Britain in the World

Over the last six years, Britain's status on the world stage has been undermined by domestic political wranglings, often within the Conservative Party. The current moment calls for historical international leadership from Labour.

8 Jul
min read

This briefing was initially prepared as a submission to the Labour National Policy Forum.

Section 1. International alliances

Over the last six years, Britain's status on the world stage has been undermined by domestic political wranglings, often within the Conservative Party. The current moment calls for historical international leadership from Labour. If elected, it would be a once-in-a-generation chance to re-establish Britain as a leader of peace, progress and human rights. At the same time, the risk of nuclear war is greater than it has been in decades, and the government has an essential duty to keep the risk of nuclear war as low as possible. 

In looking at its international alliances, we propose the following three-pronged approach: adapt to a multi-polar world, develop a clear nuclear weapons policy, and maximise diplomatic efforts. 

Adapt to a multipolar world

International alliances are extremely important for protecting the UK’s national interests. However, multilateral institutions such as the UN and WTO suffer from disputes between member states, gridlock and stasis. In particular, the rising influence of Russia and China has created a certain level of mistrust, as well as procedural issues where consensus is required. Within this context, we recommend:

  • Labour recognises that multilateral institutions, such as the UN, can not be assumed to effectively prevent conflict. Indeed, Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine demonstrates that the UN Security Council is insufficient to prevent aggression from major powers. The UN is likely to be similarly impotent in the case of a potential future attack from China on Taiwan. 
  • Labour should actively coordinate and support ‘coalitions of the willing’, working with like-minded partners to drive global peace and progress. The UK is well placed to drive coalitions of the willing, as past examples show, including: 
  • The Joint Expeditionary Forces (JEF), a military partnership between the UK, Nordic and other like-minded European countries
  • The UK’s activities in the Arctic
  • A recent defence partnership with Japan
  • The AUKUS security pact with the US and Australia
  • The E3 grouping with France and Germany, which was important in securing the Iran nuclear deal. 
  • Labour should reset relations with the EU and actively seek to work cooperatively with European countries, particularly France and Germany, in countering modern threats. Labour should also seek to strengthen relations with the Commonwealth, US and India. 

Stay alert: nuclear weapons policy

Russia’s aggression means that the chance of nuclear war between great powers is probably more likely than at any point since the fall of the Soviet Union. This risk should be taken extremely seriously, whilst also recognising the deterrence effect of nuclear weapons in reducing the chance of conflict.

  • In light of this, UK nuclear capacities should probably continue for now, but must remain under review. Labour should make renewed efforts to promote global nonproliferation while being realistic about the risks of liberal democracies reducing stockpiles without reciprocity from authoritarian adversaries. A world in which fewer liberal democracies have nuclear weapons is probably less safe. 

There are also specific risks from the automation of decisions that could lead to the deployment of nuclear weapons. It would be dangerous to reduce the role of humans in these decisions, since Artificial Intelligence is unpredictable, potentially hackable, and may have misaligned incentives. This is a more general problem with computer-controlled or lethal autonomous weapons.

  • Labour should ensure that the UK Government does not incorporate AI systems into NC3 (nuclear command, control and communications), and that the UK leads on establishing this norm internationally. Experts also recommend avoiding (and publicly committing to avoid) cyber operations including intelligence-gathering operations — that target the NC3 of Nuclear Proliferation Treaty signatories.

Security through understanding: maximise diplomatic efforts 

A Labour-led Britain should use the tools it has available to reduce the chance of great power conflict and nuclear war. While Britain is itself no longer a ‘great power’ in the traditional sense, it continues to play an important role as a ‘broker’ between other powers. This is due to the UK’s significant formal and soft power through its unique relationship with the United States and other European allies, and its P5 status on the UN Security Council, membership of Five Eyes and NATO. 

  • A future Labour government should work with NATO allies to broker a peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia. Of course, this must only take place on terms acceptable to the Ukrainian government. Russia must have an effective ‘off ramp’, yet the costs must also be significantly high that there is no incentive for Russia to be aggressive towards neighbours in the future.

