How Britain can shape its foreign policy?

USA Feb 24, 2020, 09.00 AM(IST) Written By: Wajahat Qazi

File Photo: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photograph:( AFP )

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For Britain to develop into a relevant, influential global actor, it not only has to leverage all its potentialities but also develop a smart power strategy that allows it to have a foreign policy

Amidst the backdrop of potentially long drawn out and convoluted negotiations between Britain and the EU over the nature and form of the former's relationship with the latter is lost a fundamental and even primaeval question: Can Britain have a foreign policy? The question assumes salience against the backdrop of an election that has perhaps moved past the fractiousness of the Brexit debate and its mechanics thereof. With the people’s will aggregated mostly on one party and its political philosophy for an assorted set of reasons, it is perhaps now time to also focus or more accurately focus on Britain’s relationship with the world and the country’s role in it.

There are basically two approaches that Britain can take: A more of the same one that would entail and mean what Gideon Rachman has called 'social work' and whose content is foreign aid coupled with a recalibration of the foreign service. The second, a more pragmatic one, would or could be to shake and dust off the vestiges of the ‘imperialist’ label and assert itself internationally. (Assertion here is not the same as imperial(ist)- a label that is oftentimes employed to hold down a state or society by inducing guilt).

It is essentially about power and its use. In this day and age, while it amounts to sating a cliché, the nature and form of power has changed. It is not that power- a contested concept- and its use have become mushy or sentimental. No. Not at all. It is that power, in all its dimensions, its form has come to incorporate and integrate both its ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ nature - a combination or synthesis that Joseph Nye, a Harvard academic termed ‘smart power'. It is this smart power that Britain must develop, cultivate and employ.

What, the question is, would a ‘smart power’ approach look for Britain?

First and foremost, Britain must shake off its abashedness about power and its employment. This shyness and coyness about power stem from Britain’s past, which is over. The legacy of the past must not be allowed to override the present and the future.  The country must, to iterate another cliché, live in a future-oriented present while also living in the present. This has implications for how Britain thinks of, conceives and employs power. To make a digression here, in the final analysis, nation-states’ ultimate quest is for and of power and security. This is a cardinal axiom in the world of states that even a post-modern vision or version of politics might find difficult to argue. If this axiom holds, then Britain with its coyness of and about power will find itself overtaken substantially by others in the power game. It is then in the nature of an imperative for Britain to stay relevant or even ahead in the power game.

But, power is not merely about the number of missiles you have, or how quickly and effectively you can mobilise your army or war preparedness. It is all of the above and more: Power, in this day and age, is also, to paraphrase Joseph Nye is about agenda-setting. But agenda setting is a corollary of influence. And, Britain has, not only a diminished power capability in terms of hard power but also diminished influence. Does this mean that the country is destined or doomed to remain diminished in these areas and thus gradually lose relevance in and at the global stage?

No is the answer. Britain has huge reservoirs of influence embedded in the sinews of its social and economic structures plus institutions and as the defying of the doomsayers, economic prognostications about the impact of Brexit negotiations on the wider economy suggest, an inbuilt resilience to it. It is in the interstices of the two that Britain can reclaim and develop its smart power. For Britain then, the causality of power would be reversed; it can and must develop its power from the influence which stems from its institutions-  its universities,  its reasonably robust legal and judicial system, and generally tolerant society where people, in the main, feel home and so on.

In a world where other states, in the hard dimensions of power, are rapidly catching up, influence then becomes a key and vital element toward power. Within a balance of power setting, countering power with power can only generate frisson and friction but influence can lead to real power in these contexts: that of agenda-setting. It is this agenda-setting, power and influence, thereof that Britain must develop - an arena that is eminently possible and achievable for a middle power country – especially against the backdrop of the reservoirs of soft power Britain has: it's attractive and robust university system that offer diverse students all over the world pathways to better careers, the use of English as a global lingua franca, education and career development, and the country’s diversity are a natural contender for developing the country’s influence. Among other things, university outputs, systems and the graduates of these institutions become natural conveyors of influence that also allow a given country to radiate outward in a non-offensive and non-jarring manner.

But, while agenda-setting influence is or might be the end game, it is incomplete without the foundational elements of hard power, rendered all the more salient in a world where interstate competition and the imbalances of power are fluid and will get pronounced with the passage of time. Hard power capabilities are best when these hover in the backdrop; that is, when these are not actually used but rendered as instruments of diplomacy and a hedge against bullying and threats by others. And, without these capabilities, influence can only be skin deep. For Britain to develop into a relevant, influential global actor, it not only has to leverage all its potentialities but also develop a smart power strategy that allows it to have a foreign policy. This, given a range of factors and elements, is eminently doable.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)