This piece was originally published in Foreign Affairs.
The Tory leadership race, which will determine who becomes the next U.K. prime minister, looks to be a barnburner. Polls show that Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs Liz Truss is leading former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, but it is unclear by how much. The campaigning continues as both candidates aggressively vie for the votes of Conservative Party members, who will determine the winner.
Whoever prevails, however, may find it a Pyrrhic victory. For six years and counting, the United Kingdom has been mired in the politics of Brexit, and many people believe that the country is more divided than it was before the referendum. Two-thirds of Britons still identify as Leavers or Remainers. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to pursue a hard departure from the European Union, in essence extracting the United Kingdom from the EU rules and common market, has fanned separatist sentiment in Scotland. The prime minister played fast and loose with the Northern Ireland Protocol—the agreement carefully designed to protect the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by checking goods when they cross between Northern Ireland and Great Britain—jeopardizing the region’s peace. The United Kingdom’s unity is now a subject of great concern, one with which the next prime minister will undoubtedly have to reckon.
But the challenges that lie ahead aren’t purely, or even mostly, domestic. When Johnson endorsed Brexit, he portrayed a U.K.-EU divorce as something that would free the United Kingdom of its purported shackles, empowering the country to be a major power on the world stage. Yet the promise of a “global Britain” has not come to pass. Instead, the prime minister’s habit of flouting treaty commitments and his disregard for U.K. law (he prorogued the British Parliament to avoid scrutiny of the government’s Brexit plans) have worsened the country’s international reputation. Under Johnson’s watch, the United Kingdom has unsettled its closest partnerships. It no longer has a stable relationship with Europe. It is barely present in much of the “global South.” And the country that is now its most important partner, the United States, doesn’t see the United Kingdom in the same way. As the United States contends with the war in Ukraine and growing competition with China, it has increasingly turned to the EU: precisely the institution that London left.
The United Kingdom has not forfeited all its opportunities for global leadership. The country hosted the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow and last year’s G-7 in Cornwall. It helped broker a trilateral security agreement with Australia and the United States, known as AUKUS, that could reshape Pacific security. And the United Kingdom has been a leader in responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine, even if it is not the most important player. But both Sunak’s and Truss’s campaign promises—not least unwinding the Northern Ireland Protocol, sending refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda, and undertaking ill-considered tax cuts—threaten to undermine the country’s international standing. To truly help the United Kingdom lead, the next prime minister will instead need to restore moral and fiscal discipline at home, ensure the credibility of the country’s international commitments, and strengthen its international and regional partnerships.
Ever since accomplishing Brexit, Johnson has pursued policies that have narrowed his country’s role in the world. In November of 2020, he slashed the government’s provisions of foreign assistance by more than 25 percent, a cut of around $6.1 billion. This move followed just a few months after folding the once sizable and independent Department for International Development into the country’s Foreign Office (which he subsequently renamed the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office). The country’s authority has faded in the Middle East, where it no longer has a robust independent policy and is an insignificant player in negotiations over the future of Israel and Palestine and on solving the conflict in Yemen. The United Kingdom’s presence in Africa has shrunk considerably, as well. London has, however, struck a deal with Rwanda, which will soon host and process refugees and asylum seekers who want to enter the United Kingdom. That agreement has been broadly criticized, especially by the multilateral agencies that London needs in order to amplify its global role. The United Nations Refugee Agency, for example, issued a statement strongly opposing Johnson’s policy.
Johnson has bolstered the United Kingdom’s role in the Indo-Pacific. He increased defense spending and strongly condemned China’s attempt to tighten its control over Hong Kong. But on the whole, Johnson’s focus on Asia has simply cemented international perceptions that Britain is a deputy to U.S. policy objectives. The United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left the U.K. with no choice but to follow trail, also furthered this narrative.
It’s a bad time for the United Kingdom to be reliant on Washington. The future of U.S. democracy is uncertain, as is the country’s commitment to its allies. If former President Donald Trump’s loyalists gain a majority in Congress, or if Trump—or one of his acolytes—wins the presidency in 2024, the United States could find itself again withdrawing from the international stage or playing the role of disruptor. A Republican president could also hollow out the U.S. civil service, making it very difficult for other countries to conduct daily business with the United States. This would create serious problems for London: it would be hard for the United Kingdom to be a major global player if its biggest and most powerful partner doesn’t care what it has to say.
London, of course, may sometimes seem inclined to be Washington’s personal assistant, but it also sees itself as much more. The U.K. government has looked to carve out an independent role for the country, especially in the Euro-Atlantic, which the United Kingdom’s Integrated Review explicitly identified as the country’s chief security priority. In some ways, it has succeeded. The United Kingdom’s response to the war in Ukraine has been impressive, swift, and valiant. It has offered military assistance faster than its European partners, providing $1.6 billion in military support and pledging another $1.2 billion. It has helped craft robust sanctions, and unlike Europe, it has promised to phase out Russian oil imports by the end of the year (although this is far easier for the United Kingdom to do than it is for the continent). London also played a critical role in paving the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO, including by supporting security guarantees that safeguard both states until they attain full membership.
But even in the Euro-Atlantic, British leadership has limits. In NATO, it is clearly Washington’s junior partner. And when it comes to energy, sanctions, and even military aid, both the United States and Ukraine remain far more concerned with getting the EU’s assistance. The EU, after all, is a much bigger economy with far more people. The bloc’s provision of military equipment to Ukraine and its decision to grant Ukraine candidate status (though so far, more symbolic than real) have both received far more international attention than anything the United Kingdom has done. It confirms that the European Union—not the United Kingdom—is the gatekeeper of the European West.
