Little Britain, Middleman, or America's BFF: the UK's Options after Brexit

After a European divorce, what strategic role will London play?

On June 23, British voters will add another referendum notch to their belt as they consider Britain’s membership in the beleaguered European Union. One of the delights of writing about foreign policymaking and international relations is attempting to answer the what-if questions of history. One gets to play Yogi Berra and try to predict the future while attempting to transpose historic trends on the trends of today’s news. It might be interesting to look past the doom and gloom predictions of the In campaign and see what Britain’s options might if and when it actually does leave the EU. I do not mean the immediate post-Brexit conundrums, such as dealing with another Scottish referendum and all the divorce-like hassles of disengagement. What would be of real interest is questioning what Britain’s long-term strategic vision might be once the “relief of divorce” has abated. It seems there might be three possible strategic directions the UK might take, which we might call “Little Britain,” “Middleman” and “Best Friends Forever.”

The first of these, “Little Britain,” envisions a bewildered Britain emerging from the shade of the EU into a much more multilateral and geopolitical world than the one that existed at the height of the Cold War in 1973, when it entered the union. Impelled by the growth of sovereignty-oriented politics among Britain’s voters, the UK might revert to Lord Salisbury’s “Splendid Isolation,” a time when Britain could focus on its Empire and stand apart from squabbles on the European continent. In essence, a modern version of this might look like Japan’s posture during the Cold War period. Formally engaged in the U.S.-Japan Alliance, Japan essentially maintained a neomercantilist foreign policy in which it stood apart from geopolitical flashpoints, providing only minimal assistance to its allies. A British version of this would see Britain maintaining formal defense ties to Washington and NATO, but playing a passive role in events that did not directly impinge on British interests. This is the “peaceful Shire” vision of Britain, which sees it turning its back on the world, sipping tea and musing over a hot afternoon of cricket.

In such an environment, Britain might choose its battles carefully, aligning with its Western allies only over issues it felt of serious importance. At initial glance, this might not seem to include too much change, given Britain’s historic enmity with Russia and traditional distrust of German leadership of the continent. However, such a hands-off approach would be a great loss for the Western alliance, in diplomatic leadership and resources, in managing an imploding Middle East and an expansionist-minded Russia on Europe’s doorstep. Furthermore, if past attempts at splendid isolation have anything to teach us, they show how little they have helped British foreign policy. If anything, isolationism has hindered Britain from preventing crises at an early stage because it was either unable or unwilling to engage in collective action. The rise of Germany in the late 1890s was one such instance. By standing aside until the very last moment, when Germany had all but achieved its foreign policy goals on the continent, one could argue that Britain found a much stronger and more belligerent opponent than it might have done in the 1870s after the Franco-Prussian War.

The second approach seems something akin to Britain becoming a middleman. Something akin to South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun’s balancer approach in the 2000s. By this reckoning, Britain might add to upgrade its “Little Britain” trade posture with the role of middle power or honest broker. For example, Britain would play on its growing China relationship here, so that London might become a fencemender in the ever-widening rift between Washington and Beijing. Its primary utility would be presenting to each, a type of go-between diplomacy, acting as an honest broker (and banker). After all, despite predictions of post-Brexit economic apocalypse, London is likely to continue its upward surge as the world’s leading financial center. By this reckoning, Britain’s power as (financial) kingmaker would give it still-considerable clout behind closed doors.