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The UK must continue facing outwards during and after Brexit

July 5, 2016

Let’s not allow Brexit to distract us from other important things happening around the world. The UK still has a vital role to play. 

(This blog post also appears on

The UK is now on course to leave the European Union after the Brexit referendum vote just over a week ago. Plenty has already been written and said about why most people voted to leave. Suffice it here to say that oversimplification would be a mistake, and that the referendum gave people an opportunity to say many different things. Different people had different reasons for wanting the country to leave: a protest vote, a two-fingers to bankers and the metropolitan elite, a desire for more democracy, concerns about incomes, jobs, farming, fishing, immigration, housing, red tape, a delayed reaction to the de-industrialisation of thirty years ago… or perhaps a wish to bring back some version of the past they either recall, imagine they recall, or have read or heard about. These are not new issues, and only time will tell which of these wishes will be granted.

In the background is the idea that we have managed globalisation and liberalisation – progress, perhaps – poorly; that the move towards a more liberal, internationalist world in the past few decades has hurt vulnerable people economically and emotionally, and that not enough attention has been paid to mitigating or managing this. Too many people are excluded from the fruits of progress, therefore they do not see it as progress. Hence the sense in many parts of the world, that people want something different: nationalist politics and isolationism in the rich world, even as growing numbers of people in poorer countries vote with their feet to seek a better life elsewhere. And hence the sense of ‘greed and grievance’ causing conflicts: grievance on the part of the excluded and disempowered, and greed on the part of those wanting to protect and enhance their access to benefits in the status quo.

Meantime, our planet seems an increasingly threatening and threatened neighbourhood, with a troubling present and future in which economic and demographic trends are placing more and more stress on the natural environment and political institutions (often themselves in flux, thus weakened) which are too fragile to cope. Something has got to give, and we see evidence of this in war and crisis in the Middle East and Afghanistan, worrying behaviour by Russia in Ukraine, and China in the South China Seas; and more subtly but no less harmful for that, in countless other political, social and economic conflicts around the world, including chronic violence linked to poor governance and organised crime. It is salutary to recall that according to the World Bank, 1.5 billion people live in places affected by violent conflict, which threatens their human rights and holds them back from development progress.

So what are the implications of Brexit for the UK’s role as a force for peace in the world?

One inescapable outcome of the Brexit vote is that political, civil service, media and civil society attention in the UK, Brussels and other parts of the EU will be overwhelmingly focused on negotiating a new relationship between the UK and the EU, and then on unpicking the myriad threads of the existing relationship, and weaving new ones. This could take many years. Meanwhile, relationships between the UK, Brussels and other member states will be soured; as will some internal relationships within countries across Europe. The UK’s economy could be affected by uncertainty and volatility, even if it doesn’t, as widely expected, contract or flatline. People, families and communities will – at least for a time – lose out. We could see more tensions and conflicts between identity and economic groups. All this means, I fear, that the attention of the UK and its European partners will be focused overwhelmingly inwards; the world – including here in Europe – will be the poorer for it.

The importance of staying engaged

During the next few years, the UK must avoid turning inwards. Yes, it will have to put some of its best political and civil service talent on the task of negotiating and implementing Brexit. And yes, some of our best journalists and activists should monitor the process and hold them to account. But we need to remain focused on the rest of the world too, and our role in it.

The UK gets plenty wrong internationally: Iraq, Afghanistan, its uncritical support for dictators over the years, its willingness to sell arms to those who misuse them, its inability to help reduce the harm done by the international drugs trade through decriminalisation at home, and its unwillingness to accept more refugees from Syria, to name a few accusations which have been laid at its door.

But it also tries to get a lot right, in a complex world where the right course of action is not always obvious: e.g. its recent attempts to prevent money laundering and corruption, its generous aid programme, its leadership on many aspects of international development and humanitarian aid, its promotion of the Responsibility to Protect in the UN (R2P) and on climate change, and its excellent work promoting the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the International Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Dialogue (IDPS). Through aid, trade and diplomacy it is engaged in many fragile and war-affected countries, providing humanitarian assistance and helping to build post-conflict institutions and prevent further violence.

Despite fears for the post-Brexit future, the UK’s economy remains the world’s fifth largest, it is a permanent (P5) member of the UN Security Council and a G7 member, has some of the best universities in the world, plays a leadership role in the Commonwealth with 2.3 billion citizens, is a cultural and financial hub, hosts significant diasporas from everywhere in the world and members of more or less every religious group, has one of the most professional and most effective armed forces, and is home to some of the oldest institutions of capitalism and democracy – key components of the kind of political economy to which millions of people in non-democratic and non-capitalist contexts aspire.

So where next?

