge for all of us today is finding the way to work together through a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, to retain the co-operation that we have built and go further in meeting the evolving threats we face together.”
Commitment to Europe’s security

We should hope that this principle still stands, but Johnson’s breach of the Withdrawal Agreement over trade across the Irish Sea showed his willingness to amend accords with Brussels to suit his interests. How will the PM demonstrate his commitment to Europe’s security while insisting on UK independence to advance its own national security interests?  At the Greenwich speech in 2020, Boris Johnson promised to continue cooperation with European friends in foreign and defense policy “whenever our interests converge – as they often, if not always, will.”

On Iran, the UK has remained firm in its commitment to respect the EU institutional process and support the JCPOA. In multilateral institutions, Britain and EU members states continue to stand mostly together.  The UK remains an active member in the E3 – Germany, France and the UK – upholding the Iran nuclear deal and resisting U.S. pressure to declare the JCPOA dead.  The E3 have continued to coordinate on Iranian breaches of human rights and at a political-director level have discussed policy towards Russia. After the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, they coordinated closely over Russian sanctions similar to the response taken when Mr. Skripal was poisoned at Salisbury in 2018. 

New partnership with Kyiv, Sanctions against Lukashenko regime

However, the process of coordinating the positions of 27 European governments in developing a common foreign policy has left room for the FCO to act independently of the European External Action Service (EEAS). While Brussels dithered, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab offered a defense and political partnership with Kyiv, focused on military technical cooperation.  Together with Canada, London issued sanctions against Alexsandr Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus.  Raab neither protested Turkish breaches of the UN arms embargo against Libya, nor showed willingness to sanction Turkey on its drilling for gas in the eastern Mediterranean.  In short, Johnson’s government is determined to demonstrate independence of judgement and ability to act fast in comparison with the cumbersome EU foreign policy process.

The UK has a highly-reputed diplomatic service with the knowledge and expertise to engage intelligently on a global scale.  This resource is worth more than the economic budget for international affairs which, by necessity, will be reduced in the post-COVID19 era.  The FCO is well placed to work with others to achieve common purposes.  It will continue to coordinate with Brussels on policy towards the Middle East and Iran, as well as cybersecurity and the protection of assets in space.  Beyond Europe, we should expect London to be more aggressive in seeking advantages in Washington and pursuing alliances with India, Australia, Singapore and other members of the British Commonwealth.  Shared language and values make it natural for the UK to further develop those trade and security ties.

Reduced public funds for R&D

The dream of a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ based upon its talented scientists, engineers, and inventors is an exciting concept.  The dreamchild of Dominic Cummings saw the UK take the European lead in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, genome therapy, and machine learning.  The reality of a year-long pandemic and rising digital sovereignty may reduce public funds to galvanize these scientific projects, but the private sector remains interested.  Furthermore, the 291 projects with the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2019 raise the prospect of continued international collaboration. An increased UK participation in the Event Horizon Telescope that is imaging black holes would be one such example.

We should anticipate serious British efforts to work closely with the incoming Biden administration on a wide range of issues, from scientific research and digital taxation to climate change and trade. On trade, President-elect Biden’s team has expressed a preference to engage with the EU, a market of nearly 448 million people, and it regrets that the UK left the regional body.  But we should expect the continuation of close ties on security and intelligence.  A free trade agreement may have to wait until Washington completes its agreement with Brussels.  In the meantime, the UK assumed chairmanship of the G7 in January 2021 and thus the ability to play a leading role in the drafting of documents for COP26, international debt relief, and the coalition of democracy.  In 2021, the opportunities for the UK are plentiful to show that it can be a leader on critical global issues.

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