Defence Spending: Is The UK Developing A Foreign Policy Strategy?

Clara Browne-Amorim
Boris Johnson addressing British soldiers in Kenya, 2017
Source: The Week

Brexit threw the United Kingdom’s foreign policy into dilemma. The uncertainty of its future relationship with the European Union and its members, and more recently the uncertainty of the United States presidential election winner, has led to a pause in the development of a clear or coherent foreign policy strategy. The Covid-19 pandemic has also thrown another spanner in the works as every country has had to prioritise domestic governance and turn inwards, discouraging international travel.

Currently, the UK remains close to EU positions on climate change, on steps to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran and on excluding Russia from the G7. However, it also aligns itself to the US and the Five Eyes intelligence community (Australia, Canada and New Zealand), with its harder stance on China and Hong Kong. There is currently no clear overall strategy.

With the development of a vaccine with above 90% effectiveness, the pandemic’s end is in sight. Looking forward internationally, two of the most important foreign policy relationships will be with Europe and the US. For the US, China’s economic prosperity and its fast-developing position in the world threatens its current hegemonic status. As the UK currently remains tough on China, weary of security risks such as Huawei 5G and its expansionist ambitions and growing influence over South-East Asia, it is likely to side with the US in any upcoming conflicts. Johnson’s current attitude towards the international system suggests that he is expecting conflict, as he announced on the 19th November that the ‘international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War’. However, will the aim of this allegiance to be create a two-prong hegemony, balancing power with the US and soundly batting down China; or will it to be to work towards a global equilibrium of power in a multilateral international system?

Defence Spending: Is The UK Developing A Foreign Policy Strategy?
Angela Merkel and Joe Biden; Photograph by Steffen Kugler.
Source: Bloomberg

With Brexit fast approaching, perhaps the latter is not in pro-Brexit Johnson’s priorities, and the announcement of a £16.5 billion increase in defence spending could be an attempt to bond with president-elect Biden. Unfortunately for Johnson, Biden has been clear in his pro-EU stance particularly in regards to protecting the Good Friday Agreement; Donald Trump was a far more enthusiastic supporter of Brexit. If positive relationships with EU member-nations and European support in combatting China are in Johnson’s priority, the current state of Brexit negotiations, with neither side currently wishing to be the first to cooperate, may suggest this strategy is failing.

However, the EU is not the only relationship the UK shares with Europe, and though it has voted to leave, it will remain an important member of other international institutions such as NATO, the United Nations and its security council. Then, it will be up to countries individually to make agreements with the UK, creating individual trade deals and bilateral agreements which, at this moment, none have done. Further negotiations have also been damaged by Johnson’s breaking of international law with the publication of the Internal Market Bill, which has left many nations distrustful of the UK’s position on honouring agreements, and as its central facet concerned Northern Ireland it will not have pleased pro-Good Friday Agreement Biden.

Covid-19 has been predicted to bring about a major recession, as has Brexit, especially in the event of a No-Deal. Johnson has used these predictions to justify cutting the UK’s foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of the GDP. 0.7% of a nation’s GDP is the United Nation’s official development assistance (ODA) target, so this move would drop the UK from the current list of countries meeting that target. Johnson’s drop in international aid was one of the fears expressed when he decided to merge the Department for International Development (DfID)  and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in June 2020, and his direction would suggest international aid is not a priority of this government. The announcement to commit extra funding to the defence budget is somewhat discordant with its current line on public spending and Labour leader Kier Starmer has questioned the Prime Minister on the source of this extra spending. Johnson’s response has been to promote the new jobs created in a ‘renaissance of British shipbuilding across the UK’, which he estimates at 40,000.

Defence Spending: Is The UK Developing A Foreign Policy Strategy?
Inside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, UK.
Source: Architects Journal

Johnson’s decision to commit £16.5 billion in defence spending is a clear indication of his hope for a closer relationship with the US, now under Biden, as the US consistently values a large military budget. It is also a worldwide message towards competitors, particularly towards China, that the UK will not be sitting down during its rise to power. It is evident that international aid and development are not prominent in Johnson’s foreign policy plans and this may lead to further strain in his relationship with EU member states, who remain some of the biggest contributors to donor countries.

  •  Is Johnson going to be able to create as close a bond to Biden as he had with Trump?
  • How will the likely No-Deal Brexit affect the UK’s relationship with EU member states?
  • When is Johnson expecting conflict internationally, or is he planning to join an already existing theatre of conflict?

For more information on the UK’s future relationship with the US regarding Brexit, please look at Erika Fedorova‘s recent article titled: ‘What Does Biden’s Election Mean for Boris and Brexit?


Further Reading

Sky News, Boris Johnson vows to make UK ‘foremost naval power in Europe’ with boost to defence budget

Chatam House, Picking Up the Broken Pieces of UK Foreign Policy – Article originally published in the Financial Times.

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