Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | 15:19 WIB

Addressing the challenges and inconsistencies within British Foreign Policy

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Jakarta, IO – Global Britain, that favourite soundbite of the Westminster and Whitehall cohorts, is needed more than ever. Recent events have made clear that threats to the West and their values are more prescient than ever. To combat these, Britain must urgently recognise the need for a more conscious and proactive foreign policy. In order to regain good global stature at a time of multi polarisation, Britain must also acknowledge its past foreign policy mistakes. 

Despite the pressing need for British leadership on the world stage, we should not pretend Britain’s foreign policy has an unblemished record. We invaded Iraq without a clear strategy, and our conduct there has been responsible for generating regional instability. Indeed, this instability has impacted our national security and that of the region as Iran has emerged as the largest winner of the conflict, able to gain unopposed influence across the region. British actions directly fostered an environment that allowed the terrorist Islamic State group to flourish. Afghanistan is another tragic example of a war entered with no exit plan and without any of the caution that the Iraq experience should have given strategists. If Britain decides to intervene militarily, it cannot leave power vacuums like this. Dealing with mistakes does not mean running from them. 

Britain’s history does demand a duty to the rest of the World to ensure stability in an increasingly fractious geopolitical context, however, it is important this is done right. When British foreign policy aligns with our values and cooperates with other allies like the EU and US it can produce exceptional results. The UK’s steadfast support for Ukraine has been a superb example of global Britain done right – standing up for freedom against the aggressive warmongering of Putin’s Russia. 

However, there are several problems facing global Britain that must be addressed. One issue is a tendency to act hypocritically. Many questioned how we were capable of opening our doors to 500,000 Ukrainians overnight while seemingly unable to accommodate Afghans who worked for the British military and are now being systematically hunted by the Taliban. It is also challenging to see British diplomats and politicians claiming that countries who persecute certain minority groups and political dissidents are Britain’s allies and share ‘cherished’ and ‘distinguished’ relationships. This needs to be addressed, especially with the Commonwealth. I could hardly imagine the IOC welcoming Russia with open arms the year after it invaded Ukraine, yet we had Burundi welcomed to the Commonwealth games after the Sultan ordered gay people put to death by stoning. Women are subjugated under patriarchal systems of power across the Commonwealth, many harking to the Imperial era, and remain without bodily autonomy or security. Many regimes continue to intimidate, abduct and kill opponents. Rather than a source of pride, the state of the commonwealth and current post-colonial situation should be a source of national shame in the UK. Britain must force the West to stop its addiction to supporting dictators and human rights abusers to further its foreign policy aims. While our government must act to ensure Britain’s national security above all, and I understand that this means engaging with questionable regimes, there is much scope to encourage and empower progress in these contexts if Britain is willing to adopt conduct that fits its values. 

Anti-western sentiment has steadily filtered through to foreign policy discourses in the global south which has shunned Western leadership in recent times. Britain already does a significant amount of aid work in the global South, achieving much success in the fight against malaria and AIDS. However, this is not readily recognised because it is overshadowed by bigger issues with our relationship with this side of the world. I think of aid work as a BandAid that is merely concealing bigger issues behind it. The current global system that has followed colonialism reinforces inequality and has forced ‘undeveloped’ nations into debt and poverty traps. Non-western powers like China and Russia claim to challenge these systems and have coerced many developing countries into precarious contracts and schemes like China’s Silk and Belt road initiative. The scale of this challenge is remarkable, with a report in November 2022 finding China is owed at least $1.1tn from developing countries. This recent trend that sees countries look to autocracies and dictatorships for financial assistance is not the way to address the current system, but our foreign policy does not make this case clearly. Attributing blame for current inequity is challenging, and can be done on many levels. However, the overarching cause for many of the World’s conflicts today is because of British and European Imperialism. While the current staff in the foreign office and politicians in Westminster are not responsible for the past actions of Britain, there are many policies at their disposal which could assist with the current situation. For example, developing proposals alternate proposals to the Belt and Road initiative which spread our values like labour laws, environmental concern and fairness. 

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To further solve these problems, I believe the 21st century will demand an ethical and conscious foreign policy. Britain should be an example to the world of a thriving society and economy where every citizen has the right to self-determination and freedom. British values should be cherished and appeal to the wider world. It is disappointing that our soft power appeal has been diminished by recent governments putting Britain in the headlines for actively eroding human rights, challenging international laws, and fanning the flames of division.

Good UK foreign policy is what we saw in Ukraine, where we prioritise our values over any economic hardship. Additionally, the Hong Kong visa scheme, which recognised the historical responsibility to Britain’s past subjects, and offered support at a challenging time showed how foreign policy can be an extension of our true values abroad. Britain is a great country because of the personal freedoms it affords people. Recent attacks, and coups have demonstrated how fragile our freedom is. Britain should be in the headlines for the successful roles it played in empowering progress that furthers the self-determination, wellbeing, and health of peoples across the world. This is why we need a people-first perspective. 

Last year saw the Western values of freedom, self-determination and equality come under intense pressure, and current conflicts will likely increase this pressure as 2024 progresses. Some have claimed that the West’s values are diverging from the rest of the world – a worrying prospect for international prosperity and security. These challenges demand that Britain, with our history and foreign policy legacy, play a decisive role in managing an increasingly multipolar world. This can only come with a more conscious foreign policy: not just conscious of new threats and emerging powers, but conscious of its methods and practises to achieve its aims. Britain has the potential to be a productive and cherished member of the world stage; both the government and foreign office must strive to achieve this, or else we risk losing out to other players and sacrificing our security.


Jack Twyman is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

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