Following its departure from the European Union, the United Kingdom seeks to shape its new role in the world. Prime Minister Boris Johnson defends the idea of a country with global projection, open to forging relationships and a defender of multilateralism. Sounds good. But several of its first steps produce serious perplexity as to consistency with those stated goals. The last one is the document International Strategy for Foreign Policy and Security, that opens the way to a consistent increase in the British nuclear arsenal, raising the nuclear warhead from the current 180 to 260. There are no details regarding the roadmap for the increase, which therefore remains in the fog, but the mere announcement it undermines laudable international efforts for atomic disarmament and gives other powers an argument to do the same. This is a 180 degree turn not only from traditional British diplomatic action to halt the nuclear race, but even from London’s long-standing work on technology aimed precisely at the opposite: verifying non-proliferation. But above all, the United Kingdom goes against the spirit of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sets the objective of phasing out the nuclear powers’ arsenals.
Johnson’s strategy outlines the aspiration to be a small superpower, with a touch of Victorian nostalgia. But it is highly doubtful that the UK can afford to hold a truly global and wide-ranging role. For a comparatively declining average power, it is much more logical to act in a network and seek synergies with partners with convergent interests, which in this case are obviously NATO, for some things, and European countries for others (common threats such as jihadism or increasing Russian aggressiveness, for example). The first cooperation is guaranteed; betting on the second leaves much to be desired.
In this sense, it is worth highlighting another dynamic that completely blows the image of a United Kingdom as a reliable partner: the unilateral rupture of part of what is established in the Irish Protocol in the annex to the EU Withdrawal Agreement. This is an unjustified violation of a hard-negotiated agreement and for which Brussels has rightly opened a file.
Regardless of the speeches about a global and open United Kingdom, what has really prevailed in the facts since Johnson arrived at 10 Downing Street is a nationalistic instinct above almost everything, and of course commitments made by himself. Johnson would do well to keep in mind that certain one-sided gestures don’t end there: they have consequences. Not even the world’s greatest power, the United States, has done very well with unilateralism unleashed.
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