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The prime minister must take action to cement the UK's 'bold new positive role’ on the international stage

This is a crucial time for the UK to prove its credentials as a positive player in international relations.

Ben Donaldson
12 September 2016
 David Mirzoeff / PA Wire/P

Prime Minister Theresa May greets European Council president Donald Tusk at 10 Downing Street. Photo: David Mirzoeff / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. In the wake of Brexit, there is a perception that the UK is set on a course of nationalism and reduced international cooperation. Whether true or not, it is undeniable that protracted trade negotiations with the EU and others will absorb an almighty portion of the UK government’s political energies and resources – both finite commodities.

With such constraints, it is unclear how Theresa May will forge the ‘bold new positive role for ourselves in the world’ she referenced in her maiden speech as prime minister.  What is clear is that if the UK is to maintain its status as a leading and influential player on the world stage, let alone upgrade this to a ‘bold new positive role’, enormous political capital and diplomatic resources will be required. That is not to say we should be fatalistic about the UK’s fading power; the prime minister’s sanguine words should be welcomed, cautiously, but how can they be translated into action?

The prime minister should begin by signalling the UK’s commitment to international cooperation and the pursuit of common goals. The upcoming world leaders’ week in the UN General Assembly presents a useful opportunity to do just that for two reasons:

  1. The prime minister’s attendance (on occasion it has been left to the Deputy prime minister or the Foreign Secretary) is important symbolically, and will help dispel fears that Britain is too preoccupied with Brexit to concentrate on other matters.
  2. The prime minister can use the occasion to articulate a joined-up strategy for the UN: this will underscore Britain’s commitment to multilateralism and makes sense given that it’s the first leaders’ week since the UK published its five-year national security strategy emphasising the importance of the ‘rules-based international order’ with the UN at its heart. 

The modest additional support to UN Peacekeeping pledged by the UK earlier this month is welcome, but September also heralds an important UN summit on refugees and migrants in New York. This provides an opportunity to back-up warm words with action by making practical commitments to an area of the UN’s portfolio stretched to breaking point. It could also help the UK move on from an ugly and divisive referendum campaign dogged with misconceptions and hyperbole over the issue of migration.

This all takes place against a backdrop of growing concerns from the NGO community as well as from the UK’s diplomatic community and our allies that Britain’s foreign policy is adrift. Plans to scrap the human rights act, continuing to sell arms to partners involved in the Yemen conflict, snubbing recent UN disarmament talks and dissolving the UK’s department for climate change are exacerbating matters.

Communicating a progressive vision for the UK’s foreign policy this September and – crucially – implementing it, would help revive the UK’s stock on the world stage and help the new prime minister draw a line under those UK actions interpreted by many as incompatible with the international standards the UK has done so much to create. If the UK can demonstrate a joined-up commitment to international cooperation, not just declare it, then we would be on firmer footing when talking about our ‘bold new positive role’.

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