All this to reaffirm that the UK is a country with a great deal of opportunity to do good. Britons must avoid letting their interest in what happens next for themselves, get in the way of their interest and desire to help people elsewhere. After all, despite their understandable anxiety today, British people are still likely to be living, some years from now, in a democratically governed and prosperous UK not beset by chronic violence, unlike their counterparts in Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan or parts of India and Mexico. We need to keep things in perspective.

So what should UK politicians, media and civil society focus on, outside the inevitable bubble of Brexit which is set to dominate our TV screens and newspapers, and the conversations in pubs, homes, cafés and parliament, in the coming months and years? Here are a few suggestions.

The Middle East and North Africa

Since we are about to revise our relationship with the EU, it is surely also high time to think about revising our relationships in the Middle East.

These are artefacts of post-colonialism, the first and second World Wars, the Cold War, our unwillingness to let go of past power, and energy security policies of days gone by. We have backed ourselves into a corner in which we – as a fully paid-up member of the liberal ‘West’ – are in bed with the House of Saud and Wahhabist fundamentalists, maintaining repressive power in Saudi Arabia, and with a murderous and torturing military dictatorship in Egypt; are part of the coalition which ‘broke’ – and thus has a responsibility to help ‘fix’ – the political status quo in Iraq and Libya; and which helped create the space in which the murderous ISIS and its affiliates have flourished in the Levant and elsewhere.

The UK is part of the coalition fighting ISIS. But as every student of war and peace has always known, and as every informed commentator on the Middle East continues to make clear, the war against Islamic fundamentalist extremists will not be won by military violence alone. It will be won – though this may take many years – when the governance of the countries from which many ISIS militants emanate allows a greater political voice and economic opportunity, and ensures the safety and access to justice of all those who live there. Because of its historic and present day ties to many of those countries and their regimes, the UK has a role to play in supporting change – at the very least, by no longer supporting repression. Perhaps violent extremism of one kind or another will always be with us. But it can be much reduced by reducing grievances at their source, which is local, i.e. where those vulnerable to joining violent groups actually live.

The eastern neighbourhood

There is unfinished business in eastern and south-eastern Europe. The future development prospects for Turkey, Ukraine, the South Caucasus and Russia itself, are uncertain. The EU has not always done a good job at managing its part in this story, but it certainly has a role to play through its relationship with its eastern neighbours. If the UK is leaving the EU, it is not leaving Europe, nor NATO, so it’s important it does not duck out of playing its part in helping to rebuild a cooperative relationship with Russia wherever and whenever that becomes possible. And it must also continue to help countries in eastern parts of Europe – as far east as the Caucasus – build the kinds of institutions and economies which help them become stable, prosperous and confident. This will be harder now that the shine has come off the EU in the past few years, and will do again thanks to Brexit, in the eyes of people in countries like Georgia and Moldova where the initial cost of reforms encouraged by the EU is not negligible, thus where the cost-benefit analysis of such reforms may be recalculated in favour of the status quo. Perhaps this gives the UK – once it has left the EU – a new role as an independent, honest broker.

Maintaining a liberal, peaceful global order

Liberalism has taken a knock over past years, not least because it is associated with a globalisation which seems to ignore humans. But this is to mistake ‘neo-liberalism’ for simple liberalism. Liberalism is founded on four basic pillars:

  • A belief in progress which is beneficial to people across society;
  • The need for governmental and other institutions to manage the conflicts and differences which inevitably occur within and between societies, non-violently and fairly;
  • The need to prevent government becoming overweening or repressive;
  • Respect for the freedom of individuals, associations and communities.

All this is highly compatible with, indeed supportive of peace.

But liberalism obstructs certain interests, thus is constantly under threat, nationally and internationally and thus must be nurtured and sustained. The UK in general identifies with these liberal tenets, which are embedded in British society and institutions. It thus has an important role to play in defending and promoting them wherever they are weak or under threat – international systems and relations, as within individual polities. For the UK, this means using its influence in specific countries through bilateral diplomacy, aid and trade, and through the work of British NGOs. It also means supporting international institutions, especially the UN.

Last year the UN commissioned a report by an Advisory Group of Experts, on its role in peacebuilding: the Challenge of Sustaining Peace. This pointed out that the UN had lost its way, and led to Security Council Resolution 2282 which mandates the UN to rediscover its original role in sustaining peace. This will not be easy, but the UK as a permanent Security Council member, a major financial contributor to the UN, an active proponent of Sustainability Goal 16 on Peace and the R2P, and whose own 2015 Aid Strategy counts building peace among its top priorities, is well placed to support and shepherd this policy in the UN system. It must do so, despite the obstacles which will be placed in its way by member states whose interpretation of their national interests means they are likely to block progress. The recent election of Sweden – a country committed to peacebuilding – to the Security Council would give the UK a strong ally in this endeavour. The UK should also strengthen its political relationships with the second tier of ‘emerging economies’ – middle-income countries mainly in Asia and Latin America in particular – which will be influential in determining the future of a liberal order.

