Britain’s Post-Brexit Foreign Policy Can Be a Force for Good

Boris Johnson shouldn’t shy away from global leadership and the morally driven approach that protected Kosovars and Iraqi Kurds in the 1990s.

By Ranj Alaaldin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and Brookings Doha Center.
Margaret Thatcher Kurds Iraq
The author, Ranj Alaaldin, is pictured at left at the age of 5 with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1991. ITV/Courtesy of Ranj Alaaldin

Thirty years ago, I visited former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s home, together with other members of the Kurdish community in London, to present the case for protecting Iraq’s Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. I was 5 years old.

Iraq’s Kurds had already suffered a genocide under Saddam during the 1980s and faced another onslaught in 1991 after the dictator was forced to withdraw his invading forces from Kuwait by the international community and then looked to strengthen his grip over the Kurds.

The United States, Russia, and China were skeptical about the idea of intervening in the internal matters of another country. Washington in particular was content that it had forced Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and was concerned about putting the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk and involving them in a long-standing conflict between Kurdish revolutionaries and the Baathist regime. However, as a result of the leadership of Thatcher’s successor, John Major—who became prime minister just three months after Saddam invaded Kuwait and was initially hesitant to propose a no-fly zone to the Americans—and thanks to the former prime minister’s instrumental and decisive lobbying, London forced a shift in Washington’s position through sheer perseverance and diplomatic nous.

Operation Provide Comfort prevented Saddam from carrying out another genocide. It was a glorious moment in British political history and for the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Operation Provide Comfort prevented Saddam from carrying out another genocide, and the resulting safe haven in the Kurdistan region—enforced by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France—protected the Kurds and civilians from other parts of Iraq. It was a glorious moment in British political history and for the trans-Atlantic alliance.

There were other heroic examples of British interventionism and leadership in the years that followed, including interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo that saved hundreds of thousands of civilians from the brutality of despots and warlords. These seminal moments in British political history were overshadowed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq but still demonstrate why Britain was and can still be a force for good in the world in the face of global crises, acting as America’s liberal conscience to push back against the popular wisdom and myopia that all too often paralyze the ability of Western governments to formulate and enable measures that could stave off humanitarian atrocities.

An assertive and proactive Britain—one that has the willingness, resources, and global infrastructure to fill the policy voids that result from failed collaborative efforts to address global crises—is absolutely critical as the international community grapples with ongoing wars, Russian belligerence, and China’s human rights atrocities. Although Brexit has raised some doubts over Britain’s future role on the global stage, London retains wide-ranging international linkages; important institutional positions in the G-20, G-7, the U.N. Security Council, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank; a diplomatic and security service that is among the best in the world; and an economy that will still be the sixth or seventh largest in the world in 2030.

The government’s publication last month of the long-awaited “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” indicates that a bold and realistic foreign policy looms on the horizon, one that recognizes the strengths and limits of British influence and adapts the resiliency of the country to modern-day challenges and new frontiers in warfare, including cyberspace and artificial intelligence.

The indications that the U.K. will look to make a stronger mark on the global stage have been exemplified by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership on combating climate change, the response to China’s egregious human rights abuses, the imposition of sanctions on Syrian officials involved in war crimes, and the commitment to raise defense spending by 16.5 billion pounds ($21.9 billion) by 2024.

Johnson has also committed to advancing girls’ education around the world and to making this a key part of his legacy as prime minister—and rightly so: Globally, 132 million girls do not go to school, and nearly two-thirds of the world’s 781 million illiterate adults are female. These conditions enable fragile states and weak institutions and the proliferation of terrorist groups and criminal enterprises that exploit the weak and destitute to swell their ranks.

Britain is also leading Europe’s vaccination race, having now administered more than 40 million doses to people across the country under the stewardship of its minister for vaccine deployment, Nadhim Zahawi, who happens to be an Iraqi Kurd who fled Baath-ruled Iraq for Britain in the 1970s.

The scars left by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to secure parliamentary approval (or exercise his prerogative powers) for airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad’s regime have not disappeared.

Yet it is not so much whether Britain will still matter on the global stage (it will) but whether the government manages to take advantage of the country’s international standing and influence—and whether it has the political will to uphold international security and norms in the face of the next crisis.

The scars left by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to secure parliamentary approval (or exercise his prerogative powers) for airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in response to its use of chemical weapons in 2013, have not disappeared. The notion of having a proactive foreign policy, particularly where it relates to preventing and responding to geopolitical or global conflagrations, has been undermined by the legacies of costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The neglect of Libya’s post-conflict stabilization, the calamities of the Syria conflict, and the refugee crisis that has resulted from long-standing tumult in conflict-stricken regions have suppressed moral impulses that should have otherwise been followed as part of an activist foreign policy that recognizes both the strengths and limits of British influence and reach.

