In the age of Brexit, remember the role of the nation state and how British soft power projects influence

In the age of Brexit, remember the role of the nation state and how British soft power projects influence

So far, Brexit has provoked plenty of soul-searching about Britain’s place in the world, but little clarity about the United Kingdom’s long-term strategic direction. The United Kingdom faces a number of potentially major foreign policy dilemmas on the horizon, posed by changes in the global balance of power, for which we are insufficiently prepared. They would confront us even if Brexit were not happening. But Brexit makes a reassessment of our future foreign policy even more urgent.

In truth, Brexit has exposed inadequacies that existed before the 2016 referendum. Partly due to the favourable historical circumstances in which we found ourselves at the end of the Cold War, we have fallen out of habit of thinking strategically and competitively. Foreign policy has been subsumed into a vaguer notion of national security. Times have changed, and we cannot afford any more navel-gazing.

The international situation is going through a period of flux. The rules-based order – the shared commitment to abide by agreed rules and norms, most of which were set down in 1945, and which the United Kingdom was at the heart of writing – is getting plenty of attention at the moment because that order is under threat. Russia is undermining the United Nations and flouting international law, while China is becoming increasingly assertive in international affairs and challenging the World Trade Organisation and other institutions. At the same time, important partners like India are yet to achieve full recognition of their rightful place as global powers.

The challenge from within

The most important challenge to this order comes not from another country, but from within: it’s our own complacency and disillusionment. The West, that group of nations who value the rule of law, economic liberty and human rights, seems to be losing interest in the international order that has done so much to keep us safe and make us prosperous since the end of the Second World War.

These are the rules – let’s not forget – that, as unfashionable as they may currently seem, have stood between us and the demons of our worst nature.

There are many reasons we could suggest for this disillusionment, but most seem to be symptoms rather than the cause. At root there is, perhaps, something more human going on: a collective amnesia. The fact that terror and unrest shaped previous eras has been forgotten; three quarters of a century later, the number of witnesses of the violence of the Second World War is dwindling. Today, too few have looked the devil in the face, too few have seen what can happen when the rules collapse and anarchy reigns. Too many see peace as the ordinary state of affairs when a cursory glance at history makes clear peace is painstakingly constructed and easily lost. Peace is the exception, not the rule.

Finding the cure

But all that is a diagnosis; what we now urgently need is a cure. Since becoming chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I’ve met many experts. Their views vary but in essence their focus is the same. They say: we must stay close to Europe, and work more closely with NATO, the UN and OSCE. We must recognise that our strength derives from our membership of these bodies. We don’t stand alone. In other words, we must rebuild the old equilibrium.

I understand where they’re coming from and agree with much of their diagnosis. But it’s not enough for today’s challenges. It ignores the tremors of the past decade. It pretends that the damage done by Vladimir Putin, the mercurial decisions of Donald Trump, or Brexit, or China’s growing power, are all just passing phases. It forgets the only truth in life: you can’t go back.

That’s why we need to build on the past, not copy it. We must find new ways of working with our allies, marry ideas and define a new conservative internationalism that is better fitted for the challenges of the 21st century.

Building on our values

A foreign policy that works for the British people is one that builds on our values and promotes our interests. It starts with the basic unit of legitimate authority – the nation state. Forgetting that essential point is how the trouble began for us. While other countries have struggled to work together, we’ve forgotten what it means to be a nation. That matters today because the rules were never going to last forever. But many of the experts who come to see me are yet to come to terms with the fact that all systems change and this one – multilateralism – is not holding.

There are many causes for this but two that really affect us. First, in Europe, the EU’s centralising, supranational instinct is out of kilter with the temper of our times. As a prime minister of one of the founding member states said to me last year, ‘It’s a real shame about the European Commission. If we’d just been a group of nation states in Europe, we could have made this work.’

Second, looking further afield, the UN is struggling to keep up with a changing world. The credibility of the Security Council is draining away as the veto has lost much of its moral authority. How can it retain it when the veto is so often used to shield brutal dictators? How can international law be defended when some of the worst offenders in undermining it sit on the UN Security Council?

So we find ourselves in the situation where two key institutions are failing to protect the very system they were created to uphold. This is a sea change, not a passing storm.

As I said above, we would face many of these challenges regardless of Brexit. But Brexit will change the EU in ways that few have thought much about. Italy will become the third most powerful member of the European Council while others, who have previously been recipients of EU aid, will now become contributors. And the political centre of gravity will shift south. The new EU will not be 28 minus one, but a whole new organisation. The implications of Britain’s departure will be felt across the field.

The UN too is changing more fundamentally than is often recognised, through a more assertive General Assembly and the recognition that countries like India have a legitimate claim to greater influence. Even the Commonwealth, whose GDP now rivals the Eurozone’s, is evolving. It’s not the post-imperial club it once was, but it has not yet found a 21st Century role.

