The Great British Comeback

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he speaks during a coronavirus news conference inside 10 Downing Street, March 19, 2020. (Leon Neal & Pool/Reuters)
Critics thought that post-Brexit Britain would fail to stand up for the liberal world order. Boris Johnson proved them wrong.

Many commentators thought that Brexit would mark the end of Britain’s involvement in foreign affairs. Embracing the siren calls of nationalism, the reasoning went, the British people had decided to turn inwards, to retreat, to isolate themselves, to reject international alliances, and to focus on domestic problems. This analysis was understandable, particularly given that the shadow of past foreign interventions has haunted the British political establishment for years. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proven these commentators wrong. Over the past few months, Downing Street has shown itself capable of working with other democracies to fight for the liberal world order without relapsing into reckless interventionism.

The past ten years have seen a decline in British diplomatic involvement. Successive governments have reduced defense budgets, shut down military bases, and distanced themselves from playing an active role on the international stage. The Iraq War left an ineffaceable mark upon the British public, which has come to view NATO as a convenient way to justify otherwise unjustifiable interventions abroad. Voters no longer want their country to be America’s wingman, to get carried away in decade-long conflicts that do nothing but destabilize foreign lands and exacerbate anti-Western passions. The ultimate failure of the Libyan intervention reinforced that sentiment. Once more, the all-too-noble but unsuccessful desire to topple a murderous dictator came at the cost of British blood. Chaos ensued, the military dictatorship was replaced by a de facto Islamist theocracy, and the U.K. became even more hated in the region than it was before. One after the other, foreign interventions provided the British people with countless reasons not to trust the promises of their leaders. In 2013, the House of Commons refused to authorize air strikes against Bashar al-Assad — after he used chemical weapons against peaceful Syrian protesters. This vote, many thought, signified the beginning of the end for British influence abroad.

While popular discontentment vis-à-vis foreign interventions was more than warranted, Britain’s gradual retreat did no favors for its reputation as a military power. International observers derided the U.K. as a country obsessed with domestic politics, and Brexit appeared to prove them right. For months, mainstream newspapers and think tanks lamented the perils of isolationism. After centuries of dominance, Britain would disappear or get stuck between competing blocs. David Cameron’s attitude towards China corroborated the sense that the U.K. had abandoned its defense of liberalism: Unconcerned by the Chinese threat, Cameron welcomed Chinese investment in British infrastructure, including in strategic facilities such as nuclear-power plants. In 2015, he went so far as to call our present moment a “golden age” for Sino-British relations.

His successor, Theresa May, was no better. Not only did her mismanagement of Brexit further undermine Britain’s reputation, but she also doubled down on Cameron’s naïveté by allowing Huawei to play a central role in establishing Britain’s 5G network — in spite of intelligence reports on the security threat that a Chinese-controlled communication apparatus would pose. In many ways, pre-Brexit Britain started to look like a proto-Switzerland, a country ready to work with everyone independently of wider implications.

But the rise of British passivity has now come to a halt. Over the past few months, Boris Johnson’s cabinet has championed a correction course in foreign policy. The prime minister took steps to ban Huawei from the U.K.’s 5G network. Weeks later, he proposed a partnership with the U.S. and Australia to impose sanctions upon the CCP for its mistreatment of Hong Kong protesters. When China responded with an oppressive “security” law, Johnson offered refugee status to millions of Hong Kongers before ending Britain’s extradition agreements with China. One month ago, he also advocated for the creation of the “D-10,” a new organization of democracies that would fight for liberalism without launching pointless regime-change wars. The U.K. has also recently introduced a series of sanctions against high-profile figures involved in human-rights abuses, including North Koreans, Saudis, and Russians.

Johnson understands what his predecessors did not: Without a rules-based order, Britain will be relegated to being a nation of secondary importance as the U.S. and China compete for global supremacy. Naturally, saying as much need not mean embracing naïve globalization and/or interventionism. Instead, a realist Britain should acknowledge the opposition between liberal and illiberal blocs and position itself strategically to stand up to authoritarians alongside its allies. “Prosperity” and “free trade” are no longer sufficient to preserve the international order. The U.K. and the U.S. must build a community of free societies whose members unite in defense of Westphalian principles.

Regardless of Johnson’s motivations, his policy shift should be welcomed by the U.S. and by Western powers as a whole. As China reinforces its grip upon capital markets, as India becomes more aggressive, and as Russia stays as belligerent as ever, the voices of democracy find themselves drowned in an ocean of illiberalism. In this dire state of affairs, a British prime minister who cares — at last — about national sovereignty and international cooperation is much needed.


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