Since the second world war and end of empire, British foreign policy has been moored to two powerful partners. Our ‘special relationship’ with the US has dominated our defence policy, through the cold war into an era of liberal interventionism. Our relationship with Europe, most recently through the European Union, has provided the basis for our trade and economic model, constitution and law, and a commitment to post-war ideals of European integration.
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Britain’s upcoming departure from the EU unmoors it from those twin anchors of the country’s foreign policy, with an opportunity and necessity to reframe Britain’s role in the world. In the ‘Leave’ imaginary, the UK will soon be free to once again rule the waves, setting up global trade relationships and regaining the ‘great’ in Great Britain. But to many in the ‘Remain’ camp, departure erodes ties with our largest and closest trading partner, turning Britain against values of internationalism and cooperation, and leaving us unsure of our position in the world. Which diagnosis is correct depends of course on context, and on how the UK charts its future course.

The waters look choppy. The world has changed, whether recognised by the Brexit debate or not. The past few years have seen the resurgence of reactionary nationalist governments led by aggressive, militaristic men: Putin, Trump, Kim, Erdogan, Netanyahu and, to a certain extent, Xi. President Trump is isolated from other states, and threats of national protest show that he is unwelcome amongst the public in the UK, his supposedly closest ally. His brinkmanship on Twitter and defence strategy focussed on China and Russia signal a return to foreign affairs taking place between the big, powerful states; non-state actors are no longer perceived as the greatest threat to the West. Meanwhile, private philanthropy – organised, strategic and free of the constraints of public opinion - has in some domains outshone the development and disease alleviation efforts of entire states.

New economic giants have risen and Chinese investment around the world is expanding, including in developing countries. Environmental threats, of which climate change is only one, are radically shifting the security and development landscape. Ours is now a world of multipolarity and unpredictability.

The accepted ethics of foreign policy change with time, and not always in an inevitable arc of progress. What’s more, ethical motivations are not easily distinguished from self-interested ones. The line between benevolent intervention and neo-colonialism can be remarkably thin. This is most obvious in the case of humanitarian intervention, but it also holds for so-called ‘free trade deals’ that benefit the larger, purchasing economy; in aid that is designed to suit foreign policy objectives as much as altruistic causes; and for migration policies that create ‘brain-drains’ in the developing world while showing little humanity to the thousands of immigrants who die in the Mediterranean each year. Still less clear is the line between duty and benevolence. If we provide asylum for people whose lives have been torn apart by a war we’ve failed to stop, is that duty or altruism? What about providing assistance to countries that suffered directly under colonialism?
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In this context forging a progressive foreign policy is a difficult task. The UK government and its foreign policy should protect citizens – the first job of government - and build for them a prosperous economy. In doing, it should limit harm to others around the world and, where possible, actively improve the safety and prosperity of other nations. It should always recognise the UK’s role in shaping the world as it is today – remembering and seeking to redress the bad as well as the good.

More humility is needed. By looking back at the past, we should understand that we have no right to be at the global ‘top table’; instead, it must either be earned, or we must accept that we no longer have a place there. In doing so, we should learn the lessons of the past and shun bellicosity, reminding the world that we, of all nations, understand the folly and damage of aggressive foreign policy. Against a backdrop of growing nostalgia for Britain and her empire, critical discussion of our history and potential futures is essential. There is a mainstream story to be told and a new common sense about Britain’s history and future to be won.

In this issue, our authors address the question of what a progressive foreign policy should look like in moral, political and practical terms.

McNeill argues that faced with huge remaining challenges, but real stories of progress, the UK should avoid paralysis and draw on its substantial strengths – for example its expertise in global health and on our history of running the NHS – to address the next big challenges in development. Reynolds launches a similar appeal to our history as a nation that helped define refugee rights to call on the UK to reaffirm its commitment to the principle of refugee protection.

The Windrush scandal has shown that the ‘hostile environment’ does not command the support of the British people when its human impact is revealed. Patel has a less optimistic view of UK politicians’ ability to move beyond the antipathy and hostility to rights revealed by the Brexit vote to remain a credible champion of human rights internationally and exemplar to others – however much such leadership is needed and has been achieved previously. Also looking to the past, Christensen takes a critical look at the UK’s role in creating and protecting a web of tax havens centred around the City of London, that facilitate money laundering and tax avoidance, to argue for strong action to dethrone finance.
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Curtice delves further into the domestic politics of foreign policy, showing that from the Salisbury poisonings to intervention in Syria, it was not Labour’s policy but their perceived ability to lead that was damaging to them in their first real electoral test since the general election in the May local elections. El-Enany traces recent ‘pseudo-intellectual research advocating colonialism’ and its use of the imperial pride and nostalgia stirred up by the Brexit vote to legitimise and advocate for ‘white supremacist ideas and projects’; we must counter such narratives to avoid a return to the legitimation of empire. In considering whether the US can maintain its position as hegemon in global capitalism given its domestic political crisis, Panitch and Gindin argue that socialists should pursue changes in institutions and in the international arena that would allow them more room for manoeuvre for progressive goals within their own countries.

On defence, Owen argues that Brexit presents opportunities to resolve the inherent contradictions of defence policy resting on a UK-Germany-France power axis. Instead, we should take up opportunities to work with European partners while strengthening ties through alternative institutions including NATO. Hudson also argues for a forward looking defence policy; one that abandons cold war strategies of nuclear weapons holdings that do more to serve status than ensure global peace.
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Currently, imperial nostalgia curtails the conservative imagination. Meanwhile the political left needs to develop a plan to realise the many strengths of the UK – however gained – to improve lives abroad, moving from opposition to proposition.

There are many areas in which the UK could use its assets to mutual advantage. One example is Britain’s historical leadership role on climate change and the potential to recreate that leadership in the era of the Anthropocene and accelerating environmental collapse. This should be founded on an understanding of the security and development implications of this collapse and always be aware of Britain’s central role in its development. This is an area that is ripe for British leadership, providing a hopeful avenue for a younger progressive generation, and one that would put the UK back at the forefront of the world’s most pressing problem.

The UK can choose to uphold its nostalgia while failing to recreate a rosy past that is both fictitious and unobtainable. Or it can, with humility but not paralysis, seek a new role in global politics that draws on its strengths to address the latest, greatest issues facing the world.

Carys Roberts, Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton