Disgruntled Remainers still furious about Brexit are beginning to morph into the very thing they have long accused their opponents of being: creatures trapped in nostalgic visions of a world that never existed. This strange transformation has been on full display this week, after Rishi Sunak arrived in Washington hoping to deepen American ties on technology, AI and trade.
Sunak’s trip has been dismissed as yet another embarrassing attempt by Brexit Britain to remain relevant when everyone knows it isn’t. But if there is one thing more hoary than the idea of the Special Relationship, it is the notion that Britain is uniquely deluded about its own importance. This is our own very form of exceptionalism.
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Still, Brexiteers should not dismiss every diagnosis of the country’s post-Brexit predicament. Of course, Brexit Britain is not a “global power”, but nor was pre-Brexit Britain. Apart from the United States and China, no country on earth is a global power anymore — not even the EU. Battle lines are being picked and Britain is moving into line.
Yes, it is true that Washington really did like having Britain in the EU — which enough American officials have told me to know it is true — because it meant having an ideological ally at the centre of an important trade bloc. Though the degree to which this ever gave Britain much influence in Washington is moot — as is whether Britain should really be basing its foreign policy around its usefulness to America.
More importantly, Brexit has left Britain more exposed to the dangers of great-power protectionism than before. But the purpose of foreign policy is to manage a country’s vulnerabilities. Outside the EU, Britain has different challenges and must therefore pursue a different foreign policy. This is obvious.
Perhaps less obvious is the fact that a perfectly sensible foreign policy has opened up to Britain. The problem for Remainers is that each sensible step down this road, dealing with Britain’s vulnerabilities, makes it increasingly hard to return to the European Union: joining a Pacific trade bloc, aligning with American regulations, agreeing a free trade deal with Australia. And yet, to not take such steps is to give in to exactly the kind of nostalgic longing they believe fuelled Brexit, focused on rejoining a world that has already moved on.
Britain’s negotiations with Washington, then, are best understood not as an attempt to resurrect a lost world, but to build something, piecemeal, that helps it survive in the real one that is emerging today. As one senior British official told me, outside the EU, Britain has little choice but to “internationalise its approach” to reduce its dependencies, strengthening its security partnerships with allies and then to slowly develop them into economic partnerships. Such a world dovetails with America’s plan to create a grand alliance that will block China’s attempts to become the world’s new hegemon. In this vision, economic and security interests are merged — no longer kept separate, as in most EU countries, by outsourcing the latter to Nato. The second core plank of British foreign policy, therefore, must be to nail its colours to the American mast in its competition with China.
Add these together and a strategy emerges. Britain must work with other like-minded powers who are also part of America’s grand alliance. It must think about security and economics as one and turn itself into a “vanguard nation”, moving quickly and forcefully on everything — not in a vain bid to protect the sense of global power it had in the 20th century, but to turn itself into a successful mid-sized power in the 21st: an Atlantic Japan or North Sea Israel. It must align with the US on core questions of national security, turning questions of global trade into wider questions of Western interests. It must place itself in a web of similar countries with similar aspirations, all happy to be independent, junior partners in an American world with no interest in being separate poles of power.
For those paying attention, such a strategy has been building for some time. First came Aukus, the alliance between Britain, Australia and the United States that did so much to annoy the French. Then came Britain’s accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, anchoring the UK into a different global trading alliance. And then, last month, the Hiroshima Accord was signed, a deal between Britain and Japan that deepened industrial cooperation between the two countries, particularly in that most contested of areas: the manufacture and supply of semiconductors. Each policy was significant in itself, but together they start to look like a coherent tactical shift, particularly when added to Britain’s almost hyperactive policy toward Ukraine.
And yet, without an agreement with the United States, such a plan does not make sense: hence Sunak’s visit to Washington this week. The point is not how big or small the agreement will be on GDP, or whether it showcases British “influence” or replaces any lost trade with the EU — but whether it adds another layer to this wider post-Brexit strategy.
But let’s not kid ourselves, though. The EU has significant advantages over the UK. It is an economic giant whose clout offers it a good deal of security against American protectionism. And it’s sheer size means it can pump money into important areas in a way the UK simply cannot.
Yet, the EU has weaknesses of its own. Despite the war in Ukraine, many of the EU’s leading politicians still believe they should — and could — pursue a policy of strategic autonomy from the United States. But as Helen Thompson has pointed out, it is hard to see how it does this
The EU is in a weak position when it comes to energy security, access to raw materials and semiconductors, technological innovation, high-performing universities and, most important of all, any real security presence. The EU aspires to be a world power but cannot defend itself. Rather than becoming an AI superpower, it seems destined to remain dependent on the US. Perhaps even more damagingly, it does not have the collective will to pursue such autonomy, and so faces many of the same fundamental dilemmas as Britain when looking at a world split between the US and China.
And so, for those who believe the UK is living in a world that has disappeared, it is worth pausing at least to ask whether the EU might be trapped in similar delusions itself. If the disastrous handling of Brexit has achieved anything, it is to rob most Brits of any lingering aspirations to global power. The irony is this might be a good thing.