Despite the daily commentary on the divisions within Cabinet and the Conservative Party at large over Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, the government has been remarkably consistent over how the United Kingdom should orientate itself post-Brexit. Upon assuming office in June 2016, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson set out his vision for Britain as a “great global player.” Since then, the notion of “Global Britain” has come to dominate the government’s narrative. The concept has featured prominently in the prime minister’s major foreign policy speeches, and was one of the central themes of the Conservative Party Conference last month. What exactly does “Global Britain” mean though? Does it constitute the makings of a grand strategy, a new role in the world, or is it just a “specious branding effort”?
The United Kingdom already holds a strong hand in terms of soft power through institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service, as well as world-leading research centres and universities. How therefore is the concept of a “Global Britain” different to the status quo? The answer lies partly in trade. After all, the ability to strike new free-trade agreements with developing countries around the world was one of the key arguments in the Leave Campaign’s arsenal. Yet beyond its trade and soft power connotations, it is critical to understand how “Global Britain” signifies a shift in the country’s alliance posture, as well the use of its hard power assets. Gavin Williamson’s first statement as the new defense secretary suggests as much. Upon replacing Michael Fallon last week, he said:
[A]s we leave the European Union, and forge a new Global Britain, defence has the opportunity to deepen old friendships and contribute to building new ones around the world.
Thus, “Global Britain” is about reenergizing the United Kingdom’s extra-European role, and signifies nothing less than a return “East of Suez.” Such sentiments smack of “empire 2.0” for some commentators, while others have questioned whether the United Kingdom has the clout to play a global role anymore. The latter critique has more merit than the former but it still underplays the strength of Britain’s hand and its reach around the world.
Britain is one of the few countries which boasts a worldwide network of alliances. Indeed, one of the reasons that it has always been the “awkward partner” in Europe is because it…