‘Global Britain’. Slogan or strategy?



“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”
– George Orwell

This month, the British government will publish a review of ‘Global Britain’, its ambitious branding strategy. Twelve weeks after Brexit finally happened, ‘Global Britain’ remains an aspiration, possibly an audacious one.

How can Britain claim it wants to be “global” when it has left the biggest trade and cooperation agreement in its neighbourhood?

How does its exit – from the ranks of a united Europe – allow Britain to claim the bigger mantle of a country that seeks to join others, much further away?

Brexit shows up the contradictions in Britain’s words and deeds. So is ‘Global Britain’ no more than a slogan?

One of the best pieces I’ve read on this question is from Mark Mardell, the former BBC journalist, who has long been an explainer, elucidator and, when needed, an empathetic voice on testy issues. I found Mr Mardell’s analysis of what ‘Global Britain’ might mean exceedingly insightful. (Click here to read the piece.)

The Royal Navy, he says, will soon send its aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, 20,000 miles to the South China Seas, a deployment that Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called “the most ambitious” in 20 years. It will, Mr Mardell notes, “be at the heart of a multi-national carrier strike force surrounded by ‘a ring of steel‘ courtesy of the US Navy”.  And he quotes the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Tony Radakin, who believes it is “very much the floating embodiment of Global Britain.”

Is that true?

It depends.

How valid is it to follow the US into the South China Seas? What is America’s own view of poking around in China’s backyard? Mr Mardell quotes the so-called “longer telegram”, in which an anonymous senior former US official lays out a China strategy.

But there could be some argument over how seriously to take the document. The strategy it lays out seems to push America towards military conflict now because it might be winnable, rather than leaving it to the future when “the military balance [with China] shifts over the next decade”.

The “longer telegram” is being invested with significance because it’s said to be like Ambassador George Kennan’s “long telegram”, the 8,000-word cable he despatched to Washington, D.C. from Moscow in 1946, to explain the Soviets’ uncooperative behaviour. The “long telegram” became the basis for the U.S. “containment” strategy toward the Soviet Union for the duration of the Cold War. But the “longer telegram” doesn’t come from a US diplomat in Beijing. What’s more, we don’t even seem to know who wrote it.

Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, recently noted the strategic adjustments being made by “the reigning superpower and the aspiring superpower”. The US, Professor Brands said, knows it “cannot balance Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific, prevent autocrats from winning the battle of ideas and the struggle to shape technological innovation, or otherwise blunt Beijing’s revisionist challenge without rallying a diverse coalition of states — or, perhaps, multiple overlapping coalitions of states — to the cause”. And China, he said, can dominate its neighbourhood, become assertive in Eurasia and knock the US off its perch only if it manages to isolate “America from its friends”.

It’s obvious from the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s impending voyage that Britain won’t be one of those faithless friends of America. The UK will stick with the US. Unfortunately, the UK isn’t on Professor Brands’ shortlist of “strategic prizes” in the rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Those are Germany, the Philippines, India and Djibouti.

So where does that leave “Global Britain”? Foreign policy, as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations recently pointed out, is about advancing interests, not virtue signalling.