That’s why we should not do more of the same. Britain’s history should not make us curators of a crumbling international order. Instead, it should place us, like our predecessors, at the forefront of the creation of a new one.

That asks an urgent question of British foreign policy: how can we help design what is needed – an international system for today’s world?

Understanding the importance of the nation state

As we consider how best to do this, we need to remember that the building block of many people’s identity is the nation state. At the end of the Cold War, there were some who said that the state would soon be consigned to the dustbin of history. It is clear now they were wrong. The view that ever greater economic inter-connectedness would melt borders away and make old national frontiers disappear has proved out of date very fast. The state is back, if indeed it ever really went away.

In Russia, a declining population and a shrinking share of global GDP is being masked by swift and decisive state power. In China, the Belt and Road Initiative is one of many examples of state-led action designed to advance the interests of the state, not the wider inter national community. Even in the US we have been seeing for years an increasing assertion of American national interest.

Here in the UK, it was the state that we turned to in the financial crisis to bail out the forces of globalisation, and that is coming back strongly as people search for a foothold in a changing world.

Recognising the strength of Britain’s position

The good news is that Britain is starting from a strong position. When it comes to foreign policy, we are one of the heavyweights. Our diplomatic and intelligence networks provide us with penetrating insight. Our soft power, from our trusted media to our generous aid programme, helps us project influence. And our history of political stability, free markets and international networks attracts investment and enables trade. Finally, and as a last resort, we can still project power through the convincing threat of force.

Getting those fields to cooperate and not compete requires strategic direction, and that in turn urgently demands a revolution at the heart of government. The Foreign Office, once one of the four great offices of state, is a shadow of its former self. Its role directing foreign policy has been gradually hollowed out. It has lost control of essential aspects of overseas influence, like Europe, trade and development, and it is obliged to take part in a tug-of-war with the Cabinet Office, which subscribes to a more limited vision of national security. This has created silos in our foreign policy and a culture in which different departments fight each other for resources at home and abroad.

The consequence of all this is that successive Foreign Secretaries have been hobbled. They’ve had the title, but they haven’t had the power. Diplomacy can only go so far when decisions about trade, aid and defence are being taken elsewhere.

A new strategy matters now more than ever, because the success, or failure, of our foreign policy is more important to the future health and prosperity of our nation than it has been at any time since the end of the Second World War.

A single foreign budget

So, we need to make the Foreign Office the strategic engine of our overseas engagement again and give it the authority to manipulate those levers. There are debates as to what this would mean in terms of merging departments. But the minimum would be oversight of a single foreign budget to cover the needs of all the related departments, letting elected ministers make judgments on how to balance our strategic priorities. Above all, we need to give the Foreign Secretary the power to reorder our priorities and coordinate our strengths.

What should we then do with this new-found capability? I believe our mission is to advance the rule of law. These islands, by accidents of geography, history and war, have a long, unbroken tradition of justice that is unrivalled throughout the world. Building on that, we have played our part in writing the rules that have helped keep liberty alive elsewhere. That is something we can be deeply proud of. Together with a hard-won reputation in commerce, I think this helps explain why English law and British justice are prized as the gold standard around the world.

China uses the common law in Hong Kong. Dubai has opened common law courts to any business that wants them. In Astana, the Kazakh president promised two years ago that its new financial centre would also be governed by English law. Even Vladimir Putin, the man who is doing his utmost to break the international order, is using UK jurisdictions to protect his assets.

This is where a coordinated approach, under an empowered Foreign Office, could make a huge difference if we turned this gift to our advantage. Combining our legal tradition with aid, trade and security to help other countries that already have strong legal connections to our own, we could lend them judges, reassure foreign investors, and see our own companies receive a powerful competitive advantage. Along with higher education, scholarships for talented foreign students, and so much more, we could devise a joined-up strategy that links our strengths.

We could go further and align markets around the world that already rely on English law, a commonwealth of common law. Countries which are at once sovereign but enjoy growing business and investment opportunities by building on shared legal understandings.


For me, the basis of our foreign policy must be to remember some home truths: the role of the nation state, the rule of law and the coordination of strategy are all essential to shaping our future. Acting with allies, across the world, we have much to offer as a friend and partner.

The British national interest is asserted, strengthened and amplified by alliances and multilateral institutions and reviving them is essential to our world. We have a crucial, even essential, role to play to do that. But multilateralism should never be seen as an end in itself, or a comforting return to a reassuring status quo.

For too long we have used the structures built by our ancestors as shields. The institutions they built weren’t defensive ramparts, but forward operating bases – not places to hide, but places from which to project ideals, to fight for our values and to ensure our national interest in security and the rule of law was upheld around the world. By empowering the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and coordinating across government, we can rediscover our unique role in the world and help write the rules again.

The above is one of more than 35 essays by Conservative politicians included in the new book, Britain Beyond Brexit, just published by the Centre for Policy Studies.