Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” and its implications

The UK is considered to have “lost the art of grand strategy” since 1960s when the country “lost an empire but [had] not yet found a role”. With Brexit, a game-changer for UK foreign policy, a new strategy was needed to define the UK’s future outside the EU. Despite the relative importance of these “systemic” as well as various “state” or “organisational” factors (e.g., Brexit, imperial nostalgia, competing governmental bodies, etc.), the key to explaining “Global Britain” (GB) lies in one individual decision-maker – Boris Johnson. He was the main driving force who authored, narrated, and promoted “Global Britain”. Being Foreign Secretary when “Global Britain” emerged in 2016 and Prime Minister when the Integrated Review began to flesh it out, Boris Johnson has been shaping his Global Britain from the start. As BBC reporter Ben Brown said during the G7 Summit, “…Johnson’s Britain, or Global Britain as he would say”. 

Boris Johnson created “Global Britain” not only by reflecting the shared imperial nostalgia that contributed to Brexit, but more importantly from his desire to emulate Churchill. “Global Britain” has much in common with Churchill’s “Three Majestic Circles” – a foreign policy strategy consisting of three concentric circles of Europe, the United States, and the Commonwealth, with Britain being the crucial link between them. With that in mind, it was telling to see the UK Government’s G7 introductory video “New Atlantic Charter” with the following statement by Johnson: “Eighty years ago Churchill and Roosevelt stood together promising a better future. Today President Joe Biden and I do the same”. Just as Joe Biden would indeed like to be the next Roosevelt, the analogies that leaders choose reveal a great deal about their biases, perceptions and models.

“Eighty years ago Churchill and Roosevelt stood together promising a better future. Today President Joe Biden and I do the same”.

Boris Johnson

Recent growing emphasis on British military power projection and increasing nuclear capabilities is strongly reminiscent of “Churchillian” realism, with its reliance on military, defence, and later nuclear capabilities. Like the post-WW2 period, Johnson’s “Global Britain” regards international relations as power relations in which each country’s status depends on its “hard power” capabilities. This implies the UK is likely to continue to walk on the “power” path (e.g., increasing its defence budget further) to be perceived as a global great power.

The examples of the above range from a cap increase on nuclear warhead stockpile to the latest news about the UK’s “deployment of its most powerful navy task force in a generation”, i.e., the strike group of Royal Navy and new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, now navigating the South China Sea. Both can be considered as the most powerful messages sent to the rest of the world by the UK’s government since the end of Second World War. These recent military developments not only indicate Johnson’s obsession with military power but show a global trend ­– significant return to and emphasise on military power projection as the common rule in international relations.

These recent military developments not only indicate Johnson’s obsession with military power but show a global trend ­– significant return to and emphasise on military power projection as the common rule in international relations.

Nikita Gryazin

When we closely study “Global Britain” framework since its emergence in 2016, we realise that current increase of military projection is not new, it has roots in the first Boris Johnson speeches as Foreign Secretary. For instance, Boris Johnson did refer to hard power during the development of GB idea in 2016, implying this in speeches like “Britain is back East of Suez” (December 2016), praising UK’s “fantastic [military] capability”.

But the reasons for this “Churchillian” military trend in UK’s foreign policy agenda to take place right now can be found by applying international relations theories, mainly John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism (Mearsheimer, 2001). Mearsheimer’s pessimistic drawing of an international system, where conflict between great powers will never see an end, shows that states have primarily expansionist strategies for survival: 1) regional hegemony (like Soviet Union during Cold War); 2) maximum wealth (dominating wealth-producing regions); 3) nuclear superiority (constant pursue of better quantity and quality of nuclear arms). Not surprisingly, “Global Britain” framework can relate to all of them. First of all, “Global Britain” is by all means an expansionist strategy – one of its main ideas is to project British soft power values to the rest of the world, calling itself in the Integrated Review “a soft power superpower”. But more importantly, GB is concerned with British national security (and security of its NATO allies) that entirely depends on the UK’s military presence in the world. With this in mind, we could in fact predict the HMG announcement of the “largest military investment in 30 years”. This considerable military budget increase does point to the UK’s pursuit of regional hegemony and, although not superiority, but much better and diverse nuclear capabilities. The latter became particularly apparent for two reasons.

“Global Britain” is by all means an expansionist strategy – one of its main ideas is to project British soft power values to the rest of the world

Nikita Gryazin

First, the quality of the “UK’s independent nuclear deterrent” is going to improve – US defence officials leak in February 2020 stated that the UK is going to buy “a new generation of nuclear warheads to replace Trident” from the US. Second, the quantity of the country’s nuclear arms will be increased – the Integrated Review announced a cap increase on Trident nuclear warhead stockpile by more than 40%, ending 30 years of gradual disarmament. Both qualitative and quantitative improvements are aimed at “ensur[ing] potential adversaries can never use their capabilities to threaten us or our NATO Allies”. As “[s]ome states are now significantly increasing and diversifying their nuclear arsenals”, the increasing global projection of the British nuclear deterrent has two purposes: better national security and “the defence of our NATO Allies”.

Therefore, the Integrated Review would support Mearsheimer’s realist theory offering a hard power projection towards perceived threats (Russia and China). But the amount of projected hard power is different. The Integrated Review has an emphasis on Russia as the geographically closest rival and a “direct threat”, while China still seems distant from British power projection and called a “systemic competitor”. The latter notion reminds us of Mearsheimer’s ‘stopping power of water” thesis, in a broader sense, meaning that geography (e.g., oceans) limits the power projection abilities of militaries and thus naturally divide up powers.

Meanwhile, another Mearsheimer’s strategy, “maximum wealth”, is self-evident knowing that “Global Britain” offers a wide-range of economic benefits from more beneficial trade deals with other states, that can make the UK one of the dominant actors in the wealth-producing regions like Middle East, Asia, or Latin America.

Realising that “Global Britain” is the product of Boris Johnson, while he is the leader of the UK, can help sharpen our understanding of the UK’s foreign policy

Nikita Gryazin

The better we understand the origins of concepts, the better we can project their outcomes and implications. Realising that “Global Britain” is the product of Boris Johnson, while he is the leader of the UK, can help sharpen our understanding of the UK’s foreign policy as it is being enacted. Nevertheless, when he is no longer in power, we should find and analyse the next “author” of a foreign policy who will undoubtedly amend or create a new narrative to pursue her or his own political ambitions. It is in fact possible to predict the UK’s foreign policy in the long run and provide thoughtful speculations that will likely meet this very chaotic but still promising reality.

Nikita Gryazin is a Research Analyst, with main focus on British, European, Russian and Central Asian jurisdictions. For almost eight years in academia, and as an Editor for Oxford Political Review, Nikita has prepared various research projects on the UK’s contemporary domestic and foreign policy developments.

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