Turning its back on Europe, Britain seeks US springboard

Chris J Ratcliffe/AP
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and renowned naturalist David Attenborough speak with schoolchildren at the launch of the next United Nations Climate Summit, to be held next November in Glasgow, Scotland.
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Could Britain’s departure from the European Union on Dec. 31 signal a boost for the fight against climate change?

The two issues seem unrelated. But as the United Kingdom charts its own diplomatic course for the first time in decades, London is looking for a new role. Without one, it risks losing its influence on the world stage.

Why We Wrote This

When Britain leaves the European Union at the end of the year, it will need a new identity to maintain international influence. London will need Washington’s help with that.

One field where British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems keen to make an international mark is climate change. He will be hosting the next follow-up summit on the 2015 Paris accord in November, and has recently pledged some ambitious carbon emission targets.

Britain could prove a useful ally to incoming U.S. President Joe Biden on two other matters close to the American’s heart. To make up for the loss of its place at the EU top table, Mr. Johnson wants to strengthen his ties with Washington, and he has boosted military spending this year in a reminder of what a reliable NATO ally Britain is.

Mr. Johnson is also aligning “global Britain” with the United States on China policy; at Washington’s behest, and despite the importance of U.K. trade with China, the government is limiting the involvement of the Chinese firm Huawei in Britain’s future 5G telecom network.

Consider this intriguing equation: Brexit (Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union) equals a boost for the international fight to slow climate change.

Also, very possibly, a spur for two other items on incoming American President Joe Biden’s wish list: a reinvigoration of NATO and a new Western consensus on how to constrain China’s growing reach.

The equation isn’t a direct one. And it’s receiving scant attention given the more immediate, economic implications of Britain leaving the EU, the trading bloc it joined in the 1970s and which accounts for the lion’s share of its trade.

Why We Wrote This

When Britain leaves the European Union at the end of the year, it will need a new identity to maintain international influence. London will need Washington’s help with that.

But these longer-term effects are a likely result of the core political challenge Britain will face after leaving the EU on Dec. 31: to find a new, post-Brexit identity that maintains the country’s relevance, and influence, on the world stage.

Way back in 1962, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said of the British that they had “lost an empire and failed to find a role.” Britain’s EU membership helped square that circle; not only did its economy thrive, but the United Kingdom also became a pivotal member of the union, along with France and Germany, and offered a valuable bridge to Washington.

Now London has lost that role. And with the empire long gone, the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson again faces the need to find a new international role.

That’s where climate change comes in. It so happens that Mr. Johnson will be hosting the next international follow-up summit on the 2015 Paris climate accord in the Scottish city of Glasgow. It was delayed due to the pandemic, but is scheduled for next November.

Earlier this year he was being criticized for not taking preparations for the conference seriously enough, and for a lack of ambitious plans to promote cleaner energy at home. But he is now rectifying that. In recent months, he has pledged that Britain will cut carbon emissions to more than two-thirds below 1990 levels by the end of this decade, and has championed an expansion of wind-powered electricity generation and other carbon-free energy sources.

In a move timed to coincide with a virtual, interim summit held last weekend, aimed at encouraging greater progress ahead of the Glasgow meeting, he also announced that Britain was ending all government subsidies for fossil fuel projects overseas.

It is becoming clear that as governments worldwide pay more and more attention to the climate issue, Mr. Johnson sees next year’s summit as a major opportunity to demonstrate Britain’s post-Brexit international leadership and assert the new identity that Cabinet ministers have been describing as “global Britain.”

Still, to lend genuine heft to that role Britain will need to reinforce its historically close ties with the United States, a task it hopes won’t be made more difficult by Mr. Johnson’s close personal relationship with President Donald Trump.

Leading the referendum campaign to leave the EU in 2016, Mr. Johnson held out the promise of a comprehensive post-Brexit free-trade agreement with the U.S. that would offset any economic damage from Brexit. But it has since become clear that such a deal will mean protracted negotiations, U.S. commercial conditions that could prove unpopular with British voters, and then ratification by the U.S. Congress.

So in the meantime, the focus in London has shifted to other ways of strengthening the alliance with Washington – as a diplomatic and political substitute for Britain’s old seat at the EU’s top table.

Thus the relevance of NATO: Britain, as America’s most important military partner in Europe, remains a key member of the transatlantic security alliance.

Mr. Johnson sent an important signal last month when he scotched a government plan to cut military spending and insisted instead on an additional $21 billion in funding. That means Britain’s military expenditure will rise to about 2.2% of its gross domestic product, well above the European average, and a dollars-and-cents recognition of Washington’s long-standing view that its NATO allies do not pull their financial weight.

The move was a reminder to the U.S. of Britain’s continuing viability as a military ally. It has also positioned the U.K. as a key European player in advance of Mr. Biden’s expected reengagement with NATO, an alliance that Mr. Trump once dismissed as “obsolete.”

Mr. Johnson knows that, in American eyes, European security is a less pressing priority than the potential threat posed by China. So he appears hopeful that he can align “global Britain” with Washington on this front, too.

Despite the importance of Britain’s own trade relationship with Beijing – now magnified by Brexit – he signaled where his priorities lay a few months ago by doing a policy U-turn, at the Trump administration’s behest, so as to limit the involvement of the Chinese firm Huawei in Britain’s future 5G telecommunications network.

Ultimately, Britain now would like to join the U.S. in forging a coherent China strategy that all the Western allies could share. This would try to strike a balance between recognizing the benefits of economic engagement, as well as the need to work with the Chinese on issues such as climate change, and an unapologetically tough stand against unfair trade practices and violations of human rights.

And ironically, however personally chummy Mr. Johnson was with the outgoing American president, this is a policy approach that “global Britain” suspects will find greater favor with his successor.

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