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

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.

History shows us, however, that honest brokers have a tendency to lose their say in on-going political events. Textbooks are littered with states that weren’t particularly honest, and couldn’t be broker. In the end, one could argue that Britain’s attempt at honest brokering in the interwar period emboldened Germany, while weakening French resolve. It was—we now know—a fatal combination and is now discredited. Who’s to say a modern attempt at honest brokering would be any more successful? Even long-term fence sitters like India have begun to realize the perils of nonalignment in today’s world. A fence-sitting approach will definitely weaken the transatlantic alliance further. The relationship with the United States offers Britain many net benefits, which are hidden from public eyes. For example, honest brokers don’t get as much access to intelligence and defence imports as true allies, with good reason: one is never sure where they stand. In a world where China and Russia are adopting an increasingly authoritarian and revisionist approach the rules-based liberal order, sitting on the fence is a fatal miscalculation on the benign nature of the system.

Finally, the last-case scenario is for Britain to renew and reinvigorate what some might call its core security relationships. This would entail strengthening its relationship with traditional allies like the United States, and asserting its vision within NATO on the continent. This posture also sees a Britain that might revive its preferential trade, security and immigration relationships with Australia and New Zealand—muted when it entered the Union. In some ways, moving away from the EU model might offer Britain—and its allies—old institutions, new opportunities. The “Five Eyes” has long been a pillar for global security for the Anglosphere. Policy elites in the UK might push to revitalize the Five Eyes at the political level, moving it beyond its shadowy corridors to a more strategic forum level. Five Eyes summits and working groups at the agency and ministerial level could become a viable vehicle for Britain and its closest allies to defend the liberal order. Working off of the ad hoc minilateralism currently seen in the Asia Pacific, Five Eyes could even consider adding new liberal allies from India, to the Nordic and Northeast Asian countries.

I think I’ve made clear where I believe the UK should go. The third option seems to offer a better combination of security and interdependence than the other two. However, it is difficult to know which direction Britons will want to go in the decades ahead. Support for the three among Britain’s public and political elites currently seems evenly divided. The Little Britain faction might be the most popular in the Home Counties, among UKIP supporters and in the rural hinterland of Britain, where the Out campaign is at its strongest. The middleman element might be most strongly supported by business elements within the Conservative Party as well as authoritarian-friendly elements of Corbyn’s new Labour Party. Many of London’s urban population, with its progressive multicultural mix, is probably more comfortable with this middleman role. In some ways, this is a lasting legacy of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq invasion in 2003, an uncertainty about the special relationship with the United States.

Despite these seeming obstacles, however, one could argue that for all those complexities with the United States, these urban educated elites have more in common with the United States’ form of liberalism than with those attitudes currently found in China or Russia. Whether or not he can acknowledge it to himself, Jeremy Corbyn is more likely to find his soulmate in Bernie Sanders rather than in Vladimir Putin. And his followers are more likely to find their beliefs in social diversity, social justice and human rights reflected in America’s own progressive society than in a Russia that outlaws homosexuality or a China that imprisons human rights lawyers. This deeper connection is ultimately the reason why—despite its many Russian flirtations—the British Labour Party always comes back to the alliance when it is in power (after all, Britain’s negotiations into NATO were led by a Labour government). The Best Friends approach would also be amply supported by stalwart Conservatives and moderate Labour members around the country. Perhaps in a way, this last option would see a much more revitalized member of the core security group of the West. Regardless of the outcome of the Referendum on June 23, American policymakers should reach out to their British counterparts and try hard to ensure that Britons know that they are valued as one of America’s oldest allies and that the United States will stand beside them no matter what the outcome.

John Hemmings is an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS and a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he is working on U.S. alliance strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Follow him on Twitter: @johnhemmings2.

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