Starmer at NATO summit: ‘What will be the UK’s global role under Labour?’

David Lammy with Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves. Photo: Labour

All parties campaign on domestic politics, yet the in-tray for the new Labour government is crowded with international challenges (and opportunities).

Prime Minister Keir Starmer’s first overseas visit to represent the UK this week at NATO’s 75th anniversary summit comes at a crucial time for the war in Ukraine and an ongoing war in the Middle East. Starmer is expected to urge allies to hike defence spending after re-committing to spending 2.5% of UK GDP on defence, and to meet US President Joe Biden and other world leaders today.

He then hosts European counterparts for the European Political Community (EPC) summit next week at Blenheim Palace, where he has the opportunity to reset the UK’s relations with the rest of Europe.

With France in the throes a political earthquake and further uncertainty in US politics – Prime Minister Starmer arrives on the stage with a resounding mandate to lead at a time of tectonic geopolitical shifts. But what does UK leadership look like?

Britain on the world stage

Reflecting on her years of diplomacy following Brexit, a senior UK diplomat recalled that ‘we miss you’ was the strongest message received from global leaders as they lamented Britain’s step-back in world affairs under the Tories. It is not only outside our shores that we are missed as a global player.

Inside the UK, with a national mood that has been muted, the feel of decline across many policy areas over the last decade runs into foreign policy – are our best days behind us?  Who exactly are we in the world now, and what do we have to offer?

Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ was largely a slogan without substance and came up void of ideas or action.  However, it tapped into the British emotional connection to a deep need to feel proud of who we are in the world.

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The new Labour government faces stark decisions in many policy arenas to achieve renewal, and nowhere is this truer than in foreign policy.

While Britain turned inward over the last decade, an era of competitive geopolitics has bedded in. Great power tension has escalated significantly between the West and rival states, as rising ‘pivot’ countries are increasingly transactional, willing to have breakfast with China, lunch with Russia and dinner with the US.

Equally important and less understood are the ambitious steps being taken by non-Western states responding to aspiring young populations pressing their governments for progress they can feel – more jobs, better social services and responsive governments.  Following nearly a decade of domestic tumult, the new UK government will have to navigate this altogether changed landscape and Britain re-enters global affairs to an entirely changed set.

Setting a foreign policy

What does this mean for UK foreign policy? That there is an urgency to finding a confident vision and identity for Britain in the world that serves as a foundation to a substantive, actionable foreign policy programme.  The world and the British people are united in wanting the UK to reestablish itself as a constructive protagonist.

It means conceiving of a role reflective of who we are, one of the world’s most interconnected major economies, strong in military capacity and engagement, generous international humanitarians, and a cultural epicentre.  It must approach the world with the self-deprecation and humility Britons are known for, as well as pluralist and respectful of other nations, equitable and free of historic condescension.

We propose three identities Britain can seize onto to support this construction of self-concept as a guiding foreign policy philosophy in this new Labour era – a major power, a smart power and a pioneering power.  While Britain is not a great power like the US or China, neither is it a middle power as some have recently described it.

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The UK should be considered a ‘major power’, alongside states such as France, Turkey, India and Brazil.  These countries have the power to project significant global change through coalitions and are deeply interconnected global economies.

There is also an expectation that these countries play a leadership role regionally and internationally. Britain as a ‘smart power’ would pursue strategic and sharp decision-making that flows from strong capabilities with limited resources.

Based on a clear-eyed understanding of our strengths, smart power means convening on major global challenges and leading global change in key sectoral strengths. It involves leveraging capabilities to strengthen multilateral and minilateral platforms while building stronger ties through meeting the discrete needs of allies and pivot countries alike.

Britain as a ‘pioneering power’ positions itself as a nation from which to expect new ideas, mechanisms and approaches as a leading ideas entrepreneur, out in front and at the cutting edge of innovation and collaboration for progress. These three identities draw on our national traits and strengths of being strategists, inventors and pioneers – the best traditions of British foreign policy.

Establishing priorities

As a major, smart and pioneering power the UK must take swift action as it returns to the stage under this new government.  Starting in our own neighbourhood, Labour is rightly pursuing optimal engagement with the EU through new security arrangements, shown by David’s Lammy’s rapid European tour as new Foreign Secretary.

In areas such as global health, sustainable energy, artificial intelligence and cyber security the UK should conceive new mechanisms of global governance and innovation, ensuring that pivot and emerging countries have a seat at the table. In this new era, there is an opportunity to reframe development as ‘advancement through cooperation’ and to leverage our soft power more smartly. This could look like adopting a mini-lateral strategy, where the UK invests in and strengthens regional groupings, and establishing a Soft Power Contact Group with equivalent institutes to the British Council in ally countries.

A 2020 report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said of their consultation with global leaders: “None wanted the UK to stand back or keep quiet. All of them urged the country to step up, do more, and play an impactful role in the world.” The call then was clear, and four years on and two major unresolved conflicts later, the call is even clearer for this new government of 2024.

There is a window to seize and a UK-sized hole to fill, but individual policies will not suffice. The invitation is for the Labour government is to gain laser-clarity on the role of the UK in a world – and then lead with a strong and hopeful narrative for a nation which wants to be proud of itself.

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