When the United Kingdom was part of the EU, it would have been one of the biggest players in the bloc’s foreign policy decisions. It would have helped drive members’ military assistance provisions, and it would have helped coordinate sanctions. But now, London has virtually no influence on EU policy—and is rarely invited to Brussels. (The fact that the UK was invited to a special meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in March garnered much attention exactly because it is now so rare.) Johnson’s Brexit conduct earned the United Kingdom few friends on the continent, and the country’s refugee policies have brought it into conflict with the European Court of Human Rights, creating another needless headache.
It will not be easy for Johnson’s successor to increase the United Kingdom’s international stature. Indeed, they will need to start by fixing matters at home. This is true, too, of its partner across the Atlantic, but the United Kingdom is not the United States; its capacity to lead abroad while engulfed in internal turmoil is far less. To build a truly influential United Kingdom, the next prime minister must move beyond the tribal politics of Brexit, bridge internal divisions, and build unity across the entirety of the United Kingdom—especially within Northern Ireland and Scotland. They must invest in human and physical infrastructure while exercising fiscal discipline.
Consider, for instance, the economy. In June 2022, United Kingdom hit its highest rate of inflation in 40 years and, at 9.4 percent, had the highest rate of inflation in the G-7. Its projected GDP growth for 2023 is 1.2 percent, which would place it at the bottom of the group. It is hard for London to lead with these kinds of figures. The next prime minister will need to control inflation but also find ways to increase productivity and expand the labor force in order to grow the economy. He will also need to make vital investments in the nation’s infrastructure and adopt policies that can stimulate business investments. Unfortunately, Truss has so far fixated primarily on tax cuts, promising more than $35 billion worth of them within weeks, and a cost-reduction across the U.K. civil service. Both seem unlikely to achieve these goals. Sunak has also promised tax cuts—but fewer of them, and only by the end of the decade.
Healing the country’s blistering divisions and restoring its democratic norms could prove especially challenging. The next prime minister can begin by reinstating responsible leadership to Downing Street, grounded in a strong moral compass. That will mean making amends for the Johnson government’s biggest scandals. The next government should acknowledge that Johnson and his team circumvented the spirit if not the letter of their laws, rules, and norms around COVID-19 lockdowns when hosting parties. It should also apologize for Johnson’s failure to clearly condemn sexual predation by a senior party leader.
But sounder leadership must extend beyond the prime minister’s office. The next government should restore professional and moral standards for all its ministers—and for all those participating in public life. Failing to do so will further undermine trust in government and domestic stability and, with it, Britain’s ability to help lead the West. One of today’s main international challenges is democratic erosion: according to Freedom House, only 20 percent of the world’s people live in fully free countries, and even the most established democracies are experiencing backsliding. The United Kingdom can’t credibly address this challenge if its own house is broken.
Repairing U.K. politics will be both a high-stakes and a long-term project. It will require bolstering democratic norms by investing in citizenship and education, including depoliticizing schools and combatting disinformation. The United Kingdom should also invest in a sustained effort to enhance the leadership skills of emerging leaders, as well as those across government who have been appointed to head ministries. It must hunt down illiberal bubbles that have emerged inside of government bureaucracies and then break them apart.
To bolster the United Kingdom’s international leadership, the next prime minister will need to honestly acknowledge the limits of what London can accomplish on the global stage. The United Kingdom is simply not strong enough to lead alone, and it will have to forge a productive relationship with Europe if it wants to exert meaningful global sway. This means securing a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol, one that protects the Good Friday Agreement (which ended the conflict), is politically acceptable within Northern Ireland, and adopts sustainable checks on goods that cross between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Such an agreement may face opposition from hardcore Brexiters, who view any concession to EU rules as a strike against the country’s autonomy. The next prime minister will need to explain that this is a price the country must pay.
Stabilizing ties with Europe will give London additional leverage in its relationship with the United States. For Washington, Europe’s importance extends far beyond Ukraine; it also wants the continent to help it compete with China and fight climate change. There’s a reason why Biden went to Brussels after his first G-7 meeting and after visiting NATO’s headquarters, as well as why the White House pushed to set up the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council. If the United Kingdom could shape the EU’s priorities, it would be far more useful to Washington and therefore be better positioned to make asks—rather than to simply act as its delegate. (Washington, for its part, has made clear it is interested in stronger U.K.-EU relations.)
If the United Kingdom really wants to further bolster its global position, it should recommit to an even broader range of international institutions. The next prime minister can start that process by revoking Johnson’s asylum plan, which will help patch up ties with the United Nations Refugee Agency. They can also abandon Johnson’s draft Bill of Rights, which would replace the Human Rights Act of 1998 and empower U.K. judges while diminishing the authority of the European Court of Human Rights within the United Kingdom. They can then actively expand London’s international commitments, in part by leveraging the United Kingdom’s historic relationships to work with the G-7 to help nations in the global South achieve a sustainable recovery from today’s food, energy, and debt crises. London is home to a vast network of nonstate actors and financial firms, all of which are crucial to the success of the Western-led Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, a development plan that depends on private capital to achieve its target of mobilizing $600 billion for infrastructure investment across the global South. And the United Kingdom should leverage its historical relationships in the security realm, especially with India, to enhance its role as a contributor to security in the Indo-Pacific.
The next prime minister may encounter some resistance from their own party in carrying out this agenda. Boris Johnson has done little to drum up support at home for the United Kingdom’s leadership in foreign assistance and has rallied his base against some of the country’s central treaty commitments. Repairing the United Kingdom’s reputation will entail international compromise, something the party’s Brexit advocates have steadfastly rejected. But the country’s strength isn’t derived from its independence. It is grounded in its international partnerships, treaty commitments, and global action not only on transatlantic security but also on climate change, human rights, technology, and international development. If the United Kingdom wants to lead, it must be willing to partner up with the institutions that advance these causes. It must reject toxic and divisive politics, which only get in the country’s way.