I have watched the current Brexit debate with growing frustration, as both sides entirely miss the point. While David Cameron – a chicken little if ever there was one – keeps ridiculously intoning that the sky will fall down if Britain dares to leave the smothering embrace of Brussels, the Out campaign talks obsessively of immigration. While I fully accept this is a vital issue, given all that is changing outside Britain, as we move from an American-dominated system to a more multipolar world, this all does seem a little beside the point.
The key questions are these: what does a successful, post-Brexit British foreign policy look like? What is the positive geopolitical case to be made for Britain leaving the EU, and as happened during the Elizabethan age, sailing further from shore to find the true treasures of the world?
The first and essential point is to absolutely forget about Europe, as in the future it will matter less and less. This is a continent which, if it grows at the miserable rate of 1 per cent a year, brass bands are set playing, all the while my Indian and Chinese colleagues join me at the bar, scarcely able to contain our laughter.
This is a continent with youth unemployment at Depression-era levels, with absolutely no viable strategy for either jump-starting growth or dealing with its refugee crisis. This is a continent where the infantilised French burn things (as they like to do in the summer, the same way the rest of us like to have a barbecue) for quite minor tweaks to their laughably unsustainable social system, as though they have an inalienable right to eight weeks holiday a year.
From a continental perspective, Britain has always had a scandalously transactional perspective of Brussels. In the 1970s, it voted to stay in the EU because it was the economic future. It should now vote to leave the EU because it is the economic past. Now let’s be done talking about a power in obvious, absolute decline.
Instead, the overall strategic goal of British foreign policy should involve forging a global democratic alliance of established and rising regional powers – as regionalism is the crucial level of action in a multipolar world – including but not limited to countries such as the United States, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and India. For the simple greatest strategic challenge for the next generation is determining whether emerging regional democratic powers can be successfully integrated into today’s western-inspired global order.
Britain and the United States should immediately follow up on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s suggestion to revive an informal security network between the West (particularly the US and the UK) and its major democratic allies in Asia: India, Australia, and Japan. Such an organisation amounts to a vital first step on the way to creating a viable new network alliance of democratic allies. Free trade agreements of every sort between the members of this fledgling network alliance will bind it together, and must become a far more central element of British foreign policy.
To further nurture this sea change, Britain should spearhead reform of global governance institutions (the UN, World Trade Organisation, IMF, World Bank) to provide for a far larger role for the emerging powers so that these institutions reflect today’s power realities (and not those of 1945). This will make them fit for purpose in the new era, and increase the chances that emerging powers will choose to become active stakeholders defending the present global order.
To make this new British foreign policy viable, the UK must reinvigorate ties (economic, political, and military) with a surprisingly resurgent US. Given Britain’s long-standing historical and cultural tradition of working with America, this amounts to a no-brainer. However, new initiatives need to be developed to renew the Special Relationship, with the foremost among them being crafting a new joint strategic initiative to integrate the democratic emerging regional powers into the western-inspired global order, as described above. This must amount to a new organising principle for the US-UK alliance.
The US and Britain must enter into a comprehensive free trade deal in the near term. Whatever the form, such an accord is imperative to bind the old allies together in the new era. Also, British defence cuts must be once and forever halted to ensure that the UK maintains full-spectrum military capabilities, as befits a great power.
This is what the new, exciting age of Drake looks like, if only Britain can summon the will and imagination, as the Elizabethans so wonderfully did, to proactively grasp the future and not dwell on a dying past.