Before Brexit, U.K. foreign policy was guided by two main principles: to echo and support U.S. positions and, within those constraints, to seek to maximize economic returns from diplomatic efforts, sometimes above other considerations such as humanitarian concerns or even domestic security. Many of the actions taken by the U.K. government in this period were couched in the language of human rights and democracy. But a little digging revealed other possible motivations: Whether it was the unending arms contracts to U.S. allies that were intending to use those very weapons for ambiguous purposes or whether it was the pursuit of sanctions relief to drive more business to London, Britain made hay in the wake of U.S. policy in the past two decades.
Post-Brexit and under a Trump administration that had no strategic positioning on geopolitical issues, the expectation was that the pursuit of economic returns might prevail to the detriment of all else. But this appears to not be the case. Instead, in the moral vacuum left by Washington in the 2017-2020 period, the new British government seems to have found its own voice. And even against this difficult background, the current government speaks with an assertiveness that makes even some natural supporters of their stances feel a slight sense of trepidation. This moral robustness by the British can serve as a lodestar for the kind of principle-led foreign policy promised by the incoming Biden administration.
The clearest examples of this new trend are the moves the British government has made recently on China. As the evidence mounted that Huawei equipment could no longer be vetted to be secure for deployment in Britain’s 5G network (largely a consequence of the Trump embargo on U.S. companies supplying Huawei with components), Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Huawei would be blocked from the rollout. This was highly uncharacteristic of a country that had asked China to build its largest nuclear power plant just a few short years ago (at Hinkley Point), despite there being similar security concerns involved in that project.
Then, when Beijing imposed a new National Security Law on the former British colony of Hong Kong, in violation of the provisions of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which underpinned the handover of the territory in the 1990s, the British government announced that it would provide visas and a pathway to British citizenship to millions of Hong Kongers, in the face of very explicit threats of retaliation from Beijing.
Continued efforts of intimidation by Beijing have not been met with meek compliance, as they did in the past when Prime Minister David Cameron had to atone for meeting the Dalai Lama with an extensive tour of China focused exclusively on striking business deals. Instead, this British government has doubled down on a full-throated defense of the values of human rights and democracy by raising the profile of its advocacy on behalf of the Uighur minority currently under assault in China.
Nor are these developments focused exclusively on China—where the U.K. government knew it could rely implicitly on Donald Trump’s backing. After ample evidence of repeated Russian interference in U.K. democratic votes, from the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 to the December 2019 general election, and after the relatively docile and subdued response to Moscow poisoning Russian dissidents and even British citizens on the streets of the U.K. with substances banned under international treaties, the new British foreign secretary has finally announced plans for a highly effective Magnitsky Act in the U.K., a move that will at long last hamper the flow of Russian oligarch money through London, seriously reducing this vector of power and influence for the Kremlin and its friends.
The British left has long tended to be a dove in foreign affairs. The sole exception to this was Tony Blair. But after the ill-fated adventurism and catastrophically poor execution of the Iraq War by the U.S.-U.K. alliance, even the otherwise hawkish Conservatives felt chastened. Cameron was apprehensive about getting involved in Syria in 2013, when Bashar al-Assad’s regime crossed then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s red lines on chemical weapons, so he went to Parliament to ask for permission. Parliament was predictably unwilling to get involved in the region so soon after the insurgency in Iraq. Though he did not advertise it publicly, Cameron was likely relieved.
But other Conservatives retained their hawkish instincts even during that time, and these instincts seem to be resurfacing under Johnson: Military veterans like Tom Tugendhat and Iain Duncan Smith, and some others who had been Conservative frontbenchers long before Cameron even got to be a member of Parliament, seem to be in the ascendancy as leading China watchers. China and Russia, in particular, have been working hard over the past decade to prove Western hawks like them, and like the neoconservatives in the United States, correct.
Yet the resurgence of British Conservative hawkishness is intimately tied with Brexit. The people who have a vision of an independent and highly assertive Britain (or, as the slogan goes, “Global Britain”) are the people who are in office at this pivotal time—largely because they persuaded the British people of the merits of Brexit back in 2016. They may yet turn out to have been wrong about Brexit, but they have certainly been proved correct about Beijing and Moscow.
The British are not the only Europeans who have found a stronger, more independent voice in recent years. Perhaps the first European leader to gain a lot of prominence and respect for his robust engagement with foreign affairs was Emmanuel Macron. And though France’s military efforts do not feature extensively in the global news cycle, Macron’s words have not been empty. He is responsible for a substantial surge of French involvement in Africa in general and the Sahel region in particular. The Sahel is a particularly fertile ground for jihadis, and the main reason why neither Boko Haram nor the Malian al Qaeda nor the Islamic State in Libya nor the plethora of other similar groups have managed to install an Islamic State-style state in the region is largely due to the French military.
But when it comes to globally relevant state rivals, like China or Russia, France does not feel as if it can stand on its own. Yes, Macron successfully rebuffed Russian efforts to intervene in French elections, unlike the United States in 2016, but by and large, Paris will not act except in concert with Germany via European Union structures, and Germany is simply not interested in taking a strong stance on these issues: On China, Berlin maintains a very deliberate stance of “trade comes first,” while on Russia, the Germans are split, with a good half of the political establishment in the country being bona fide Russophiles.
The contrast on this issue between the Europeans and the core Anglosphere world outside the United States—the so-called CANZUK group made up of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K.—during these past four years has been stark. Despite the old historical tropes of the Anglosphere countries being “pragmatic” and “morally flexible,” it was the Europeans who were more flexible and transactional in this period, without the same willingness to stand on their own two feet without the backing of the United States, while the Anglosphere countries have consistently stood up for the rules-based international order. Most surprisingly, given the backdrop of Brexit, the loudest voice was that of the U.K.
It is a very hopeful development that one of the traditional champions of human rights and democracy on the international stage has regained its voice, especially in the moral vacuum left by the Trump administration—and despite the economic threats posed by a post-Brexit world.
Just as Brexit was a foreshock of the populist earthquakes to come, so too may Britain’s new stance be a forerunner of U.S. policy. President-elect Joe Biden has won the bitterly fought 2020 presidential election in the United States, and now the United States must start rebuilding—inevitably, at home at first. But international rebuilding must also start soon if the U.S. global defense strategy is to survive the damage done by the Trump years.
The only plausible way for Washington to reconstruct some of its lost global prestige and authority is to return to the basic tenets of the postwar settlement: Washington must once again become the global promoter of a rules-based global order built on the foundations of universal human rights, and it will likely have to reinvent the Bretton Woods system to achieve this. When this work begins, the U.K. will once again appear to have led the way, and the U.K.-U.S. nexus will once again be the natural and essential backbone of this new global order—just as it was in 1944 and the postwar era. Perhaps then, it is no coincidence that the first European leader whom Biden called after he won the election was none other than Prime Minister Boris Johnson.