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Global Britain: Dr Sam Jarvis presentation to UN All-Party Parliamentary Group

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

The phrase "Global Britain" has been taken on by the UK government as the defining phrase to encapsulate the UK’s foreign policy post-Brexit.  

Despite significant rhetorical references to the phrase, there is still no clarity on what "Global Britain" might mean, even from a UK perspective. This has a knock-on effect, making it more difficult for the UK to project clarity of purpose abroad.  

While the UK Government has stated that “Global Britain is already backed by substance” – including a recently announced "Global Britain Board" – our research suggests that this perception is not shared by stakeholders and diplomatic partners. 

One of the main areas of concern is how the policy of Global Britain fits into existing strategies and frameworks. Interviewees expressed concern at the Government's lack of strategic thinking on the position of UK foreign policy after Brexit. 

Certainly there were suggestions from some interviewees that it provided opportunities for the UK to “do more and to be more engaged with the UN than we are currently”; however, there is little evidence of this as yet. 

Consequently, when discussing the potential for the UK to carve out a new foreign policy approach to alliance building at the UN, many interviewees were sceptical of the extra benefits the UK could gain outside of the EU. 

We suggest that the UK needs to consider in greater detail the purpose and direct policy implications of a new "Global Britain" strategy, particularly in terms of how this might differ from its current foreign policy strategy as a member of the EU. This requires a more honest discussion regarding whether "Global Britain" is simply a rebranding exercise or the starting point for policy conversations that will seek to redefine UK foreign policy according to new or different values and priorities over the coming years. 

External Perceptions of Global Britain 

At the United Nations, diplomats from outside the UK were in agreement that the policy of "Global Britain" was not of much relevance or was simply not discussed. 

“Other countries were more interested in what is the British policy on Africa or what is the British policy on the Middle East," seen as “much more about the UK domestic audience.”

Responses underlined the challenge for UK diplomats at the UN to both effectively interpret the phrase and use it to then frame new foreign policy objectives and strategies within the UN. 

If the UK government is seeking to promote "Global Britain" on the international stage, evidence so far suggests it has struggled to convince external actors of either its purpose and meaning or its impact on directing UK foreign policy. As a result, the Foreign Office will need to consider the value of the "Global Britain" phrase in more detail, beyond its rhetorical use to a domestic audience. 

Case Studies:

In the report we provide examples of situations where the UK has found it difficult to achieve its goals within the United Nations system since the Brexit referendum: 

  • Funding for African Union peacekeeping in Somalia 
  • A vote against the UK in the General Assembly on the Chagos Islands 
  • The failed re-election of a British judge to the International Court of Justice (ICJ)

While these early indicators cannot tell us what the UK’s position will be after Brexit, they do indicate that the UK has been distracted by the referendum result and can be interpreted as early signs of decreased influence. 

Somalia – Interviews with some EU member states, revealed a growing concern that Brexit will accelerate an EU move towards greater focus on the Sahel region, exacerbating P3 disagreement about how to address insecurity in Somalia. 

The case illustrates how UK diplomacy will require considerable extra financial resources to compensate for further diversion of EU resources away from the mandates it manages to negotiate at the UN. 

Chagos Islands – What was most significant about the vote, was the failure of the UK to gain the support of EU member states. The US was the only permanent member willing to vote with the UK. 

The case can therefore also be framed in terms of UK subservience to the US on security issues, where there is a pattern of the UK following the US lead on some foreign policies. EU member states interviewed warned of the reputational damage of being too close to the US at this particular political moment, with the UK described as “having difficulty finding a middle point between the US and Europe”. 

Election to the International Court of Justice – Whilst the decision reflects a growing shift in the balance of power at the UN, away from the dominance of the Security Council permanent members, it is notable that France was able to successfully re-elect its judge in the first round of voting with relative ease. Evidence to suggest that the UK did not campaign as hard on this vote and was potentially distracted by other concerns. 


The role of Brexit must be viewed in connection to a range of other factors which influenced both voting patterns and the overall strategy of the UK. Brexit reinforces the importance of the UK not taking for granted its relationships with key allies in the General Assembly and the UN system more broadly, particularly during a period of growing push back against the influence of permanent members in the UN.

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