For centuries, the British Empire was a force to be reckoned with, dominating the European political stage and rapidly expanding its influence worldwide. However, new powers emerging in the aftermath of World Wars changed the rules of the game, and Britain was forced to accept the lesser role on the global stage. Despite the loss of power, the UK remained a major player in European politics during the second half of the 20th century. Economic crisis and growing discontent with the foreign policy within the country in the early 21st century resulted in the UK leaving the European Union, following the referendum of 2016. This paper aims to establish the current place of the UK in global politics through the analysis of its foreign relations.
The UK and the USA
“Special relationship” is the term that (mostly British) politicians frequently use to describe UK-US affairs. Garnett, Mabon, and Smith (2017) state that it was introduced by Churchill to strengthen the weakened British reputation in post-war Europe. According to Mumford (2017, p. 5), “although accepting the asymmetry of the relationship, postwar British foreign policy posited close ties with the Americans as a prerequisite for preserving British power and interests globally”. Nevertheless, Britain remained a strategic partner for the US during the Cold War.
Since World War II, the UK and the USA have cooperated in numerous global counterinsurgency operations. Mumford (2017) claims that rather than strengthening Anglo-American ties, these conflicts have resulted in discord between the allies, citing the Suez crisis and wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan as the major stumbling blocks. In 2013, the House of Commons voted against the participation of the UK in the allied coalition in Syria. In a recent interview, Wallace (2020, para. 3) stated, “the assumptions of 2010 that we were always going to be part of a US coalition is just not where we are going to be”. Overall, researchers agree that the countries’ asymmetrical participation in the conflicts reflects the unequal nature of the partnership in general and has resulted in growing discontent with the government policy in the UK.
Recent tensions between the UK and the EU, ultimately resulting in Brexit, significantly impacted Anglo-American relations. Matanle (2017, para. 10) notes that “the UK has suddenly lost its role as a trans-Atlantic bridge”. Oliver and Williams (2016) add that the US is likely to switch its focus towards Germany, as with the departure of the UK from the EU, the latter’s leading position in European politics becomes unquestionable. The consensus is that the loss of the intermediary status in trans-Atlantic relations makes the UK a significantly less valuable partner for the USA.
Partnership with the USA is crucial to the UK economy. According to the Bureau of European and Eurasian affairs (2020, para.5), “two-way direct investment totals over $1 trillion”. According to Walker and Palumbo (2018), the trade between the two countries has been successfully recovering after the financial crisis, with cars, works of art, and aircraft mentioned as the major goods. However, the status quo might be broken as a result of Brexit. Oliver and Williams (2016) state that some political figures in the USA see it as an opportunity to secure the UK-US deal, adding that it’s unlikely to work without damaging the US-EU relations. Overall, most experts agree that Brexit was hardly beneficial for investors and traders in both countries.
The UK and Europe
The UK has been one of the countries that defined the outlook of European politics for centuries. However, Király (2016) argues that the idea of a long-lasting union with continental Europe was historically unpopular in Britain. Núñez Seixas and Storm (2018) cite the early formation of the state (compared to continental European countries) and extensive overseas territories as the distinctive features of British sovereignty. As a result, neither the political elites nor the majority of the population identified themselves with continental Europe for a long time.
Nevertheless, the views on European integration in Britain were changing throughout the 20th century, and in the 1970s, the UK joined the European Communities. Király (2016) states that the rapid economic progress of the EC countries under the patronage of the USA was the deciding factor for the UK government. Three years later, the Labour party organized a national referendum on membership in the EC, and the majority voted to remain in the organization. Smith (2017, p. 9) argues that it “set the pattern for Britain’s contested EU relations for the next forty years, even if the 1975 referendum was thought to have settled the question of Britain’s membership”. Hence, Brexit should be considered a logical outcome of a lengthy British-European struggle, rather than a manifestation of a current political situation.
Experts believe that the UK is expected to suffer the economic consequences of Brexit for the next decades. Campos and Coricelli (2017) state that the growth of GDP experienced by the UK during its membership in the EU significantly exceeds the losses from the regulations and budgetary transfers. Sampson (2017, p. 172) notes that employment will drop by 7-8%, and the financial sector might lose 7-18% of revenue, according to different experts. So far, the attempts of Johnson’s cabinet to negotiate a “Canada” trade deal with the EU were unsuccessful (Murphy, 2020). Hence, the future of the UK-EU economic partnership remains uncertain and has to be defined by future negotiations.
The UK and Asia
The British Empire largely defined Asian political and cultural agendas for centuries, and British heritage is still present in large parts of Asia. In several countries (India, Pakistan, Philippines), English is recognized as the second official language, and the political systems of some Asian countries emulate British parliamentarian. Kumarasingham (2016) states that India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Ceylon adopted the “Westminster” political model in the process of decolonization that took place in the second half of the 20th century. However, Ngoei (2019) notes that British influence in Asia has generally declined, as most countries focused on forming stronger bonds with the USA. Overall, the relations between Asia and the UK have entered a new phase, where Britain cannot rely on military and economic dominance and has to prove the ability to form equal partnerships.
The necessity for the new trade agreements in the wake of Brexit prompted the British government to seek economic alliances outside of the EU, and India was considered to be one of the major partners. However, Davis (2018) points out that the British politicians’ initial enthusiasm was one-sided, and the imperial sentiment of British conservatives was hardly making the negotiations easier. Scott (2017) adds that the post-Brexit UK needed India more than India needed the UK. Nevertheless, according to the UK government (2020), countries have made significant progress in reaching the consensus, and India’s current investments in the UK economy are second only to the USA. As the UK is still working on trade deals with most countries, reaching an agreement with India might provide a much-needed boost to the economy.
British relations with China have been historically problematic, following the Opium Wars in the 19th century. The more recent tensions result from new Chinese laws limiting the autonomy of Hong Kong, as it threatens the agreement reached by two governments regarding the status of the territory. The UK ban of Huawei, one of the biggest Chinese corporations, and the regular critique of the Uighur abuses do not make things easier, says Giles (2020). Overall, crucial cultural and ideological differences underpin the difficult nature of Chinese-British relations.
The UK and the Middle East
Much like South-East Asia, the Middle East was largely controlled by the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. As the post-war decolonization began, the UK lost nearly all the influence in the region in the aftermath of the Suez crisis. Garnett, Mabon, and Smith (2018) cite the military intervention in Egypt as one of the most embarrassing blunders in British diplomatic history. Since the 1970s, the UK’s presence in the region was mostly limited to the support of US operations.
However, in recent years the situation has been slowly changing. Following the agreements with the Persian Gulf countries in 2013, the UK opened new naval bases in Bahrain in 2014 and 2018. Stansfield, Stokes, and Kelly (2018) note that Obama’s withdrawal from the Middle East gave an opening for the UK to strengthen its presence in the Persian Gulf. Having a strong influence in the oil-rich region can prove crucial for the UK in the post-Brexit world.
Throughout the whole 20th century, the UK was gradually losing its dominance in world politics. Two World Wars and post-war decolonization significantly reduced the presence of Britain on the world stage. While the decision to leave the EU resonates with the masses’ nostalgia for the empire, its economic consequences threaten to hurt Britain’s standings even more. Moreover, experts agree that the UK elites are not fully prepared to face the challenges posed by the post-Brexit era.
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