I am pleased to serve on the Advisory Board of the Chatham House Britain in the World project and am happy to contribute to the discussion through this conversation today.  

Here is how I think about the UK’s role in the world today:  

In 2007, when I became Foreign Secretary, I said that the UK had the chance to make itself a “global hub”.  We were not a super-power, but we could be a super-connector.   

I made that case because of our presence in all the groupings and power centers that matter; because of the fertility of our ideas about how to manage an age of interdependence; because of our global economic, cultural, intelligence, security and development assets alongside our foreign policy skills; and because of our willingness to commit these assets to international engagement.  

The fundamentals of that case are not present today.  The reality and perception of Britain and its role are both seriously diminished.  So, the first priority is to stop behaving, and talking, as if nothing has changed. 

We still have global reach and global responsibility.  We are one of the richest countries in the world.  We are privileged in our position on the UNSC.  We retain some important global assets, including in the cultural realm.    

But we have an imperative to understand the realities of our power and responsibility as they are and not as we would like them to be.  Our situation, the condition of our interests and values, including on hot-button issues like migration and trade and conflict and development, will get worse unless we seriously get our act together. That is the challenge for our statecraft. 

President Biden has argued that the world is at a “hinge point”.  The evidence of global disorder is around us. A world richer than ever before has more wars, more refugees, more disasters, more autocrats, more bad actors, and, more controversially perhaps but I think it is important to say it, more distrust of the West. 

The US National Security Strategy explains the disorder, convincingly to my mind, as the result of two factors. 

First, the post Cold War dispensation of an all-powerful America and dominant West is over. It is not clear what will come next, but the clock will not be turned back.  The multipolar world is here to stay. 

America is still strong, very strong in some ways, and so is the West and the best of its ideas.  Just ask the people, men and women, chanting for freedom in Iran.   

But geopolitical rivalry is back, and geopolitical obedience is over.  China offers an alternative world view to the Western ideal.  A host of countries, some of them allies of the US like Saudi Arabia, others more independent like Ethiopia, will not do as the US wants.  And a wide range of countries, including democracies from India to South Africa to Indonesia, are preoccupied in their global dealings with what they see as the failed promises of the West.   

Great powers and medium powers in every continent are playing geopolitics a la carte. There is no defining order – neither based on Empire, or balance of power, or rules. The scholar Ivan Krastev has argued that the powerful and emerging middle powers are not united by much, but there is one thing which they do share: a determination to be at the table not on the menu.   

But geopolitical competition is not the only thing going on.   

The second reason we are at a historical hinge point is that global problems – notably pandemics, migration and climate change – are crashing into front rooms around the world. The old definition of foreign policy, where global public goods beyond the nuclear sphere were nice-to-have-add-ons, not core business, is over. 

There are massive, common global problems that are being under-managed, mismanaged, or un-managed.  They concern environmental, health, economic and technological security, to name but four.  David Lammy has called these “problems without passports”. This is a massive failure of this era of globalisation.   

Think of it this way: Risks are increasingly global, but resilience is increasingly national.  That is the gap that needs to be filled. 

As Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, says: “there is the traditional geopolitical order reflecting balances of power and the extent to which norms are shared, and there is what one might term the globalisation order reflecting the breadth and depth of common effort to meet challenges such as climate change and pandemics.  World order (or lack of it) is increasingly the sum of the two.

I believe these two forces, geopolitical competition, and global risk, are colliding and thereby multiplying each other: geopolitical fragmentation and competition mean that global problems are not addressed, and the failure to address them makes geopolitics worse. So, it is a vicious circle. 

So much for the context.  For Britain there are specifics.   

I want to suggest that the development of a coherent British foreign policy with staying power depends on answering four questions: about where we start, what we want, who we stand with, and what we can afford.   

The debate and the answers need to span all the political parties, but also go well beyond the political parties.  

We have in my view suffered from a time of comforting but ill-informed delusions in the last decade.  Delusions above all about our relative power, influence, and position. Delusions that have cost us dear, both strategically and tactically. Delusions that we need to put behind us.   

Andrew Marr has recently called for a new national story. I don’t think it should be mired in talk about decline; but nor can it be founded on delusion.   

As will become evident, this is not a plea for realism over idealism. It is a call to ground our idealism in the real world, not our imagination or the past. We need a blunt assessment of our own situation.   

Recent governments have responded well to the Ukraine crisis. Our intelligence was right.  Our armed forces have added value.   

