The United Kingdom has had historically close ties with the United States, Europe, and its former imperial colonies. However, a different world order and Brexit have now cast doubt upon whether the country can still truly rely on any of these traditional bonds.
‘Three Majestic Circles’ of Influence
In 1948, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill undertook various speaking tours across the globe. Having been voted out of office three years earlier, Churchill used his political skills and experience to highlight the challenges ahead if Britain was to maintain a powerful role in international politics.
This was within the context of a restructured world order and an emerging bipolar Cold War dominated by the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.
During this period of exile from frontline British politics, Churchill actively promoted his vision for his country’s long-term international role, and in doing so identified “three majestic circles” of influence that the U.K. needed to address and prioritize: its relations with the United States, Europe, and former imperial colonies.
These three specific strands have been key elements of Britain’s foreign policy over the decades that followed, and all have evolved in different ways. Yet whether any of them are as individually reliable and pivotal today remains questionable, notably in the aftermath of Brexit.
Doubtful ‘Special Relationship’ With US
Churchill was particularly enthused about the so-called “special relationship” between London and Washington.
The two countries have certainly always shared culture, language, and political values, but as the decades passed, there has been increased skepticism as to whether they have retained their closeness and whether it is a “special” Anglo-American relationship at all.
The historical alliances of WWII, the Cold War, and NATO have undoubtedly created a historic bond. However, in an increasingly hostile and competitive world, every country is ultimately out for itself.
Indeed, some have observed that powerful E.U. states like France and Germany, as well as emerging “BRICS” nations like Brazil and India, seemed to have stronger links with the U.S. in recent years. This has further thrown the narrative of the original “special relationship” into doubt.
Congratulations to Boris Johnson on his great WIN! Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a massive new Trade Deal after BREXIT. This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the E.U. Celebrate Boris!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2019
Such trends may well come to a head in what will be a challenging post-Brexit environment for the U.K., where a much-anticipated Anglo-American trade deal will soon be on the negotiating table, but with each side ultimately out for what it can get for itself.
There are speculations that a proposed post-Brexit trade deal may be largely one-sided and skewed towards more favorable American terms, which in practice would exploit the U.K.’s post-Brexit isolation and initial vulnerability.
While past political leaders have often worked well together – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s – in more recent years, the Anglo-American tensions have been evident, and personal connections have been less close.
While Donald Trump and Boris Johnson appear to get on quite well and share similar political ideologies, the power imbalance between the two nations, alongside Trump’s realist-driven “America First” agenda and often unpredictable behavior, has the potential to sour things significantly.
Contemporary tensions relating to Anne Sacoolas’ extradition request and Huawei’s involvement in the U.K. could further jeopardize relations.
Uncertain Ties With Europe
Churchill also favored closer ties with Europe. As of today, though, Britain’s relations with Europe are uncertain, to put it mildly.
With an unclear Brexit transition period ahead for the rest of 2020, tensions will remain as negotiations for a specified trade deal proceed, yet another that post-Brexit Britain needs to address and resolve. A valid question is how long it will actually take to “get Brexit done” in practical terms, and if such a deal cannot be reached, then what happens?
There are uncertain economic prospects regarding the U.K.’s future relationship with the E.U., with experts disagreeing about the likely impact of the full-blown departure at the end of this year, and in particular, what would happen if Britain finally departed without a formalized deal.
The key questions remain as to how close Britain will align with Brussels’ single market and customs union rules, and if so, how this will infringe or impact on its much-cherished sovereignty, which was such a significant issue in why many voted for Brexit in the first place.
Eclipsing Former Colonies
A lesser area of focus for Britain over the post-war era has been the former imperial colonies it once controlled, now often collectively referred to as The Commonwealth.
Enthusiastic British Brexiteers have talked up the country’s freshly found freedom to negotiate new and more liberating trade deals with these countries. Still, in general terms, such nations are smaller and weaker, less profitable in economic terms, and further away geographically, which can create logistical trading issues.
Crucially as well, the balance of power between the U.K. and many such nations has shifted, with India being a major example. It was once a colonial state subservient to British interests, but it is now classified as an emerging BRICS nation with a booming economy. Today, India is arguably eclipsing its one-time “mother country” on the international scene.
On a practical level, some difficulties have already emerged over proposed trade deals with other former colonies such as Australia, and it too is a much stronger world player than during the empire’s days.
Overall, while historic and cultural bonds do linger on in some areas, loyalties within this layer of U.K. foreign policy have become detached and strained since the British Empire broke up during the 20th century.
Britain’s Place in New World Order
There is certainly a different world order and balance of power in the early 21st century compared to the world Churchill spoke about in his 1940s speeches. This international structure is all-powerful and ultimately determines and shapes state actions.
This revised structure can limit and restrict Britain’s actions in all three circles, and over the post-war era, it has arguably struggled to juggle and maintain effective relations with all three spheres simultaneously.
It remains a major question as to whether the U.K. can truly rely on any of them anymore in the wake of the Brexit saga, and whether a more explicitly global outlook to embrace recalibrated alliances and refreshed blocs of emerging friendly states is a positive way forward for the country.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.