Sunak’s Pivot Away From ‘Global Britain’ Makes Friends on World Stage

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has put his predecessors’ projects big and small on hold, from Liz Truss’s tax cuts to Boris Johnson’s refurbished royal yacht. But one of Sunak’s more symbolic changes since he took over as prime minister five months ago has received less attention: dropping the slogan “Global Britain.”

The phrase, a cloak-and-dagger relic of Britain’s debate over its post-Brexit role, no longer appears in speeches by cabinet ministers or in the government’s updated foreign and military policy plan released last Monday. .

Instead, Sunak has struck professional deals on trade and immigration with Britain’s closest neighbours: France and the rest of the European Union. In the process, analysts and diplomats said, it has begun, for the first time since Britain’s departure from the European Union, to chart a realistic role on the world stage.

Global Britain, as proposed by Johnson, was meant to evoke a Britain, free from the shackles of Brussels, that could be agile and opportunistic, a lightly regulated free trade power. In practice, it came to symbolize a country with wild ambitions and, under Johnson’s leadership, a habit of fighting with its neighbors.

Sunak has changed all that, with a pragmatic approach that, to some extent, reflects his strict, technocratic style. (In domestic politics, he, too, has eschewed the ideological experimentation of Truss and the bombastic politics of Johnson in favor of a more methodical approach to Britain’s deep-seated economic problems.)

But a leader’s style matters, and on the world stage, Mr. Sunak’s no-frills approach is paying heady dividends.

In recent weeks, he has struck a deal with Brussels on Northern Ireland trade, eased years of Brexit-related tensions with France, inaugurated the next phase of a submarine alliance with Australia and the United States and announced £11bn. (about $13.3 billion) in increased military spending over the next five years, cementing Britain’s role as Ukraine’s main arms supplier.

“It is too early to say whether Sunak has found a role for post-Brexit Britain,” said Peter Westmacott, who served as Britain’s ambassador to France and the United States. “But he has banished the much-derided Johnsonian catchphrase of ‘global Britain’, preferring to under-promise and over-deliver. He also moved quickly to fix some of the obstacles to improving relationships with our partners.”

There are lingering obstacles to a new British role, notably the right wing of Sunak’s Conservative Party, which remains distrustful of the European Union and could yet trip up his trade deal with Northern Ireland. Human rights experts have also condemned the government’s new plan to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel, saying it will violate international law.

Still, Westmacott said, “let us not underestimate the value of restoring trust and mutual respect at the level of head of government at a time when like-minded liberal democracies have more reason than ever to work together.”

Mr. Sunak has embarked on a large fence repair tour. Unlike Johnson, who once quarreled with French President Emmanuel Macron over sausages, Sunak called Macron “mon ami” after they met in Paris this month and agreed to work together to try to stop migrant crossings.

When Mr Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the agreement on new trade rules for Northern Ireland, known as the Windsor Framework, she referred to him as “dear Rishi”. It was a stark contrast to the forced encounters she once had with Mr. Johnson.

President Biden has also warmed to Sunak, though not always in ways that help the prime minister at home. During Mr. Sunak’s visit to San Diego to launch the submarine alliance, Mr. Biden noted that Mr. Sunak graduated from Stanford University and owned a home on the coast. “That’s why I’m being very nice to you,” Biden said. “Maybe you can invite me to your house in California.”

Mr. Sunak’s residence in Santa Monica is a reminder that he is wealthy and held a US green card while finance minister, troubles that dogged him when he ran unsuccessfully for leader of the Conservative Party in 2022. (He claimed the position a few months later after Ms. Truss’s financial missteps forced his resignation.)

The White House, in its statement, did not highlight Sunak’s role in securing the Northern Ireland deal with Brussels. The prime minister told Biden in November, in their first face-to-face meeting as leaders, that he hoped to resolve the issue in time for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.

“I suspect the US is being cautious,” said Simon Fraser, a former senior official at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “There have been a lot of false starts with the UK since Brexit.”

British officials said the wording of the White House statement was helpful, because checking Sunak’s name could have caused him headaches in Northern Ireland’s complicated political landscape, where Biden’s endorsement is a mixed blessing. Many there identify the president, a proud Irish-American, as sympathetic to those in the region who want unification with the Republic of Ireland.

Regardless, the deal opened the door for Biden to visit Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital, next month to mark a quarter century since the Good Friday Deal, which ended decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. . The president also invited Mr. Sunak to visit the White House in June.

The submarine pact is a reminder that Britain remains NATO’s most important military power after the United States. US officials say they have been heartened that Sunak has not softened Britain’s relentless support for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that began with Johnson and was reinforced on Thursday when Sunak and Zelensky spoke about Russia’s relentless attacks. in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

In addition, the government budget, announced on Wednesday by Sunak’s chancellor Jeremy Hunt, promises to increase Britain’s military spending to 2.5 percent of economic output, although no date was given for reaching that target. The extra money will go toward building new nuclear submarines and fighter jets, and replenishing stocks depleted by the pipeline of weapons shipped to Ukraine.

“Last week tells us something very important about the way Rishi Sunak views the world and the way he wants the world to view the UK,” said Sophia Gaston, director of foreign policy at Policy Exchange, an organization based in London. group of experts “We are connected, we are open, ambitious, but we are pragmatic when it comes to delivering on our promises”.

Ms Gaston argued that there was more continuity in British foreign policy than the change in language would suggest. For one, the updated foreign and military policy review was written by John Bew, the same foreign policy adviser who penned the 2021 review titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age.”

And while the new document uses less aggressive language, it still emphasizes Britain’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. That could soon improve if, as expected, Britain joins the 11-nation regional trading bloc known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

However, it also says more about Britain’s work with its European neighbours, something that was out of fashion three years ago.

“It’s rooted in the reality of the UK as a significant middle power, but not a superpower, that has to work with others,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.