December 26, 2016 By FTI Consulting
2016 has been a year of political upset: the vote by the UK to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president have both shaken the decades-long foundations of British foreign policy. War in the Middle East, the unpredictability of Russia and the rise of emerging markets such as China will continue to be the main challenges the world faces, but how the UK deals with these issues will now change.
Little is known of Theresa May’s foreign policy beliefs. Her experience as one of the longest-serving Home Secretaries will likely mean UK foreign relations being conducted through the prism of national security. What she thinks should be done about Syria, how the UK can manage a resurgent Russia, or even her feelings towards the UK-U.S. special relationship are little known. May has adopted a far more cautious and pragmatic approach to British foreign affairs than her predecessor, leaving more room for flexibility in the government’s position.
She has, however, sought to downplay concerns over Trump’s election. To what extent Nigel Farage will feature in UK-U.S. relations remains to be seen, but there is talk of Trump making a state visit to the UK once he’s inaugurated. More Atlanticist than Obama, Trump has spoken of his desire to emulate the Thatcher-Reagan relationship. As the leaders of two nations which have defied political expectations, May and Trump might be 2017’s most surprising relationship.
The Middle East has always been at the heart of UK foreign policy. With the Syrian government currently taking back the city of Aleppo from rebel groups, it seems the regime is likely to increase in confidence in the coming year. Boris Johnson, in his capacity as foreign secretary, has advocated the UK doing a ‘deal with the Devil,’ cooperating with Putin and Assad to defeat ISIS. Combined with Trump’s promise to conduct US foreign policy differently, May’s pragmatism may see a change in approach in 2017.
That said, May has aligned herself with conventional British policy on Russia. Despite Trump’s cosying up to Putin, May has lent her support to sanctions on Russia for its actions in Syria. She is likely to continue close cooperation with European leaders, who share her position, as well as resist Russia’s encroachment on Eastern European nations. Her recent decision to deploy 150 troops to Poland to protect its border is demonstrative of her attitude to Russian expansionism.
The other big beast for UK foreign policy is China. The previous Cameron administration was keen to do anything it could to forge closer ties with the People’s Republic and boost investment from the country. The ‘golden era’ of Sino-British relations suffered a setback earlier this year when May delayed a final decision on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, of which China was a major investor. China will be an important economic partner as the UK leaves the EU and seeks deeper trading relationships with countries further afield.
Whilst the golden era might be on hold, India looks set to feature strongly on the prime minister’s map. In early November, May made an official visit to the country, on which she spoke of her desire to ‘reboot’ the relationship. That it was her first visit to a country outside the EU might indicate her intention to focus more on India when it comes to emerging economies – describing the UK and India as the world’s oldest and largest democracies respectively – rather than China.
2017 looks set to be a year in which foreign policy is dominated by the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Following the Brexit vote in June this year, the Prime Minister has signaled her intention to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, after which two years of negotiations will work out the detail of the UK’s exit. Theresa May’s main priority will be preserving the trade relationship between the UK and the EU, mindful that almost half of the UK’s exports go to the Continent. She’ll have to balance this with Leave voters’ demands to curb immigration, which might end up a crucial bargaining chip in any trade negotiations.
The structure of UK foreign-policy making has also changed, and will likely affect the UK’s foreign relations in 2017. Three separate government departments responsible for separate aspects of foreign policy pose challenges to presenting a unified government message. A new Department for International Trade has been established, responsible for securing trade deals in a post-Brexit economy. Whilst it can’t officially negotiate new free trade agreements so long as the UK is part of the EU, it can set the ball rolling and seek to demonstrate May’s ambitions for British leadership in free trade.
One last thing to note is the role of MI6. In tune with May’s national security thinking, the Secret Intelligence Service has been given funding to expand its staff by 1,000 by the end of this decade. This follows the government’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and increasing threats from rogue states and Islamic extremists. 2017 foreign policy looks set to lean further towards protection of national security and economy, with less focus on humanitarianism than Cameron.