Meanwhile the refugee flows of recent years tell us that we now live in an era where borders simply don’t mean what they once did: all borders are porous, and international communications and travel are increasingly easy. During the next few years the UN will need to revisit international conventions about what constitutes a refugee, and about how the global community combines its resources as a responsible duty bearer to those in need of support. The UK ought to have a strong voice in this debate, standing up for the rights of the disempowered by enshrining their rights in new conventions setting out how they must be fulfilled in a new era. And making sure that people everywhere are not left behind and enjoy the fruits of progress.

Aid and international development

The UK has long played a leading role in international aid, and is one of the few rich nations to meet the target of giving 0.7% of Gross National Income as aid – over £12 bn this year. Spending this much money effectively is hard, and so the nation must perforce pay great attention to where and how it is spent, to what purpose, and what difference it actually makes. If parliamentarians and the media keep scrutinising how aid is spent, this will keep the public’s attention on the plight and challenges faced by people far away, rather than just on Brexit.

‘Development’ has become an impoverished concept – associated far too often with aid programmes, rather than with ‘progress’ or ‘human flourishing’ as it ought to be. The UK has been in the forefront of recent efforts to redefine development, and was a leading voice in crafting the SDGs, which set out a fairly comprehensive notion of progress.

Perhaps even more important from the point of view of a peacebuilding organisation, the UK helped craft the five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs), which are a simple way to consider what progress could look like in fragile or conflict-affected countries: more legitimate and effective politics which take account of people’s needs across society, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, safety for all, fair access to justice, and the provision of fair and decent services.

Both of these normative frameworks – the SDGs and the PSGs – will inevitably be ignored, at least in part, by leaders whose people would benefit the most if they were observed. As a major donor and P5 member, the UK has an important role to play in sustaining and financing progress towards the SDGs and the PSGs. And as a major trading nation too, it can help promote the kind of fair, participatory economic growth combined with good governance which is needed to overcome the twin forces of greed and grievance which so often undermine peace. It is critical the UK continues its efforts to implement peacebuilding programmes as a priority in fragile and conflict-affected countries.

In addition, as a major shareholder of the World Bank and funder of so many other international development banks and multilaterals, the UK should continue promote their adoption of the kinds of development programming and lending which are most likely to contribute towards the PSGs in fragile contexts.

Climate change

The EU is rightly applauded for its lead in creating rules and norms to help reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change: this exploits one of the advantages of a large, liberal, single market. Perhaps the Brexit negotiations will maintain the UK’s membership of these schemes. But in any case, climate change is the ultimate international public good issue, in which greenhouse gases respect no boundaries, creating negative impacts for people wherever sea levels rise, storms become stronger and more frequent, rainfall is less predictable, and where the consequently increased competition for resources can lead to violence.

The UK – as a wealthy and long-term carbon emitter, and a member of the UN – has an important responsibility and role to play both in adopting and promoting carbon neutral technologies for energy generation, and in assisting affected communities to adapt in ways which minimise conflicts. This means maintaining an externally facing stance and recognising its membership of the global community trying to deal with climate change, not remaining focused only on its links to Europe.

… and back at home

 Finally, coming back to home: to the UK and other parts of the EU. After decades without war, there are more reasons to be concerned about conflicts within the EU now than there have been for years. Inequality was on the decline for many years after the Second World War, but this has been reversed. Conflicts which need to be managed and eventually resolved include those between:

  • Young people and old;
  • Various groups of alienated people and the authorities – e.g. between disaffected young Muslims and the state, and between alienated, impoverished ‘indigenous’ communities and the state;
  • Northern and southern countries within the EU;
  • Different nations within and between modern states;
  • Metropolitan and peripheral communities;
  • Different ethnic and religious communities co-existing locally, including those who have moved there from far away, or whose parents or grandparents did;
  • Gender and sexual identities: sexual and gender-based violence remains far too prevalent across Europe, belying the modern and sophisticated feel of European culture.

It’s important such conflicts do not become violent, and are resolved. UK politicians, media and civil society must pay more attention to creating an environment at home which is propitious to shared prosperity and tolerance; and in so doing to collaborate with their counterparts in the rest of Europe.

As Francis Fukuyama has said in The Origins of Political Order, liberal democracy is not the natural order of things and needs to be nourished, and although Western Europe’s democratic norms and systems are far from broken, despite the worries of today, we must do our utmost to reinvest in good, functional relationships among people and peoples, and between people and the state, in which all parties have an opportunity to listen to the others, and act so that, as the SDGs have it, “no-one is left behind”.

Britain and Europe can only be a force for good in the world, if they are at ease themselves.

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