The reputation of the UK’s future foreign policy can be compared to a professional sports team. Its success will be a result of two things: the tactics and performance on the pitch and the reputation and support it has within the stands.
Aside from the challenges posed to the performance on the pitch, which will be explored later in this series, the second challenge for the UK’s future foreign policy is the garnering of domestic support. That is not to say potential disagreement is unhealthy, but that broad engagement on the direction and objectives is essential for any ambitious policy to move forward.
Although the UK’s decision to leave the EU was due to multiple reasons, it was nevertheless a bucking of the globalisation trend and a shift towards a more isolationist attitude; preventing the UK from continuing its flexible globalised role at the expense of its citizens back home.
However, for Global Britain to be successful it will need to be projected on a footing of international integration and collaboration, which inherently risks antagonising the current mood of various sections of UK society. To avoid this, the government must engage better with the public on what the foreign policy strategy should be, and ultimately, what it will be. This has been a long-standing omission from domestic politics, meaning large proportions of UK society have been alienated from the benefits or purpose of foreign relations for decades.
The failure, risks and importance of doing so is exemplified by the negative perceptions towards the UK’s overseas aid budget that have developed over the last decade. The UK has the third largest aid budget in the world – £14 billion in 2017 – and is considered a key pillar of influence once the UK leaves the EU. However, the sustained commitment to foreign aid is strongly criticised in many corners, met with a disdain for providing substantial funds and resources to foreign countries that otherwise could be spent at home.
Whilst not perfect, the UK’s international aid budget translates into significant influence, which in turn leads to a more prosperous UK through enhanced trade, investment and research partnerships. However, the government has not gone far enough in relaying these benefits and aligning the aims and objectives of UK international aid with the vested interests of the UK public – ‘Aside from doing it because we ought to, how does helping them help us?’
In addition to developing a national narrative and case for pursuing an ambitious foreign policy, the government and its agencies must also ensure its methods of engagement are fit for the twenty first century and can achieve cut through where it’s most needed.
This can be achieved in three ways. First, by replicating the international-level communications model developed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This will ensure the UK’s domestic channels of communication are fully digitalised to engage mass audiences and that they are supported by a coherent and deliberate digital diplomacy strategy – engaging on foreign policy through digital platforms with a purpose, not because it’s expected in today’s world.
Second, by enhancing and developing media engagement programmes on key issues such as trade, development and security. This will not only give advocates the ability to proactively position the aims and benefits of the foreign policy more constructively, but also become more adept at countering false narratives and negative perceptions that often undermine the value of the UK’s global role.
Finally, by allocating resources to develop a national citizenship and grassroots education programme. This should engage global business, civil society institutions and the primary and secondary education syllabus to develop an understanding of the key elements of foreign policy and its potential socio-economic benefits.
For decades, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has performed exceptionally well on the global field of play. In a post-Brexit world, the UK can set the foundations for a successful foreign policy by rebuilding its reputation back home, achieved through establishing a dialogue and communicating effectively. If it fails to do so, it runs the risk of either failing to deliver on the field of play, or worse, further alienating the factions of society who feel let down by globalisation and the UK’s previous role in the world.
Matt Lowe, International Affairs
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January 21, 2021