As Britain’s 2019 exit from the European Union edges closer, it is looking to carve out a new role for itself on the world stage. Many analysts say it could struggle to retain its influence as other world powers demand greater representation in global bodies like the United Nations. But the British government insists it is looking to build global alliances beyond Europe.
“Britain punches above its weight” – a boxing analogy once used by a former foreign secretary to describe his country’s role on the world stage, and often repeated since. But the punch could be losing power, says Luke McDonagh of City University London.
“Leaving the EU means that the UK could now be seen as a medium-sized economy in an increasingly polarized world where there are massive economic blocs,” he said. ” You have the United States, you have China, you have the EU. In the coming century, you will also have India, the rise of South America and Africa to compete, as well. What will the UK’s place be?”
McDonagh says a measure of Britain’s fading clout was its November loss of a judge at the International Court of Justice. After a long battle at the United Nations, London withdrew its candidate, allowing an Indian judge to take the place occupied by Britain since the ICJ’s inception in 1946.
“The way the powers game works now is decidedly different from that of 1945. And we have to question whether the U.N. Security Council will continue in this form for much longer,” he said.
But it is unlikely Britain will lose its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council any time soon, says U.N. expert Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Most of the big powers in the Security Council, including the United States and China, do not want to see any serious reforms to the institution in the foreseeable future,” noted Gowan.
Britain insists it is not turning inward. The government’s post-Brexit ambition is to create what it terms a “Global Britain.”
“On the one hand, the British foreign service will be able to invest more resources in U.N. affairs now that they are going to be less focused on the EU. ,” Gowan said. “But on the other hand, without the support of 27 other (EU) countries, the British are going to find it much harder to influence debates over humanitarian affairs, development or security through the U.N.”
A foretaste came in June, when many EU countries failed to vote with Britain on its claim to the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.
Britain needs to keep Europe onside, argues Gowan.
“If the British are seen to be simply cozying up to the Americans, they are going to lose a lot of goodwill from their European partners pretty quickly,” he said.
In seeking a new role on the world stage, analysts say Britain will need to forge new alliances, while keeping old friends close, and try to weather turmoil back home.