Furthermore, a Labour-led government should use diplomatic and soft power tracks to promote British soft power and values, and reduce misunderstandings that could lead to war. This can be done by:

  • Hosting, or encouraging, track 2 and track 1.5 diplomacy between Western governments and China. This can help promote shared understanding and early warning systems for potential future conflict, and reduces the chance of misunderstandings that could accidentally lead to war. This can be facilitated by think tanks and universities as a more neutral setting.
  • Increase funding for cultural exchange and educational activities, such as through the British Council, particularly with Russia and China. While in the short term it makes sense to penalise Russian businesses and individuals for their role in the Ukraine war, in the medium-long term Western allies need to find forums for engagement and promotion of liberal, democratic values. Such activities and exchanges were instrumental in bringing an end to the Cold War. The British Council does valuable work in promoting British soft power and values, but has faced recent funding cuts from the Conservative government. 
  • Increase funding for Mandarin-speakers and China specialists in the Foreign Office, including experts on technology, weapons and Chinese culture. Understanding China’s history, political dynamics, technological capacities and policies will be essential to reducing the chance of future clashes. Currently, there is a substantial asymmetry in information, since many Chinese policymakers can read English media and government documents, much of which is easily accessible online. Chinese media and policy is harder for Western decision-makers to access and understand.

Section 2. Multilateralism

Multilateral institutions have lost some of their ability to solve global problems in recent years as the world has moved towards greater competition between major powers, particularly between the West, China and Russia. This includes, for example, the UN failing to prevent Russian aggression in Ukraine and the WTO having a non-functioning appellate body resulting in part from the US-China war. However, multilateral institutions remain vitally important for solving coordination problems between states and providing legitimate and credible fora to find solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems, as can be seen in the COP process. We are now facing a myriad of global crises and Labour, having been a long-standing champion for multilateralism, should seize this moment to ensure multialteralism works better to address future challenges.

We propose two measures to strengthen multilateralism to safeguard the future: (1) a treaty on the risks of the future of humanity and (2) strengthening pandemic prevention.

Safeguarding the future: a treaty on risks to the future of humanity

Climate change and nuclear war are severe risks which threaten humanity’s future, and it is right that there is international law and governance in these areas. However this is not the case for many other risks, including pandemics, which are (for obvious reasons) high risk events that threaten people now, particularly those who are poorest and most vulnerable, and also future generations. A new Treaty on Risks to the Future of Humanity would provide countries with a framework for identifying and addressing future risks, such as pandemics, biological warfare, natural disasters and risks from new technologies. Working on establishing this treaty is a chance for Labour not only to safeguard future generations, but also to leave a lasting legacy.

  • A future Labour government should support diplomacy to achieve a Treaty to the future of humanity, engaging at the highest level to achieve it. A new Treaty should have a series of UN Security Council resolutions to place this new framework on the strongest legal footing. 
  • The UK should start building an alliance towards a treaty with like-minded countries, such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand, taking a global leadership position.
  • A Labour-led UK could also push the UN's Our Common Agenda proposal, which aims to take a longer view of policymaking and identify opportunities for multilateral cooperation.

The urgency of now: funding pandemic prevention

COVID was a seismic event which is still a lived reality for many around the World. Alarmingly, scientists have warned that it could be a dress rehearsal for much more lethal and/or contagious diseases in the future. It is essential to learn lessons from the pandemic and put them into action at the international level. The UK has substantial ‘brokering’ power, and it should use its position to encourage international agreement on future pandemic preparedness. This could include:

  • Improving global supply chains for vaccinations, PPE and medical supplies, which should include finding ways to mitigate vaccine nationalism, unnecessary regulations and burdensome intellectual property restrictions. 
  • Properly funding the World Health Organisation, GAVI, Covax and other international initiatives to improve global health resistance. Ensuring pre-agreed financing for these groups so they are empowered to act swiftly when crises happen.
  • Supporting a full and meaningful international inquiry into the causes of Covid-19, to ensure the necessary lessons can be learnt and implemented worldwide
  • Strengthening international agreements on pathogens research and biological warfare to prevent future leaks (both deliberate or accidental).
  • Improving talent pipelines through offering more visas and migration routes for international researchers and health academics in the UK. 
  • Making rejoining REACH, Horizon Europe and the European Medicines Agency a priority: this will help the British research industry and global scientific progress. 
  • Encouraging international long-term spending commitments on extreme risks, such as spending a target percentage of GDP on extreme risk management, including pandemic preparedness.

