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Global Britain: Dr Jess Gifkins presentation to UN All-Party Parliamentary Group

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Statement made by Dr Jess Gifkins to the UN All-Party Parliamentary Group, 19 February.

I’ll touch on three different aspects; the reputation of British diplomacy, the UK’s role within the UN Security Council and the UK in the UN General Assembly.  

On reputation – it was clear from the interviews we conducted that the UK’s permanent mission in New York – or UKMIS – is a highly respected group. There was a sense that smaller states look up to the UK as an exemplar of diplomacy. Foreign diplomats in New York said to us that the UK is “one of the most fair players” and that they “try to build consensus.” UKMIS were also described by a fellow P5 member as “top of the league.” There are some good strengths within UKMIS to build on. 

When we asked foreign diplomats about the reputational effects of Brexit however the answers were bleak. It was described by one as “a historic mistake,” and that “the UK’s reputation as a competent and effective international actor has been weakened.” Another said, “I can feel the UK’s weight in the Security Council dwindling.” And another said more specifically, “one of the risky things about Brexit is the inconsistency of the mood and to be effective in the Security Council is a mix of being confident, consistent and reliable.” Almost all our interviewees thought that Brexit had more risks for the UK than opportunities.  

Within the Security Council the UK are recognised for their mastery of procedures. Over the last decade all issues before the Security Council have been divided up with one state taking ‘political ownership’ for drafting decisions on each issue. The lead state is known as the ‘penholder,’ and even though this is an informal system, if the penholder doesn’t draft it's unlikely that anyone else will. 

In 2019 the UK is penholder for just over one third of issues before the Security Council, which is more than all ten elected members combined who hold one fifth between them (22%). This represents a strong leadership role for the UK. Small states might struggle with capacity issues to take on multiple penholder roles however there is strong and growing resentment of the UK’s dominance in this area. Penholding is viewed as an exclusionary practice by many elected states.  

Many people we interviewed interpreted Brexit as part of a longer-term trend of declining British influence internationally. An example of this is that about a third of the people we interviewed raised questions about the legitimacy of the UK holding a permanent seat in the Security Council. As you all know – the UK would need to consent to its own removal so there is no immediate threat – but if Brexit is understood internationally through the lens of decline then it becomes harder to justify the UK’s permanent position.  

Regarding the General Assembly, witnesses in Select Committee hearings – and our interviewees – have remarked that the UK is less skilled in the General Assembly than it is in the Security Council. The UK is seen as having prioritised the Security Council to the detriment of its engagement with the General Assembly.  

Bloc voting is more important in the General Assembly, and if there are divisions between EU and UK policy in the future it will be harder for the UK to be in the majority. Many interviewees stressed to us (unprompted) that the UK’s 0.7% commitment to foreign aid is crucial to its soft power and influence within the General Assembly, and that without this the UK’s reputation would be in “free fall.” In 2018 the UK was one of only 6 states to reach this target. You may have seen the report put out by the Henry Jackson Society last week which recommended reinterpreting what constitutes ODA which would equate to less money for development activities. Our data suggests that this would decrease the UK’s soft power and influence.  

The UK clearly has strengths both in diplomatic skill and in soft power which will hold it in good stead as it exits the EU. Political capital is not static however and to maintain – let alone increase – the UK’s current level of influence will require maintaining current investments and strengthening investments in diplomacy in the General Assembly. A risk for the UK is that, as a P5 interviewee described to us, “all interactions with the UK are seen through the Brexit lens” which makes it harder for the UK to project clear consistent goals internationally.  


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