Britain takes stock of a cavalcade of recent diplomatic humiliations

London Letter: UK is right to claim it is still a power even as it sabotages its influence

When British Brexit minister David Frost joined Boris Johnson at meetings with Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel in Cornwall last Saturday, everyone remarked on his Union Jack socks. Almost nobody commented on the fact that Von der Leyen and Michel were wearing face masks in the colours of the European Union flag, or accused them of engaging in a chauvinistic provocation.

Perhaps it was the fact that Frost’s friends have in the past boasted about his psyops during the Brexit negotiations, such as placing a set of kitchen knives behind a member of his team on Zoom calls, which they credit with his success in clinching the excellent deal that the British government is now so unhappy about. Or maybe Union Jack socks sum up the spirit of Global Britain as perceived outside the UK, where it is mostly viewed with a mixture of amusement and scorn.

The brand name may be a little risible, but there is substance behind the British claim that as the world’s sixth biggest economy, with a global financial centre, a significant if diminished military capacity and some of the best universities in the world, the UK remains a power to be reckoned with. With a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a deep and extensive diplomatic network, Britain’s claim to having global reach after Brexit is rooted in reality.

Both its hard and soft power assets are under pressure, however, and the government’s recent integrated review of foreign and defence policy did little to trim Britain’s unrealistic military ambition of being able to do everything everywhere with diminishing manpower and underequipped forces. A report published on Thursday by the House of Commons foreign affairs committee warned that Britain’s inadequate engagement in multilateral organisations was also blunting its influence.


“While we can understand the attraction of bypassing multilaterals, and even withdrawing altogether, the UK not only has a responsibility to engage, but absence ensures that its interests will suffer more. It is near-impossible to advance national interest by proxy and presence is the only guarantee of the UK being heard,” it says.

Diplomatic humiliations

The report identifies a number of previously unimaginable diplomatic humiliations suffered by the UK in international bodies since it voted to leave the EU five years ago. In 2017, it failed to secure the election of a British judge to the International Court of Justice for the first time in its history, and last year its government failed to put forward a candidate for the court. In 2019, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution demanding that Britain should cede sovereignty of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius – by 116 votes to six.

Earlier this week, the Institute for Government, Whitehall's favourite think tank, hosted a discussion about Global Britain with two of Britain's most distinguished former diplomats, Peter Ricketts and Peter Westmacott. Both are former ambassadors to France, while Ricketts was also ambassador to the EU and Westmacott was ambassador to Washington. Both admitted they didn't really know what Global Britain was.

"Having carefully read the 90 pages of the Integrated Review I still didn't know what the choices were behind that. I think it is partly 'anything but Europe' at the moment. The government had to have a policy that was something other than being a member of the EU and I don't think it's very clearly identified exactly what it is other than a generalised wish to be out there more dealing with the Australias and the Canadas and the Americas and the Indo-Pacific rather than with Europe, " Ricketts said.

Puzzling attitude

Both expressed concern about the impact of Johnson and Frost's management of relations with Europe on Britain's reputation further afield. And Westmacott was puzzled by the government's apparent anxiety about Joe Biden's interest in Ireland.

"Rather than something to be worried about, the very close interest that the Irish-American president Joe Biden takes in Ireland and all things Irish and the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement is something that the United Kingdom government should welcome," he said.

Both warned that a sharp cut in Britain's international aid budget would have far-reaching consequences for the country's influence. And Ricketts believes the government's threat to break international law by unilaterally revoking parts of the Northern Ireland protocol has undermined Britain's soft power.

“That doesn’t sit well with the country that was at the foundation of the rule of law with Magna Carta and the great traditions of British parliamentary sovereignty. So I think there’s been damage done. It is part of our offer to the world and the strength of the country,” he said.

“Let’s make our actions fit our words so we’re not undermining the power of that asset by some of the government’s decisions.”