Section 3. International aid and development

Labour should continue to champion international development. Some of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government were establishing the Department for International Development, and achieving the target of 0.7% of spending on aid. Aid is also a key part of Britain’s soft power and reputation, and affects how the country is perceived abroad.

However, it is also important to recognise some changes in global development since the 1990s and early 2000s. Some relevant factors include:

  • Scepticism about the ‘Washington Consensus’ in development, which discouraged the role of the state in development, led to mass-privatisation and deregulation and which did not deliver on development goals.
  • Concerns about historical reparations for colonialism, war and slavery. More attention for the role of race and historical power dynamics in the delivery of aid. 
  • The rise of China, which is no longer a low-income country, and is now a major investor in many developing countries, particularly Africa. 
  • The legacy of certain ‘liberal interventions’ in areas that are still dealing with the repercussions of war. 
  • A rise in natural disasters as a consequence of climate change.

Given these factors, a Labour-led government should review its approach to aid and development, while still championing the importance of the UK (along with other countries in the Global North) standing in solidarity with the Global South. To deliver effective international aid over the long-term, we recommend the following policy proposals:

  • Distinguishing between development policy which aims at actually improving real-life outcomes and ‘development policy’ which is primarily geared towards promoting the UK’s geopolitical interests or encouraging trade. This could happen at least internally, if not publicly or departmentally. While both aims are important, it is not always helpful for them both to be treated as the same and funded in the same way. At the very least, Civil servants should be aware of the distinction.
  • Using more evidence-based approaches to global health and poverty reduction, based on Randomised Control Trials (RCTs). Working out which issues affect a large number of people (such as air pollution or climate change), versus issues which only affect particular groups, will be essential for improving aid effectiveness.
  • A greater emphasis on extreme risks in development, such as pandemic preparedness, risks from natural disasters and famines. Some particular policies Labour should discuss supporting are a crisis lookout function, with pre-agreed financing for disasters, and early warning systems.

Section 4. Democratic institutions

Labour can choose to draw a line under the short-term, self-oriented, scandal-driven politics of the last 12 years. It can do this by setting out a vision of a progressive, democratic, “future-proof” democracy.

Two years of a global pandemic, a looming climate and biodiversity crisis, and a stagnating economy. All serve to highlight a stark fact: our democracy is reckless with the future, and ill-prepared for its upheavals. The uncertainty over whether the government is capable enough to tackle the crises of the future is reflected in a deep pessimism among young people - a 2021 survey found that 75% of young people think the future is frightening, and more than half (56%) think humanity is doomed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Labour can be the party of hope. Crucially, this would involve serious policy reform in risk management and long-term thinking at home. This can then act as a springboard to promote similar democratic institutions abroad.

To tackle future threats, and give hope to a generation, we propose two democratic reforms for a “future proof democracy”: (1) Improved risk management and (2) Attention for future generations in policy making. These are expanded upon further below.

A future-proof democracy part 1: risk management

Protecting people from risk is in Labour’s DNA. Where Labour first protected people from disease, unemployment and poverty, the World is now increasingly complicated and we face more interconnected, fast-paced global threats. Labour now has a duty to use its power to protect people from these larger threats as well, in a way that aligns with its democratic tradition.

The scale of the challenges we face are colossal. Not only does the UK face extreme risks that are known - such as climate change and nuclear war - it also increasingly faces new ‘extreme risks’ (defined as high-impact threats with global reach) as a result of rapidly advancing technology. This includes pandemics of natural and human causes, and the potential danger of widespread, intelligent artificial intelligence. On top of this come ‘black swan’ events, or unknown threats that are currently not being identified. Based on a combination of these existential risks, Oxford philosopher Toby Ord estimates the likelihood of the world experiencing an existential catastrophe over the next 100 years at 1 in 6 - russian roulette.

Getting to grips with these extreme risks requires domestic and international leadership.

