Since Prime Minister Theresa May and then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced in 2016 a new Global Britain approach to the United Kingdom’s position on the world stage, much speculation has been cast concerning precisely what this approach entails.
Robert Clark is British military veteran currently studying at postgraduate level at Kings College London. As a researcher and analyst, he has experience within both private think tanks and the UK government, including submitting evidence for the Defence Select Committee. His expertise includes UK foreign policy and Anglo-American military relations.
Recently, a new report released by the Henry Jackson Society’s Global Britain programme details more comprehensively what this new role for the UK should look like. The authors James Rogers and Bob Seeley MP argue that a Global Britain approach should be centred around three fundamental freedoms; Freedom for Trade, Freedom from Oppression, and Freedom of Thought.
Believing that these three key freedoms are essential for liberal democratic states to succeed in a more competitive world order, this report confirms several significant recent developments regarding the current world order which have already seen successful policy-driven implementations over the last two years.
The first development is the return to a competitive state-based international order. Though the United States (US) retains its global supremacy as the super power, and alongside it the success of NATO in ensuring trans-Atlantic peace for 70 years, various regions in the world have recently become much more competitive and, subsequently, unpredictable with a risk for conflict increasing.
This shift in the world order from one of unipolarity at the onset of the 21st Century to multipolarity in 2019 was illustrated by the National Security and Capability Review in 2018; highlighting both a revisionist Russia across Eurasia and an expansionist China, particularly in the South China Sea and wider Indo-Pacific region more broadly.
This development has led to the UK increasing both its diplomatic capability and defence engagement across east Asia and the Pacific in particular, establishing nine new diplomatic missions in Pacific island states whilst increasing cooperation with allies including Singapore and Japan.
The new strategic alliance forged with Japan in particular is an example of how increased bilateral defence engagement with strategic partners should be a cornerstone of a Global Britain approach.
As part of the UK’s activity in east Asia, it has increased significantly the Royal Naval presence transiting through these crucial waters. Conducting Freedom of Navigation Patrols both in 2018 and early 2019, the Royal Navy missions in Chinese-disputed international waters affirms James Rogers’ and Bob Seeley MP’s report citing the centrality of both Freedom for Trade and Freedom from Oppression for a Global Britain vision.
This presence will soon be augmented; announced by the UK Defence Secretary that the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be making potentially its first operational mission to the Pacific.
The second recent development in the international system which this report addresses is the attempted erosion of the rules-based global order by states employing increasingly sophisticated and criminal methods of subversion. From the state-sponsored terrorist attack in Salisbury, UK, in 2018, to the unrelenting remote warfare being conducted against the Ukraine since 2014, to the increased military and diplomatic assistance given to Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad, Russia has sought to systematically undermine liberal democratic states and institutions, in particular to divide NATO and the EU, for at least the last ten years. Freedom of Oppression and Freedom of Thought are two essential strategies the UK should seek to further pressure the Russian regime into desisting its troubling activities.
Much the same as Russia, China seeks to circumnavigate both international law and liberal democratic institutions across the Indo-Pacific region, in an attempt to assert regional Beijing hegemony in a much less overtly aggressive, though potentially more dangerous and unpredictable nature, to that of Moscow.
Maintaining the international shipping lanes across the Indian Ocean is not just a UK security concern, but a global one. Whilst China has sought to project its influence across the region through its ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) programme, in addition to militarising port authorities from Djibouti to Sri Lanka to Myanmar, the increased Royal Naval presence across this region, building on the successes of 2018, should form a central pillar in a strategy to manage future potential bullish Chinese naval behaviour undermining the rules-based order.
Fundamentally this report seeks to address the growing concern as to what precisely the UK’s role should be in the world, especially in the light of the UK’s imminent withdrawal from the European Union (EU).
By strengthening alliances with global partners including the so-called CANZUK group (Canada Australia and New Zealand), as well as Japan and Singapore, in addition to promoting these three universal freedoms, the UK, working closely with allies, can seek to uphold and maintain, as it has since refusing to accept German aggression in Europe in the last century, the liberal norms and values which the global order strives to ensure to increase global peace and security.