UK foreign policy in a shifting world order Contents


We are living through a time of worldwide disruption and change. Trends including populism, identity politics, nationalism, isolationism, protectionism and mass movements of people are putting considerable pressure on states and traditional structures of government. At the same time, the global balance of power is shifting and fragmenting in a way not experienced since the Second World War, undermining the rules-based international order.

We have sought not only to look at needed responses but to understand from our many witnesses the roots of this upheaval in world affairs. Explanations are many, but it is clear to us that one powerful common influence, fuelling many aspects of change, is the massive and on-going revolution in communications technology, connecting and empowering peoples, interests, causes and groups on a scale never before known.

Our year-long inquiry confirmed the increasing volatility of international relations, a situation which poses major and novel questions and challenges for UK foreign policy, the assumptions on which it has rested, and the way it is formulated and implemented. We conclude, for instance, that the UK’s ‘bedrock’ relationship with its key ally of past decades, the US, is under disturbing pressure. The US Administration has taken a number of unilateral foreign policy decisions on high-profile issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal and trade policy, which undermine the UK’s interests. The UK has struggled to influence the Administration, which is, in part, a reflection of a broader shift in the US towards a more inward-looking ‘America First’ stance, with less focus on the transatlantic alliance or multilateralism. In future the Government will need to place less reliance on reaching a common US/UK approach to the main issues of the day than has often been the case in the past.

This comes at a time when China’s economic and geopolitical influence, and its technological capabilities, are growing substantially. We conclude that it is not in the UK’s interest to treat China systematically as an adversary; rather, the Government should aim to work closely with China in seeking to address major global challenges, while ensuring such co-operation is consistent with the international humanitarian law, and balanced with our other close friendships, such as with Japan.

Other significant challenges come from Russia, a declining power, which is exploiting both traditional and new methods, such as cyber capabilities, to act as a disrupter. In the face of Russia’s provocations, the UK should continue to seek to counter and deter its activities, but must also remain open to dialogue with Russia on issues such as counter-terrorism and non-proliferation.

In the context of this changing pattern of power, not only between states but within societies, we recommend that the Government should, for example, reset its relationship with India to focus on strategic priorities, recognise the importance of building links with regional powers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, whilst maintaining the strongest possible co-operation and practical ties with its regional partners in Europe in the post-Brexit era.

The UK should continue to resist US challenges to the multilateral system, and seek to strengthen key institutions particularly the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the Bretton Woods institutions and the World Trade Organisation. The Government should make the defence of the rules-based international order a central theme of all its bilateral relationships, and be a vocal champion of reform to international institutions.

As well as commitment to maintain existing global institutions and networks, many of them under strain, we highlight the need for engagement with the many new multilateral groupings and networks that the 21st century has brought into being and which will have direct impact on our lives, society and security. The Government should follow closely the development of other regional groupings, including those led by China.

Renewed efforts to engage, for example, with the modern Commonwealth network, embracing almost a third of the world’s population, could well be part of this new pattern.

We conclude that new technologies, particularly relatively low cost cyber capabilities, have created an asymmetrical shift in the balance of security considerations. The nature of defence and security threats mean that significant harm can be done to a nation without the use of traditional weaponry. Digital communications tools have also intensified public pressure on governments, and increased the audience for foreign policy making.

We highlight cyber security as an increasingly significant global challenge: attacks often involve both state and non-state actors, making attribution very difficult. We find that the UK has strong cyber capabilities—including acknowledged offensive capabilities—and has the opportunity to play a leadership role in establishing a ‘coalition of the willing’ to establish ‘rules of the road’ in cyberspace. Given the importance across Whitehall of cyber security, we recommend the designation of a Minister with responsibility for cyber issues across government.

Turning to the UK’s foreign policy capabilities, we conclude that the Government’s Global Britain branding needs more definition if it is to be an effective tool in the promotion and re-positioning of the UK in a transformed international landscape. The Government should also invest more in the UK’s global diplomatic presence and supporting resources, including by reversing cuts to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget to ensure a better co-ordination of the UK’s different levers of power and influence. It should strengthen and deploy the UK’s considerable soft power assets and instruments. In our view it is critical to ensure that the public understands and is supportive of the UK’s foreign policy objectives, necessitating the development of a strong foreign policy narrative, co-ordinated by the National Security Council.

In a world where the UK’s influence can no longer be taken for granted and where the shifts in economic and political power relationships are not working to our advantage, a more agile, active and flexible approach to foreign policy must now be developed. In support of the changes needed, and which this report outlines, strong and fully informed discussion with the public on the demands and parameters of UK foreign policy are essential. In the digital age our international relations have a new mass audience which both wishes to be fully informed and to offer a full range of views.

Our report aims to form part of a constructive debate about which new paths the UK should take, and the assets and experience it should develop in a new epoch.

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