Is Brexit diminishing British influence at the UN Security Council?

Samuel Jarvis, Jess Gifkins and Jason Ralph

International Affairs
International Affairs Blog


A meeting of the UN Security Council on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters. Image credit: Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images.

As the United Kingdom took over the presidency of the United Nations Security Council for the month of November, UK Ambassador to the UN Karen Pierce was resolute in challenging claims that ongoing Brexit turmoil and uncertainty created by another general election, were a cause of concern for UK diplomacy at the UN. Ambassador Pierce was quick to also highlight that the UN will become an even bigger stage for British diplomacy once the UK leaves the European Union. The implication being that the withdrawal from one multilateral forum (the EU) does not harm, but merely concentrates, UK diplomacy in another (the UN).

The UK Mission to the UN has thus been working hard to downplay the implications of the Brexit uncertainty. However, our latest research demonstrates the longer-term challenges the UK faces in attempting to maintain and strengthen its role as a key influential actor in the UN Security Council once it leaves the EU. This research, published in International Affairs, was based on interviews with former and current UN diplomats and ambassadors from the UK, the EU and beyond, to assess perceptions of the UK’s current status in the UN.

UK influence in the Security Council

The first clear consequence of Brexit for the UK’s influence at the UN is due to how the UK influences the Security Council. The UK does not wield influence at the Council in a way that might be expected of a ‘Great Power’. It cannot rely on material resources in the way the United States or, increasingly, China can. Instead the UK relies on its diplomatic expertise, reputation and networks to influence the Council.

In particular, the pursuit of humanitarian and human rights causes at the Council has been central to the UK’s reputation as a competent and responsible member of the Council, as we have discussed elsewhere. This has in turn enabled British diplomats to defend the national interest, especially as it legitimizes the country’s continued occupation of a permanent seat at the Security Council. The uncertainty of Brexit and the December’s general election have distracted the government from these causes, which in turn risks affecting the UK’s influence at the Council.

EU burden sharing

Another key challenge posed by Brexit is its potential to weaken the key networks that can act as ‘diplomatic multipliers’ for the UK, such as EU cooperation. The UK has an enhanced role in the UN Security Council through its expertise in drafting resolutions, thus granting it significant powers to help shape and promote its key interests and goals. When implementing such resolutions, the UK has also demonstrated an ability to align its priorities at the Council with the EU.

This has been particularly significant regarding its role in shepherding through key resolutions supporting the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) — something which also reinforces the UK’s reputation for competence and influence. This UK leadership success was made possible through its ability to align its influence in New York with its influence in Brussels, as the mandates the UK negotiated in the UN were largely resourced by the EU. In fact, the EU has provided over €1.6 billion to support AMISOM since 2007, and in 2018 it funded 80 per cent of the mission’s costs through its Africa Peace Facility (APF).

This may not have been possible if the UK had not been a member of the EU. The capacity to align actions and priorities within the UN Security Council and the EU has therefore been strategically useful for the UK, and it will have less capacity to promote its priorities in the EU after Brexit. Indeed, a P5 interviewee described the UK since the Brexit referendum as ‘quieter on AMISOM issues [in the Security Council] than they have been in the past’.

Foreign policy and human rights

There are also concerns regarding the UK’s increased interest in new trade deals with partners outside the EU, some of which are alleged to be complicit in humanitarian and human rights abuses. These concerns are amplified by reports that Britain has already received demands to roll back its human rights standards in exchange for progress on post-Brexit trade deals.

For example the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, stated that ‘there is this perception in many parts of the UN that the British Government will be so desperate to prove to voters that they weren’t lied to during the referendum and after (when they were told that bilateral trade deals would be easily agreed all over the world after leaving the EU), that the UK will in fact be ready to drop human rights concerns in order not to derail those trade deals’.

That said, the recently launched Conservative manifesto contests the idea that EU membership is a key source of strategic influence for the UK and claims that the UK will be able to champion values, such as human rights, even more strongly on the international stage once the UK leaves the EU. However, the EU has never been a constraining force on the UK’s ability to promote its views on human rights at the UN and it is clear that the UK will need to go in search of new trader partners after Brexit. A post-Brexit strategy might thus narrow the definition of the national interest, making human rights activism more difficult because it devalues the political capital held by UK diplomats.

The future of Global Britain

The question of how the UK will deal with its diminished international influence after Brexit thus remains. The concept of ‘Global Britain’ was initially presented as the central pillar of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy, however rhetorical references to it have steadily fallen away in recent months. In fact, there was no mention of the phrase in Boris Johnson’s September speech to the UN General Assembly or in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. The Labour manifesto does contain what it calls a ‘new internationalism’ — with concrete pledges to invest an additional £400 million in diplomatic capacity as well as to increase funding for UN peacekeeping operations to £100 million. Still, a comprehensive strategic vision for UK diplomacy at the UN, after Brexit, has not been forthcoming.

What is clear, however, is that the uncertainty surrounding future relations with the EU and the challenge to UK influence at the UN looks set to continue — whoever wins the election. Our research highlights that perceptions of the UK’s status and influence in the UN Security Council are already changing. They are being shaped by concerns over both the UK’s future material capacity and apprehensions around its potential willingness to compromise on its commitment to liberal values in the name of trade deals.

Samuel Jarvis is a Lecturer in International Relations at the York St John University.

Jess Gifkins is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Manchester.

Jason Ralph is Professor of International Relations at the University of Leeds and Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland.

Their recent article, ‘Brexit and the UN Security Council: declining British influence?’, was published in the November 2019 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article online here.



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