Viewpoints: What should the UK's future global role be?

David Cameron addressing the UN General Assembly

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has said the UK must avoid "knee-jerk interventionism" and "knee-jerk isolationism", during a discussion about the future global role of the UK at Labour's conference on Monday. What should that role be?

Mr Alexander said Britain was both weary and wary of foreign interventions, while adding that the UK's status in the world was strengthened by its role in Europe.

At the end of August, Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote in Parliament approving military action in Syria to deter use of chemical weapons.

That Commons defeat prompted Chancellor George Osborne to tell Radio 4's Today programme that there would now be "national soul-searching about our role in the world".

What should that global role be? Experts give their view below.

Dr Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House

As a country that continues to benefit enormously from its openness to trade, investment, people and ideas, Britain's role is to be a champion and protector of this openness, and the liberal values that sustain it, around the world.

Britain has the capacity to be influential in promoting its goals on the world stage, but its leaders will need to concentrate on two factors. The first is to set the UK economy on a path to sustainable and productive growth. Without a strong economic base, Britain's many national attributes for international influence (a growing population, inventive companies, capable military, world-leading diplomatic corps, and the structural advantages of language and time zone) will begin to erode.

Second, as a mid-sized country, the UK will need to leverage its strengths multilaterally. Britain's international position is more precarious than at any time in the last 50 years. It risks being less influential in the UN Security Council in a world of rising powers; less relevant to the US as US policy-makers focus more on Asia; less significant in a leaderless G20 world; and a more detached member of the European Union.

British policy-makers need to focus their diplomacy, therefore, on strengthening the UK's position within each of these institutions. And British politicians need to remind an increasingly sceptical public why this makes sense.

Dr Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

With the Syria vote, Britain determined its own destiny. It broke the first link in the bloody chains that have bound us to US foreign policy over decades.

Of course the structures and underpinnings of the special relationship will militate against further change, and will seek to recuperate the losses incurred. But the reality is that the British population, in its overwhelming majority, rejects interventionist war and the grandiose and anachronistic notions which our leaders have - of Britain as a "war-fighting nation". People may want to be a force for good in the world but they no longer believe that involves killing other people.

The vote shaped global politics: Obama pulled back from the brink and serious diplomatic efforts look set to disarm Syria's chemical weapons. It showed the power of the word over the barrel of a gun. But shouldn't diplomacy always be the first port of call? Extensive international treaties exist, countless UN resolutions, all of which, if implemented, would contribute to a more just and peaceful world. Britain could play a major role in that. But it will only work if Britain abandons its imperial ambitions and genuinely embraces equality between nations.

Robert Oulds, director of the Bruges Group

Countries inside the EU are constrained by the EU's security policy. They have to conform to the common EU position, which is derived with other countries, and Britain only has limited influence within the EU.

Britain outside the EU would have its own voice. Norway, only a small country in population terms, has a very big role internationally because it has its own voice.

Britain's independent foreign policy is undermined by being in the EU. The best way to have influence in the world is to have your own opinion.

We also have to conform to the EU position in business - in global trade policy, for example. All of these decisions are being decided globally in UN specialised agencies and treaty bodies.

But inside the EU we have less influence. Take the World Trade Organisation (WTO). We don't have a seat in [it, as] that's taken by the European Commissioner.

There's also the sleeping giant of the Commonwealth. Many Commonwealth countries are experiencing rapid economic growth, far outstripping that within the EU. [But] at the moment Britain can't form trade deals with other countries because the EU decides our trade policy.

If we want to have a voice in the world it has to be our voice.

Michael Codner, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Specifically in the matter of defence policy and military strategy, the UK's guiding premise is one of global influence. The nation is more secure in a globalised security environment because it can influence international policies, and the US in particular, as it is able to step up to the mark with competent and respected forces of a scale that can affect strategic decisions.

Obligations are to protect its global archipelago of small overseas territories, to be able to rescue British citizens of our large global diaspora in concert with others and, most importantly, to protect the sea lanes for trade and resources. The UK can obviously only contribute but the nation's huge dependency on sea access means that it should have a leading role.

Because the military power of all Western nations is dwindling, military influence can only be discharged in concert with like-thinking nations, so alliances and partnerships are more essential than ever. It is easy to dismiss the European-Atlantic partnership of Nato and the EU as old hat. But for obvious geostrategic reasons this remains the team that really matters to the UK because leadership of more integrated and effective military capacity is what the US wants, and regional security remains a priority.

As an economic power in the global top 10, the UK could probably still come up to the mark in this context with a defence budget of rather less than 2% of GDP and no nuclear deterrent, helped by considerable soft power in many parts of the world.

Dr Steve Davies, education director at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA)

The UK's future global role should be as a major trading nation following a policy of radical openness (unilateral free trade, openness to foreign investment and also investment overseas, welcoming people from other parts of the world) and building on and developing historic links both personal and economic with all parts of the world but in particular the new developing economies such as China, India, Brazil and much of Africa and East Asia.

Unless the EU adopts a radical shift in its own outlook (which is not impossible), this would mean the UK either leaving the EU entirely and becoming a member of the EFTA, or a radical renegotiation of its membership. The last of these is less likely than either a change of the EU as a whole or a UK exit.

The kind of global role envisioned would mean a strengthening of links with many countries, including but not limited to the Commonwealth. The orientation would be outwards towards the open seas as well as Europe. It would not imply any kind of global security or military role or force projection - quite the contrary. Participation in international bodies such as the UN would continue but would take a second place to direct government links and more importantly the connections forged by human contact and relations of trade and investment.

Jason Ralph, senior research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre

Since the late 1990s the UK has been at the forefront of international attempts to prevent mass atrocity crimes. It has supported the idea that states have a responsibility to protect civilian populations (often referred to as R2P) and it has supported the ICC as it seeks to prosecute war criminals.

Right now, however, R2P and the ICC face a legitimacy crisis. There is a perception among the Brics states that they are being ignored as Western states implement R2P. Therefore, because of their anger at being ignored, the Brics (and many African states) are obstructing R2P being implemented.

Clearly the UK public is reluctant to use force, especially when it is not mandated by the UN, but that does not mean the UK should retreat into isolationism. "Internationalism" is not simply about using force alongside the Americans. It also means cultivating and sustaining international support for the values the UK stands for, including R2P.

In fact the UK is almost uniquely placed to address this problem. It is the only state among the five permanent UN Security Council members (alongside France) that is signed up to the ICC and it can speak authoritatively on these issues where others cannot. The UK should exploit this position and work to restore the legitimacy of R2P. It can still be a "good international citizen" in this respect. That means some foreign policy elites must first realign their image of the UK to suit both the times and the electorate.

Andy Bagnall, head of UK Global Role project at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)

The UK must renew its global trading role in the context of a changing Europe. With 55% of global growth to 2025 coming from outside of the developed world and a slow recovery in the eurozone, the UK needs to build better trading links with high-growth markets. Our exports are heavily concentrated in Western Europe and North America and we must improve our export performance not only to the Brics but also to the next wave of growing economies - Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria.

But at the same time as diversifying our export markets, we can't lose access to the biggest market in the world, of which we are part, the EU single market. Still the destination for 45% of our exports, it's not an either/or choice between Europe and the rest of the world - we must increase trade across the board.

When asked how you'd vote if there was a referendum tomorrow, eight out of 10 CBI members would vote to stay in the EU. The EU can unlock the door to fast-growing economies around the world. The UK must help shape the EU, both to boost growth on the Continent itself and to be a springboard to trade with the rest of the world through free trade agreements.

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