But it is hard to think of other areas where we have earned real credit. For example, it would be wrong to characterise the Glasgow Climate COP as a disaster, but it was far from the success of Paris six years earlier.  

And in areas of historic strength, like humanitarian aid and diplomacy, Britain has gone AWOL: for example, in 2016 Britain played a key role, organisationally as well as financially, in staving off famine in East Africa.  Today we are absent.  And people notice. 

Our influence abroad – based on pragmatism, legality, procedure, stability, responsibility, and commitment – has been badly tarnished by our own choices.   

This is partly Brexit related. I am thinking of the blithe assertions that we “held all the cards”, the inability to define Brexit that continues to this day, the threats to break international law over the still-unfinished business of the Northern Ireland protocol, the continued threats to legislate domestically to “override” Treaty commitments to the European Convention on Human Rights, despite these commitments being baked into the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU and the Good Friday Agreement.   

But it is not just Brexit.  There is also the recent dalliance with defiance of UN Resolution 242 about the siting of our Embassy in Israel; the slashing of the aid budget; the unfunded tax cuts that triggered the market gyrations of last month. Of course, I recognise there is a longer perspective that would add Iraq to the list of errors.   

Britain in the World has to be about mindset as well as policy.  And hubris - about our negotiating strength in the Brexit negotiations, our ability to defy the maths of budget and trade deficits, the willingness of Commonwealth countries to defer to British leadership, the unlimited bounty of negotiating our own trade deals, our right to sit and pontificate from the top table – is the wrong mindset.  

We need honesty. I recommended to the Chatham House working group that they produce a UK equivalent of the European Council on Foreign Relations Europe Power Atlas, spanning seven areas of domestic and international throw weight, from military to technology, and I am glad that is being done.   

It has been said that the Truss government made Britain a laughingstock. In my experience it is worse: we were regarded with sadness and pity as well as laughter. We need to re-ground ourselves. Stop shouting GREAT Britain and start building it. 

Second, we need the right framing of Britain’s foreign policy interests, spanning the twin challenges of fragmented geopolitics and risky global problems. 

The Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy starts from the struggle between democracies and autocracies.  The fact that only 20 per cent of the global population live in countries that Freedom House calls fully free, half the percentage of 15 years ago, should be chilling.   

But a framing of democracy versus autocracy does not speak to international affairs in a way that I think is optimal. Nor does it speak to concerns outside the West about the mistakes of democratic countries. Nor does it appeal to countries that are not fully functioning democracies but which we need to work with. Nor does it put autocracies on the spot. 

I would go so far as to suggest that the democracy/autocracy framing is going to play into precisely the distrust of the west that I mentioned up front. 

The better alternative, in my view, is to stand against impunity in international relations and put ourselves on the side of accountability. Rules versus impunity is the real debate of the decade in the international arena.  

Impunity is the abuse of power and is the opposite of accountability. And that abuse is taking place today in the abuse of international law, the denial of aid to communities in need, the undermining of human rights, the attacks on political freedoms, and in the exploitation of the planet.   

I am involved with a soon-to-be-released project (January 2023) called the Atlas of Impunity, which will rank every country in the world on five indicators of impunity: conflict, human rights, governance, economic exploitation and environmental degradation.  It’s revealing – both that such an index can provide a comprehensive lens on the state of the world, and that there is a real battle ahead to curb the forces of impunity. 

The battle for accountability and against impunity puts Britain on the right side of the biggest and most difficult political arguments in foreign policy – from the defense of international law in Ukraine to support for human rights in Iran to North/South cooperation on climate change. 

The ideal of a rules-based international order should not just appeal to British values; it should appeal to British interests, since we are a medium sized country that relies on rules, playing by them not just incanting them, to sustain its interests. 

From my vantage point, it is this agenda that should be the binding thread of our UN engagement, from the Security Council to the Human Rights Council to Unicef, UN Women and the WFP. We don’t need new UN rules or laws.  We need to uphold those that exist. 

Of course, the Chinese leadership is hedging on the global system: they want the best of the existing global order, and want options to get round it.  We need to make the rules-based order the global system, live by it ourselves, and make it a strong enough magnet to bring in others.  

And because the rules commit to justice as well as to process, we should make this the basis of our partnership with countries around the world who don’t want to side with China and Russia, but see the West consumed by hypocrisy and self-doubt and wonder if they have any choice. 

From food security to climate finance to peacebuilding we need to get back on the pitch. 

