Looking ahead to 2017: ‘Brexit’ and Britain’s role in the world


This time last year, the editors of Defence-in-Depth asked me in my capacity as Director of the DSD Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre to look forward to the year ahead. I used the opportunity to consider the challenges facing British strategy and defence policy in 2016. I mentioned Russia and the linked conflict in Syria, as well as the ongoing crisis in Libya, while focussing on two issues: taking forward the decisions announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of November, and then the potential strategic shock of a decision to leave the European Union in the June referendum. This last shock did indeed manifest; implementing this decision will be the main focus for British strategy over the coming year and beyond.

The three circles

Britain’s changing role in Europe cannot be considered in isolation from its other key relationships. For exploring this issue, there is still some utility in the classic ‘three circles’ model of British foreign policy. This approach, coined initially in the aftermath of the Second World War, portrayed Britain as occupying a unique position in international affairs at the intersection of three overlapping circles of relationships, namely Europe, the United States and the Commonwealth (changing to ‘the wider world’ with the decline of this institution). Each of these circles was important but none was important enough to displace either of the others. This approach often caused frustration to those who wanted a more single-minded focus on one or other of the circles, yet the model acknowledged the need to juggle all three, albeit that the balance between them could change.

The three circles model explains some of the underlying reservations about Britain’s relationship with an integrating Europe that led to the present situation. While Europe had long been of fundamental importance to Britain in economic and defence terms, it was never the only game in town. In 1945 Britain continued to see Europe as a priority but also to look beyond it to a greater extent that any of its European partners – including France, which opted decisively for European integration after the collapse of its empire, seeking to co-opt German economic strength to French political leadership. This was why Britain initially encouraged integration of the Western European states while itself standing apart (which was Churchill’s policy – despite recent mendacious attempts to associate him with British participation), and also why it was a half-hearted member once it eventually joined. There was a strand within British elite opinion, which its critics would damn as ‘declinist’, that would have welcomed a more enthusiastic dive into Europe as a symbol of the country turning its back on great power aspirations. Yet this never became mainstream and was perhaps more common in Whitehall than Westminster.

The European circle

For the next 12 months and beyond, British politics will be dominated by the Europe question – this is a prediction that can be comfortably made even after the shocks of 2016. The European circle remains the most important relationship for Britain. An impression can emerge from both the plaintive wailing of some ‘remainers’ and the geographically dubious aspirations of some ‘leavers’ that Britain is somehow departing from Europe. First, it is, of course, the European Union that Britain is going to leave, not ‘Europe’. The UK will remain a member of NATO (and is likely to give a greater priority to it) and various other European bodies. Second, there will be a continuing, albeit transformed relationship both with the European Union as a body (perhaps even involved new institutions) and also individual member states, with both of which Britain will retain deep connections – social, cultural and intellectual in addition to political and economic – and even dependencies. The priority that the government apparently places on control of borders over freedom of movement will restrict Britain’s participation in the single market. Yet there will still be an economic relationship which, while more important to Britain, will also be highly significant for the EU. The relationship is not only economic, however, with important diplomatic, security and defence aspects. While these are not quite the ‘card’ for Britain to play that is sometimes implied, they will be an element of the settlement that emerges.

There appears to be a strand of opinion in the EU that seeks to inflict a punishment beating on Britain to scare any other states away from following in its wake. This petulant approach (which does not suggest much confidence in the ‘ever closer union’ model that did much to get us to this point – as well as ignoring the real and deep problems still affecting the Eurozone) is set against a more constructive one that acknowledges that the EU needs Britain too, both economically and in security and defence. The interest in this relationship is not only on the British side.

The other two circles

The transformation in Britain’s relationship with the European circle cannot be considered in isolation from its relationship with the other two. Both of these are also in a state of flux, with the imminent inauguration of President Trump and the international system coming to terms with a more assertive, even aggressive China. Nonetheless, Britain is going to increase the relative weight it places on the two non-European circles.

Some ‘Brexiteers’ give the impression that they can, to borrow Canning’s formulation, ‘call the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old’. Enhancing links with the US and Asia, far more economically dynamic than Europe, has considerable potential, albeit nowhere close to being able to replace the deep ties to Europe – though as noted above, they do not need to, as these will in large part continue. These other relationships should not be burdened with excessive expectations – yet one of the implications of the three circles model is that the different circles can be mutually complementary.

The new Trump presidency adds a further element of uncertainty to the picture. While the UK might well be ‘at the front of the queue’ for a trade agreement with the incoming US administration, neither new trade deals nor its relationship with Britain will be at the top of its agenda. The gains to be had are likely to be relatively modest. Yet the very uncertainty created by what could prove to be a radical change of leadership presents opportunities for Britain in its relationship with Europe (and perhaps elsewhere too?). Whether Trump’s criticism of some continental members of NATO and his rather odd love-in with Putin are a bargaining tactic to get a better deal for the US, or something deeper, they increase the importance of Britain in European defence both in its own right and also as an interlocutor with the US, if not the transatlantic ‘bridge’ of previous decades.

As for the growing economies beyond Europe and North America, Britain outside the single market may well be less attractive to them than they are to Britain. On the other hand, Britain remains a large market in its own right, which could benefit from greater economic and financial flexibility post-Brexit. Here too, other issues come into play, notably defence and security, in which Britain could be a useful partner for many states, all the more so if the commitment of the US is in doubt. Recent signs of an expanded military role ‘east of Suez’ – which as I have argued elsewhere, should not go too far east – suggest a willingness to play this wider role, although the current defence budget (like the Foreign Office budget) is inadequate to sustain it. Taking on more of a role here would in turn make Britain a more valuable ally for the US and for the EU.


The three circles model therefore retains some value both in explaining how the current situation arose, and in shedding light on how it might be resolved. In each circle, the relationship applies both ways, including what Britain offers to others as well as what it hopes to gain. Each circle is multi-dimensional, with overlapping economic, diplomatic, security and military aspects. All three circles are inter-related and, handled skilfully, can be mutually reinforcing (or damaging, if mishandled).

A Britain that is truly marginalised in Europe would be a less attractive partner to others. Yet there are good reasons to expect that this will not happen, partly because of the importance of Britain to the EU and the rest of Europe, but also due to the overseas influence it can offer. Enhancing Britain’s economic, diplomatic and security links with the US, the Gulf, the Asia-Pacific and other regions could only go so far to mitigate any loss of influence in Europe; yet such moves would be useful in themselves as well as reducing the extent of any such dip by enhancing what Britain offers Europe.

Britain is not turning its back on Europe, and nor can other relationships provide a substitute for that with the EU. Yet Europe has long been only one, albeit the most prominent, among several relationships for Britain; what is underway is a rebalancing. This process involves risk in both senses, potential threat and also opportunity. Getting it right will require serious thought about Britain’s role in the world, what it seeks to achieve, what resources it has and how it can use the latter to achieve the former. In other words, it demands careful, systematic and sustained consideration of national strategy.­­

Image: HMS Queen Elizabeth Under Construction with HMS Prince of Wales (Dec 1 2014), via flickr.

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