Tim Jenkins is a policy adviser and former parliamentary researcher. He writes in a personal capacity.
In 2014, Sir John Major told a Lords Select Committee that the UK’s policy to create a safe haven for Iraqi Kurds during the first Gulf War “was born in Number Ten, taken to a European Union meeting that morning, endorsed there and, while we were getting it endorsed in Europe, the Foreign Office was contacting every member of the Commonwealth so that the idea of safe havens was approved in the United Nations, with the support of the European Union and the Commonwealth.” This example demonstrates how we have been able, by using the wide network of international institutions of which we are a member, to effect global change in pursuit of our national interests and in furthering humanitarian goals.
Once outside of the European Union, Britain must become the foremost expert in creating and mobilising networks of states, NGOs, and civil society across the world in order to multiple our influence overseas and increase the likelihood of succeeding in our foreign policy objectives.
Our soft power – the ability to appeal to others through the attractiveness of our culture – will play a vital role in securing the relationships that will yield trade, investment and diplomatic benefits with other states. Britain is fortunate in that many of its greatest soft power assets are not dependent on membership of the EU. At the Rio Olympics, the elite athletes of Team GB projected an image of a confident, cutting-edge Britain: we surpassed our record break medal haul from London 2012 to become second in the Olympics Medal tables, beating both China and Russia. Our rich cultural heritage, creative industries, and contribution to pop culture have a huge impact on global perceptions of the UK. Both Shakespeare and Downton Abbey have a role to play in promoting Brand Britain overseas.
We have world class universities that are the envy of the world, and which shape and influence young minds and future leaders from across the globe: 55 current world leaders were educated in Britain. The Britain is GREAT campaign, as well as organisations such as the British Council and the BBC World Service, compliment the work of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – one of the largest and most professional diplomatic corps in the world – by creating links with civil society in other countries and telling compelling narratives about Britain. We are repeatedly listed in the top three countries for soft power, coming first in Portland’s Soft Power 30 in 2015 and second in 2016.
Britain’s commitment to overseas development has made a real difference to millions of lives around the globe, and also provided opportunities for wider dialogue with countries that share our interests. Our position as the only G7 nation to honour its pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on international development has given us the platform to provide political leadership on transnational issues, such as tackling female genital mutilation or fighting to end modern day slavery – a project that our new Prime Minister championed in her time as Home Secretary, and is now expanding with a new Prime Ministerial taskforce to oversee government efforts to end slavery.
Outside the EU, Britain is still a central actor in many different networks – such as the Commonwealth, the United Nations Security Council, NATO and the G7. Britain is still able to extend its influence in many different regions, spheres and contexts in many ways that may differ in their function, but which complement one another. Our future ability to negotiate our own free trade agreements will provide the opportunity to deepen existing alliances and to create new ones. These agreements should support wider governmental objectives overseas by including areas of collaboration on issues of public good, such as migration, international development and tackling corruption. Scientific and cultural exchanges should also be included to cement international relationships, and to foster Britain’s reputation as global leader of thought. The ability to build and mobilise networks of actors towards the advancement of objectives is what will separate successful and unsuccessful states in the future of foreign policy.
To be able to use international networks and wield power intelligently in a post-Brexit world, Britain must send out the message that we will continue to be a proactive and responsible actor in world affairs. The Prime Minister has already demonstrated that the UK will continue to play a leading role in NATO and European security, with a commitment to deploy 650 troops to the Baltics. The vote to renew Trident, Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, has also spelled out her intent that the UK will remain a global player.
Our international engagement must not be one way, but a dialogue with peoples overseas. Our hyper-connected world has disrupted the traditional flow of information between states, and power no longer rests purely in foreign capitals but in individuals, businesses and NGOs. A good case study is Britain’s leading role in shining a spotlight on sexual violence during conflict and the use of rape as weapon of war. We not only put this subject to the front of the international agenda but, by hosting a 2014 summit in London, brought together not only governments and NGOs but civil society groups as well. Digital diplomacy is key if we are to communicate our values and aims to those foreign publics whose support and goodwill we need. You only have to look how President Erdogan successfully communicated directly to the Turkish people through his iPhone, and saw off a military coup, to gauge the power of digital in mobilising society to a cause.
These are not abstract matters of international relations theory. It matters greatly that leaving the European Union does not mean the end of British multilateralism, and our position as a leading exponent of soft power. In this multipolar “G-Zero” international system, in which no one power provides a centre of gravity, the ability to leverage your nation’s influence through international networks and institutions is key to promoting the national interest. Ultimately, we must make clear that our future is one of greater engagement with the world and its shared challenges – not less.