Domestic leadership

The joint-parliamentary committee on the National Security Strategy in 2020 was “seriously concerned” about risk management within government, calling it “loose, unstructured and lacking central oversight and accountability”. To change this, we recommend the following reforms, collated from different risk management reports:

  • Implement a ‘3 lines of defence’ model of risk management, which is best practice across the private sector. To do this, Labour should:  
  • Build in ‘risk ownership units’ into different government departments (1st line of defence)
  • Establish a government Chief Risk Officer (CRO) and associated unit (2nd line of defence). The CRO provides a single point of accountability and provides strong leadership on risk management. The unit would carry out depoliticized risk assessments, support departments in developing flexible risk plans, assign responsibility for acting on risks to ministers, and hold ministers to account for the quality of their department’s risk plans (REF). 
  • Create an independent audit function to scrutinise legislation (3rd line of defence) 
  • Reform the UK’s National Risk Register. The National Risk Register only has a two-year outlook and fails to give enough weight to low-probability events such as global pandemics. This time horizon should be urgently extended and greater weight should be given to low-probability, but potentially catastrophic events
  • Consider the recommendations of the Centre for Long Term Resilience’s Future Proof report, including implementing the reforms the current government has outlined in the 2021 integrated review

Global leadership

Using domestic reform as a springboard, the UK has a chance to take the lead internationally as well. At present, no government is playing a true global leadership role in addressing existential risks, but the UK is well placed to do so. This would act as a bulwark against the claim that authoritarian regimes are better placed to deal with crises, by showing progressive democracies can lead on international risk management as well. Some concrete suggestions for action include:

  • Advocate for similar policies to the ‘3 lines of defence’ risk management system and a National Risk Register to be implemented in other G7 countries.
  • Take global leadership in convening national risk experts. This could be, for example,  setting up a yearly forum for Chief Risk Officers to convene and share best practice on extreme risk mitigation (e.g. by learning from each other on COVID-19 best practice). This would be similar to current fora that exist in other fields for sharing best practice (e.g. the body of central bank coordination) 
  • Work within the multilateral system to coordinate international action on extreme risks, such as by working on a ‘Treaty for Humanity’ at the UN (as outlined in detail in our 6b proposal)

A future-proof democracy part 2: democratic institutions for future generations

Short-term political decision making is at the heart of many of the crises we face. Among these, the climate crisis is the most obvious, but short-term priorities have also led to a stacking up of problems in housing, education and economic policy.

Fundamentally, a lack of concern for future generations in policy making is an intergenerational justice issue, with our children and grandchildren being voiceless in decisions that will make a huge impact on their lives. But it is also an issue that could affect the very near future - the scrapping of the UK National Security Committee’s subcommittee on “threats, hazards, risks and contingencies”, for example, led to a reduced ability to deal with COVID just five months later.

Long-term institutions

Westminster currently has no best practice or government statement of how to balance the needs of the future with the needs of the present. This is an opportunity for Labour to show national and international leadership, learning from best practice (such as the progress made on future generation representation in Wales). The most important recommendation given to government by experts in this area is simple:

  • Invest in independent, accountable institutions that operate across longer-term time horizons

There are several options on the table for how to put this into action, and we encourage the front-bench to compare these carefully. Options suggested by the All Parliamentary Group for Future Generations, amongst other groups, include:

  • Establish an independent office for Future Generations to scrutinise policy, support long-term policy making, and provide a voice on behalf of future generations
  • Adopt the Future Generations Bill as introduced by Lord Bird, as Labour policy
  • Adopt discrete elements of the Future Generation bill as Labour policy that have support among democracy focused NGO’s, such as:
  • Future generation impact assessments for government bills
  • A commissioner for future generations in the UK
  • A new parliamentary committee on Future generations
  • Assign a legal duty on ministers to take the long term into account
  • Require an intergenerational impact assessment of new government bills
  • Set aside days in the parliamentary calendar specifically for discussing long-term problems
  • Incorporate innovative deliberative political processes, such as citizens assemblies, to help determine future policy priorities

Accounting reform

Currently, future generations are inherently disadvantaged in all policy decisions through the economic ‘discount rate’ adopted by the Treasury. In light of the current climate and biodiversity crisis, as well as increasing demand on resources and other considerations, this discount rate should be questioned (Currently, for example, an investment in polluting infrastructure may be approved for its GDP benefits, despite ‘locking in’ decades of carbon emissions). Labour should:

  • Revise the Treasury Green Book discount rate, and adopt key recommendations on intergenerational fairness. This is a potentially hugely impactful intervention which would improve incentives across all departments to act in the long term
  • Implement future generation accounting mechanisms, such as intergenerational impact assessments or natural accounting mechanisms.

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