Post-Brexit Britain is going it alone at a time when globalization is in retreat. But a clash with China over Hong Kong has shown the limits of what it can do.
LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his pro-Brexit allies have long promised that once Britain broke free of the European Union, it could play a bold new role on the world stage — one they dubbed Global Britain. For a few days this week, it looked as if they were actually making good on that promise.
When China imposed a new security law on Hong Kong, Mr. Johnson not only condemned the Chinese government, he also threw open Britain’s doors to nearly three million residents of the former British colony who were eligible for residency in Britain. It was a strong, some even said brave, stand by a long-departed colonial government against the oppression of a rising superpower.
But it was, in the end, also a signpost of Britain’s diminished stature: The Chinese threatened retaliation, while Mr. Johnson’s ministers admitted that there was nothing they could do if China refused to allow those people to leave Hong Kong.
“We’re a medium-size power that needs to work with others to secure what we want around the world,” said Chris Patten, who served as the last British governor of Hong Kong. Leaving the European Union, he said, had deprived Britain of its most natural partner “in trying to deal with these global issues.”
The clash with China laid bare deeper contradictions in Mr. Johnson’s post-Brexit vision: Britain wants to go global at a time when globalization is in retreat. It has cast off from the world’s largest trading bloc when the world is more divided than ever into competing regions. And it is trying to carve out an overseas role just as the coronavirus pandemic has crippled its domestic economy.
Mr. Johnson’s model is no longer Winston Churchill, the proud symbol of Britain’s imperial reach, but Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal put American society back on its feet after the Great Depression.
With millions of Britons facing joblessness and a mammoth rebuilding project at home, Mr. Johnson’s government scarcely has the bandwidth to reestablish Britain as an energetic player on the global stage. His ministers no longer invoke the phrase Singapore-on-Thames, which once described the kind of agile, lightly regulated, free-trading powerhouse that they envisioned emerging from Brexit.
Moreover, the geopolitical landscape has shifted significantly since the Brexit referendum — and even more rapidly since the pandemic spread around the world. With rivalry and antagonism between China and the West on the rise, Britain as a free agent will be caught uncomfortably in between, constantly forced to choose sides in a postpandemic world.
“One consequence of a postglobalization world is that people will start to think in a defensive way about blocs,” said Mark Malloch Brown, a former deputy secretary general of the United Nations. “Britain is adrift without a bloc. That is going to be challenging, and a first example of this is Hong Kong.”
British diplomats showed skill in lining up the United States, Canada and Australia to sign a stern letter to the Chinese government about the new law. But in defending the rights of those who hold British overseas passports, Britain is on its own. Neither the European Union, so recently forsaken by Britain, nor the United States, largely indifferent to human rights under President Trump, is eager to join that fight.
Mr. Johnson once cast Britain’s independence as a competitive advantage. He said it would allow the country to pursue trade agreements with China, the United States or anyone else, unencumbered by the European Union.
“As Global Britain, our range is not confined to the immediate European hinterland as we see the rise of new powers,” said Mr. Johnson, then serving as foreign secretary, in a speech to Chatham House in December 2016. “It is right that we should make a distinctive approach to policymaking, as regards China.”
But as relations between China and the United States have soured, Mr. Johnson is caught in the middle. After initially fending off pressure from Mr. Trump to keep the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei out of Britain’s 5G digital network, Mr. Johnson has been forced to reconsider. Some analysts say they expect him to reverse himself and impose additional restrictions on Huawei.
Part of the reason is technical: American sanctions on Huawei have raised the security risks of allowing the company to build a large part of the network. But part of it is geopolitical reality. In any coming Cold War between the United States and China, Britain cannot afford to alienate its most important ally.
“The danger is finding ourselves trapped between President Trump and President Xi,” Mr. Patten said, referring to the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.
Mr. Trump’s faltering political fortunes pose another risk to Mr. Johnson. The president has enthusiastically supported Brexit and embraced the prime minister as a like-minded populist. If Mr. Trump were to lose in November, Mr. Johnson would face an uncertain new counterpart in former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
There is nothing to suggest that Mr. Biden would not champion the alliance with Britain. On some issues, like Iran and climate change, there would be fewer points of friction. But Mr. Biden is not likely to attach the same priority to a trade deal that Mr. Trump has. Former President Barack Obama famously warned Britons they would be at the “back of the queue” for trade talks if they voted for Brexit.
Mr. Biden is also a devoted Irish-American who would look out for Ireland’s interests, as Britain negotiates its long-term trade relationship with the European Union (a breakthrough in those talks seems more elusive than ever). The preservation of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended years of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, is an article of faith among Democrats.
“Democrats are bewildered by the logic of Brexit, to begin with,” Mr. Malloch Brown said. “There is a very strong Democratic Irish lobby, which will be really watching like a hawk that this doesn’t put Ireland at a disadvantage.”
To some critics, Global Britain was never more than a marketing slogan. After all, they said, Britain has for centuries seen itself as a global player, one that punched above its weight economically and militarily, long after the end of the empire and throughout its 47 years of membership in Europe’s institutions.
Today, in any event, powerful Johnson advisers, like Dominic Cummings, are more concerned about transforming British society than asserting its influence abroad. They know the Conservative Party won its 80-seat Parliamentary majority with the votes of working-class people in Britain’s Midlands and north, who care more about saving their jobs than striking trade deals.
Since Mr. Johnson’s victory, he has used the Global Britain label mainly to put a gloss on a bureaucratic decision: merging two government ministries, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. The rationale, he said, is to align Britain’s foreign aid with its strategic and commercial interests. Some former diplomats said Mr. Johnson should not stop there.
“If you really want a Global Britain, and you want the Foreign Office to have genuine policy heft, then bring in the trade department,” said Simon Fraser, who once headed the Foreign Office.
There are grounds for hope about Britain’s role. Its diplomats are pushing a proposal to expand the Group of 7 to include three other big democracies, South Korea, India and Australia. Other countries have welcomed it as an alternative to Mr. Trump’s much-maligned plan to invite Russia back into the club.
Britain remains a substantial military power, with nuclear weapons and a close intelligence relationship with the United States and other allies — known as the Five Eyes — that analysts say has recovered since the strains over Huawei.
Mr. Johnson made waves this week with a front-page column in an Israeli newspaper, in which he urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to annex occupied territories in the West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu has held off for now.
Britain’s opposition Labour Party has also swung back to the mainstream, after a period in which it seemed influenced by anti-American sentiment and was tainted by allegations of anti-Semitism. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, has emerged as a fresh new voice on Britain’s place in the world.
If the pandemic finally punctures the illusion of a Global Britain, Britain can take solace in what has not changed. It remains a midsize country, anchored in the West, deeply intertwined with Europe and inescapably lashed to the United States.
“It has made them realize that they couldn’t have their cake and eat it too,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “That is a delusion that has now been stripped away. They’ve been forced back into their more traditional space.”