Welcome to the brave new world of post-Brexit global politics, a world where Britain’s power and influence is already much diminished. What is being experienced is very far from what was promised, but not much realised by the British public, for whom world affairs is not something in which it takes much interest. Historically, public opinion is far more focused on domestic matters like the cost of living, the economy, housing, the health service etc., and has only got involved in foreign affairs in times of national crisis such as the outbreak of war. The outbreak of the First World War was one such example.
Thus foreign policy is left to politicians, and often to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. The arrival of a serious crisis can therefore be a shock, and it is therefore possible, in the post-Brexit scenario, that when such an event occurs, it will be a very rude and unpleasant awakening.
Glib Brexit promises in a changed world
Britain is already experiencing the challenges of being outside the EU, on its own, in a global politics situation where it has to count on its own diminished power and influence. The Brexiteers argued glibly that the UK would breeze through its negotiations with the EU, easily secure a “deep and special” free trade treaty and make its own very attractive free trade treaties around the world. Yet this is proving far from true and Britain on its own is already showing itself to be weak and vulnerable in a changed international order.
Very recently the UK failed to get a UK judge appointed to the UN International Court of Justice for the first time since the UN was established in 1946. An Indian judge took the final place instead. It is a strong indicator of the UK’s diminished global standing and influence. In the past the support of the EU would have ensured the UK got its candidate appointed, but no support was forthcoming.
No longer punching above its weight
British world influence was often said to be one of “punching above its weight”, a product of history and international respect, arguably dependent in part on the mutual support of EU and NATO states and its relationship with the US. Both EU states and Obama warned Cameron that if Britain left the EU, attention would move elsewhere. The US would look to other influencers in Europe, especially Germany as the most economically powerful country. With Trump in the White House and his doctrine of “America First”, US indifference to the UK has been striking. It is often said that the so-called “special relationship” was an idea in UK minds and was only uttered by the US in the UK’s hearing and disregarded otherwise.
In the eyes of the EU, Britain is now a “third country” and it has fast been becoming evident that the divorce and trade negotiations have been firmly on the EU’s terms. They are in effect telling the UK what to agree to, with the implied threat of “no deal” if those are not agreed to, with a reversion to WTO terms and a massive hit to the UK economy. May then crumbles and agrees to what is on offer, and the Brexiteer threat to walk away is proving politically and economically unacceptable. Nothing is more indicative of today’s UK global weakness than that.
The illusions of power
The right argues that the UK is still Europe’s strongest military power, and Europe needs her. That might be so but only in the context militarily-speaking that that only works if other members of NATO also contribute. On its own, the UK’s military have glaring weaknesses, as has been exposed by the rapid Russian rearmament. For some time now, generals have been warning that the UK has a problem. EU countries are now taking advantage of Brexit to set up what the UK used to resist, an EU-wide defence capability. This has been made more urgent not just by the Ukrainian crisis but by Trump’s America First strategy. Europe can no longer count on the US. Nor, it would seem, can the UK, but that hasn’t filtered through yet in the internally-absorbed Brexit hiatus.
Britain needs its power and influence to ensure it can exert influence to protect its global role, to protect its vital global trade, something Brexiteers say is so much ours for the taking, to defend its defence installations, and look after its various commitments. For example, Britain still keeps a military defence capability in such far-flung places as the Gulf, Cyprus, the Atlantic and the Falkland Islands, and yet its navy would struggle to deal with more than one challenge at once, and is lumbered with two very expensive carriers with no planes and very few frigates to protect them. It’s a chimera, and now, without the EU’s support, at some point soon somebody less friendly could decide to test it, for example in any of the areas mentioned above.
The lack of a post-Brexit global strategy
Before Britain joined the EU, it still had one of the world’s major defence forces and a global military and political presence. The decision to leave the EU has sharply reduced this and it would require massive work to rebuild it, over a long time. No thinking has been done on how this would be carried out, consistent with the overall disastrous failure of the Brexiteers to plan and develop a coherent strategy for Britain’s relationship with Europe post-Brexit, let alone everybody else.
What the Brexiteers choose not to contemplate is that the world has moved on massively since Britain joined the EU. Yet Brexit’s advocates have their minds set on the now non-existent past of the Empire, our jester Foreign Secretary inappropriately reciting ill-remembered snippets from the imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay” to universal derision.
British influence had by the second decade of the 21st century become one accomplished through a greater union of states, a unit in global politics that can counter-balance the power of the US, China, India and the other major international players. This will be stronger with its own defence force, but Britain in its un-wisdom has, as it also did when the EEC was founded in 1957, chosen to step aside into obscurity. Thus do they ignore a vital maxim of power politics, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. That was what British influence had become by the time of the ill-fated Referendum of 2016. The Brexiteers bemoaned it, but it was a reality and unfortunately they delude themselves, as well as the British public who they claim to serve, to pretend it can be otherwise.
Since publishing this article, Sir John Sawers, formerly Head of MI6, has spoken of similar things to those described here. He calls it a loss of influence paralleling that of the 1970’s. Click here. And also here.