Third, alliances. In the US I have heard the G7 described as the “steering committee of the Free World”. Certainly, the G7 has found a new lease of life post the invasion of Ukraine.   

But I want to stress geography. Because this is where we have huge ground to make up.  Although the world is a global village, geography still matters, in politics as well as economics.  And this is a gaping sore for Britain at the moment. Our strength of partnership with friends in all continents will be strengthened by concerted engagement with our own continent. 

Repairing our EU relationship is vital to the economic repair job that needs to be done at home; but it also matters geopolitically.  

It is good that the last PM went to the first meeting of the European Political Committee. But it is not enough to attend a meeting.  We need the right stance. 

For me that stance must embrace not just accept the fact that our European neighbors are more like us than any other countries in the world; more important to us economically than any other countries in the world; and more aligned with our geopolitical interests than any other continent in the world.  We need them, just as they are stronger with us. 

The idea that our security depends as much on the Indo Pacific as it does on the European Eastern front, or that we can be a player in that theater to the same extent as we are in Europe, is in my view misguided.  The idea that Britain is going to be a global regulatory superpower rivaling the EU, US or China is just nonsense.  

In a world where blocs matter, we need to recognise our interests and act accordingly. 

Brexit is a fact.  I always feared it would be net negative. But it did not need to be as a bad as this.  And foreign policy – geopolitics and global problems - offers a prime area where we should be forging a common agenda with other Europeans. 

The last integrated defense review pretended that the EU did not exist.  We need that mindset to change. 

We should be all-in on President Macron’s European Political Community, because it offers us the chance to combine our strengths with those of allies.   

We should be all-in on European energy security.  We should be cooperating with the EU on security and defense and offering to help bridge EU and NATO. We should be shoulder to shoulder with the EU on climate. The current government have highlighted a common European approach to migration.  Fine. That should include minimum standards for refugees and asylum-seekers. 

Michael Heseltine has said we need a Minister for Enhancing Relations with Europe.  That makes sense. At the moment the Foreign Office has a Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific and a Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Europe.  That doesn’t.   

Then, fourth and finally, right-sizing what we can we afford.  

It’s a good thing that not everything depends on money. So, we can start with things that don’t cost money. 

We cannot advocate for the rule of law for others if we do not follow it ourselves.  

We will not get to sign trade deals with India if we do not let Indians come to study and visit. 

We cannot expect fully effective European cooperation on migration, including in respect of Channel crossings, if we do not cooperate with them on sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

So, we need to stop snookering ourselves internationally by what we do domestically.  Where we can meet the needs of ourselves and others without spending more ourselves, let’s do so. 

But we need to recognise that if we continue to grow at 1 per cent a year our global weight is massively reduced. 

Budgets can’t be spent twice.  Our defense, diplomacy, development, intelligence and climate budgets are investments in our own security, influence, strength.  However, they are competing for cash with health, education, transport. 

Our defense budget is £42bn, the aid budget £11bn, the intelligence budget £3bn, the much-reduced diplomacy budget £1bn. 

For comparison, the Chinese defense budget is over $200bn per year, and the US defense budget over $700bn.   

My suggestion would be to prioritise the smaller budgets, on the grounds that this is where the marginal million pounds can go furthest in advancing our interests.   

Of course, I am passionate about the substance and the soft power that comes from our aid budget. 

But we could double our intelligence and diplomacy budgets for the same cost as a 10 per cent increase in the defense budget.  I would bet we would get more for it. 

Since we are no longer in a position to be a super-power or super-connector, we can be a super-charger on key issues.    

Follow this approach and we can debate priorities.   

In all cases, we should be guided by the imperatives of speaking with humility not hubris, of acting with others not alone, of pursuing a rules-based order against the law of the jungle, and above all ensuring that our domestic actions are in sync, not opposition, with our foreign policy aspirations.  

I don’t think we have the luxury of thinking about foreign policy as a luxury in the modern world.    

One of the problems with the way sovereignty has been defined in the Brexit debate is that it has peddled the illusion that there is a world where our destiny only depends on our own decisions.  That world doesn’t exist.   

The truth is that our future depends on the interaction of our decisions and the decisions of others.   

Respect, wisdom, trust, credibility and imagination are not expensive.  But they have been sorely lacking as we have cycled through five prime ministers and six foreign secretaries since 2016.  We can make a start by bringing them back.  But they need substantive articulation and focus; that is in my view the next task. 


David Miliband gave this speech on Tuesday 29th November on “Weathering the Storm: Britain’s Role in the World” at Chatham House.