by Professor Richard Whitman
7 December 2016

This article was first published by the ESRC programme “The UK in a Changing Europe”.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson delivered his first major speech on the vision for the UK’s future foreign policy on Friday at Chatham House.[i] The speech was well-delivered, peppered with literary references and appropriately deferential to the sacrifices made by Briton’s past and present for the UK’s security.

The speech also demonstrated that a fully-formed vision of Britain’s foreign policy post-Brexit is very much work in progress.

The speech repeated the now common Government mantra of a post-Brexit vote UK being ‘Global Britain’. The Foreign Secretary provided a helpful encapsulation of what this means in the speech as ‘…the need for us to commit ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the world.’ And later in the speech the useful strapline that ‘…a global Britain running a truly global foreign policy.’

Setting aside the exclusion of Northern Ireland from the Global Britain slogan, what did the speech tell us about the contents of this global foreign policy? The overarching message was that it is not in the UK’s core interest to interpret the 23rd June referendum vote as a retreat into an isolationist foreign policy. The UK’s core interests, and which the Foreign Secretary presented as the key tenets of Global Europe, are three-fold: first, the UK remains committed to active involvement in maintaining global stability, peace and order; second, and to quote from the speech ‘… it is our historic post-Brexit function, as the PM has said, to be the leading agitators for free trade’; third, and this is rather less clearly formulated in the speech, ‘…that Global Britain can do good for the world and for itself and that is in the projection of our values and our priorities.’

The articulation of these as the UK’s core interests can be found within Government speeches and policy documents prior to the 22nd June. Consequently the speech didn’t provide an indication as to how this encapsulates or incorporates a new organising idea for the UK’s foreign policy as it prepares for a departure from the EU. Rather, it was the (important) reaffirmation of a UK foreign policy world view.

Two key immediate challenges for the UK’s foreign policy were given little space in the speech.   It was thin on the detail of how the EU will fit into the UK foreign policy world view post-Brexit. The speech used a metaphor in place of detail: ‘We work on security with our European friends – and as I have said before, our role is to be a flying buttress, supportive of the EU project, but outside the main body of the church.’ Metaphor-phobes look set to be in for a tough-time as this looks set to become a staple in descriptions of post-Brexit UK-EU relations. It has the great virtue of being ecumenical in tone while avoiding the difficult, but key questions, of how the post-Brexit UK will relate to the EU’s priorities and policies in the future.

The speech was extremely cautious on the future of UK-US relations. President Trump was only mentioned in passing.  It reinstated what has become a UK holding-position on the Trump Presidency which is ‘he has a point’ on the inadequacy of European’s financial and capability burden sharing in NATO.

One of the most intriguing passages of the speech was a line that it ‘…is right that we should make a distinctive approach to policy-making as regards China and East Asia’ with an approach that ‘must go beyond the quest for exports and commercial contracts’.

Where the speech was most lacking was in taking the articulation of the UK’s core interests that it outlined and extrapolating where the UK sees its key priorities in the coming years. Departing the EU is a major change in the UK’s foreign policy priorities and membership has been a key component of its international relations for over forty years. The speech was lacking detail that indicates how Global Britain is not just a continuation of current foreign policy minus EU membership. Where will the UK be seeking to prioritise the development of international partnerships? In what issues, and in what way, does the UK wish to provide international leadership?

There was no indication from the speech as to how the UK’s Global Britain diplomacy will relate its post-Brexit development, defence and international trade priorities. The current Foreign Office Departmental Plan, setting out the UK’s foreign policy priorities for the current Parliamentary term (intended to cover 2015-2020), has been made of questionable relevance by the Brexit vote.[ii] It was not prepared with a major recalibration of UK diplomacy being in prospect. The Foreign Secretary should be ambitious for the future of the UK’s foreign policy and embark on a process similar to that of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) conducted by the U.S. State Department and which provides a blueprint for the short-, medium-, and long-term objectives for U.S. diplomacy and development policy.[iii]

The Foreign Secretary promised future speeches setting out foreign policy strategy. This detail will be eagerly awaited by the UK’s diplomatic partners. At present we know little more than Global Britain means Global Britain.


Professor Richard G. Whitman, ESRC Senior Research Fellow, The UK in a Changing Europe and Visiting Senior Fellow, Chatham House.