While it has its detractors, in many respects the policy review constitutes a doctrine for engaging global threats and challenges, rather than a strategy in and of itself—a framework that is underscored with, firstly, a unity of purpose and a focus on alliances and, secondly, a willingness to pursue proactive and activist policies when these alliances come under pressure or prove ineffective.

This is where the policy review addresses tensions between two potential post-Brexit foreign-policy visions, which envisage either a focus on soft-power tools to solve global challenges or a focus on hard-power measures and great-power competition with China. Critics of Brexit warned that the withdrawal from the European Union would diminish the country’s capacity to shape the contours of international affairs, but the logic of that argument also means that less Europe means more responsibility.

That renders it imperative that the government adopt a proactive foreign policy that does not waver in the face of opportunities and crises that require it to be both a global power and a global broker, one that bridges political divides and works closely with like-minded nations to address threats to international security.

As part of this proactive approach to international affairs, Johnson should use the momentum that has followed the withdrawal from the EU to reinvigorate multilateralism across the continent and beyond. President Joe Biden is expected to undertake efforts to heal divisions between the United States and Europe while also designing U.S. foreign-policy priorities around the promotion of democratic values.

As the new U.S. administration begins to put these into motion, Johnson should also deploy Britain’s reputational assets and harness the country’s global reach to address long-standing fractures in Europe that have prevented the continent from pushing back against Russia’s hybrid warfare and China’s expansionism, both of which have undermined liberal democracies and values.

These cross-cutting and collaborative partnerships should place a particular emphasis on mediation and conflict resolution, particularly in areas where the U.K. has established interests, strategic partnerships, and influence; this includes the Persian Gulf, where the U.K. should ensure its Gulf Arab allies keep the peace that has followed their recent decision to end the Gulf crisis, a three-and-a-half-year conflict between Qatar on the one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain on the other.

This will enhance economic cooperation, stabilize the Middle East, and contain the threat from nefarious actors like Iran. The U.K. can straddle the line that separates Biden’s focus on diplomatic negotiations to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons from Israel and the Arab Gulf states’ preference for coercive diplomacy and deterrence against Tehran and its proxies.

Britain could play a moderating role that de-escalates tensions and conflicts to prevent wider regional conflagrations, including putting its weight behind a comprehensive nuclear agreement that addresses Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its ballistic missile program, and foreign legion of proxies, which present an immediate and long-term threat to regional stability.

These alliances also provide the U.K. with an opportunity to mitigate the risks of unclear messaging and miscalculation: While Britain and China will have to work together on trade and climate change, and the imposition of tit-for-tat sanctions may continue amid China’s ongoing human rights abuses and a potential standoff over Hong Kong, Beijing will more aggressively test London’s commitment to seeing through its tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, where China has expanded its engagements over the past three decades and where it may target British fleets and personnel to test London’s resolve.

Working with the United States in particular, the U.K. should seek through its alliances to develop its foothold in a region that constitutes the new geopolitical center for both shaping the international order and protecting pathways that are vital to the global economy but also to resolve tensions and avoid military conflict with China.

The U.K. must redefine the scope of democracy promotion, establishing how it should be applied and when—with the stark lessons of the past two decades in mind.

The policy review emphasizes Britain’s role as a force for good in standing up for human rights worldwide, but that role will have to be undertaken through both words and deeds. Past Western interventions in the Arab and Islamic world have tainted the notion of democracy promotion, but the erosion of democratic values both at home and around the world as a direct consequence of Russian and Chinese efforts to weaken democratic norms has far-reaching national security implications. The U.K. must redefine the scope of democracy promotion, establishing how it should be applied and when—with the stark lessons of the past two decades in mind.

In 1991, during our meeting with Thatcher she addressed the press and famously proclaimed to her Conservative colleagues and the wider political class: “The Kurds don’t need talk; they need practical action. … It is not a question of standing on legal niceties. We should go now.”

These are precisely the moments that can define the political legacies of leaders. And, drawing on the example set by Thatcher and Major in 1991, Johnson should not shy away from the moments of reckoning that lurk around the corner, global crises that may soon give him and the U.K. a chance to reveal and test the character and identity of post-Brexit Britain in the midst of a multipolar world that is increasingly shaped by competition and power politics.

Ranj Alaaldin is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @RanjAlaaldin