‘Global Britain’ has fallen at the first hurdle

Pro-Brexit campaigners claimed Britain unshackled from the EU would project its power and influence internationally. The UK’s slow and ineffective response to the war in Ukraine suggests the opposite.

Leave campaigners presented Brexit as an opportunity for Britain to forge its own path in the world, unshackled from the EU. Britain would once again assert itself as a sovereign nation and project its power internationally, an ideal which was captured in the idea of ‘Global Britain’. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia presented Britain and its government with a chance to match its rhetoric with action. Instead of rising to this challenge, however, Global Britain has failed to deliver. We have failed to respond adequately both to the humanitarian crisis and to the diplomatic challenge posed by Russia’s invasion. The Global Britain agenda has failed to deliver at its first hurdle.

Promises, promises

The idea of Global Britain was championed by leading figures within the British government as a post-EU foreign policy doctrine. A dynamic, outward looking Britain seeking to leave its own mark on the world outside of Brussels. Global Britain is more than just agreeing new trade deals. It is also layered with normative content, particularly the desire to act with “strong moral anchors, as a force for good in the world”. This is a striking commitment to tackle global challenges and stand up to crooks or autocrats. Global Britain then, has been presented as a principled and humanitarian project as well as an economic one. But it is here, in the idea of ‘Global Britain’ as principled, the agenda is failing.

From Rubles to refugees

Ukraine was one of the first major European international crises which Britain faced after Brexit, presenting a valuable litmus test of the Global Britain agenda. Whilst not a total failure, the UK government’s response has been deeply insufficient on multiple levels. It is important to preface this criticism with the recognition that we have managed to supply Ukraine with plenty of military hardware. Whilst useful and important, this is certainly not unique amongst Ukraine’s allies. Nations across the globe have queued up to supply Ukrainian forces. The current moment however is not just a crisis of armaments, but of humanity. Global Britain has resoundingly failed in its political and humanitarian response.

Instead of “champion[ing] the great causes of our day”, Global Britain has been painfully slow to respond to fleeing Ukrainian refugees. As of the end of May 2022, Britain had received fewer Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other European country, except France. This can hardly be called Britain leading from the front. The response has been a failure of government rather than a failure of the British people. Britons across the country have scrambled to donate millions of pounds and offer shelter, with over 100,000 homes offering to take Ukrainians in.

Global Britain has also failed twofold in its commitment to “tackle human rights abusers head on” with independent sanctions. Britain’s failure here is more nuanced than in the case of Ukrainian refugees. Firstly, the sanctions which the British government has imposed on Russia have been too slow. This is a criticism which has been made not just by opponents of the government but also by some of its staunch supporters. The self-declared objective of Global Britain was to be able to pursue our own agenda against human rights abusers, allowing us to move swiftly without being bogged down in bureaucracy and the complexity of multilateral responses. There is little point in forging our own path if we are going to end up flagging behind, following in the footsteps of the very institutions we sought to ‘unshackle’ ourselves from. While Britain has caught up to the EU’s current sanctions regime, this can hardly be thought of as actions of a trailblazing nation.

Secondly, there is an entirely reasonable fear that any new sanctions will be as ineffective as previous attempts. Global Britain wants to “lead by example” across the world when it comes to good and virtuous causes. And yet, Britain has so far been unable to use its sanctions regime to deliver meaningful consequences for those it seeks to punish. With an apparently weak enforcement agency, Global Britain remains unable to meet its commitment of standing up to authoritarians, properly punishing their human rights abuses. Having eventually caught up with US and EU levels of sanctions, it remains to be seen if the UK will be able to match their ability to see them through.

The UK government’s minimal support for Ukrainian refugees and slow implementation of sanctions presents the image of a bumbling Britain, not a global one. Global Britain has not set the pace in relation to Ukraine, but has instead been slow and toothless in its response.

Post-Brexit irony

There is an irony at the heart of the Global Britain agenda. While the approach aims to project British power on the world stage, this is exactly the kind of power that the EU is able to project as a large and geo-politically significant economic and political bloc. In the modern world, international influence is wielded through large multilateral organisations, not nominally sovereign middle-powers setting out on their own. Pressure from both EU negotiators and leaders in conjunction with the US has been important in moving Iran towards re-joining the JCPOA, for example, something Britain would never be able to achieve on its own.

Despite the name, Global Britain stands alone. In an attempt to ‘lead the way’ and create a distinct foreign policy, we have distanced ourselves from our allies. Britain’s new position in the international sphere appears rather solitary. Global Britain in practice seemingly involves mediating between different spaces and actors rather than exercising fully-fledged self-determination. Unilateral action (unsurprisingly) looks to be less effective than multilateral actions, particularly for Britain as it attempts to delicately rebalance its relationship between the US and the EU post-Brexit.

This is the first in a series of blogs by undergraduate students on the ‘Britain in the Global Economy’ 3rd year module, which is convened by Dr Scott Lavery at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield.