When the Balancer Drifts Apart: UK’s Foreign Policy towards Emerging Powers

Silvia Fuselli
Second-Year MA Candidate at SAIS Washington

From the viewpoint of established powers, the issue of emerging powers may be essentially couched in terms of how the status quo states can deal with those in the ascendant. Typically, states face two main options in setting their foreign policy strategy: “balancing” and “bandwagoning.” How states respond and the line of action that they resolve to pursue towards emerging powers depends upon what set of structural incentives and constraints exist at the time.

“Emerging power” has become a catch-all term that categorizes a kaleidoscopic variety of states that however differ in position, interests and capabilities. One might argue, for instance, that Russia and China are more “re-emerging powers” than initiate players to global affairs, although they successfully dissimulate their long-standing involvement in the international relations domain by reinventing themselves via the BRICs grouping. Whereas the “emerging” epithet might sound offensive for a former superpower such as Russia, some other countries have hailed this attribution enthusiastically because it signals their proclaimed rise to the world affairs. The question remains: will these new players commit to shaping the global order that the established powers have dictated?

Equally important, though, is clearing the conceptual confusion over how to define an emerging power. Barbara Woodward, the Director General Economic and Consular at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, attempted to address this fundamental question during her speech, “Emerging Powers or New Powers?,” at SAIS DC.

To delineate how her country is guiding its foreign policy toward rising players in a muting world, Ms. Woodward focused on the structural incentives that underlie the UK’s and the US’s divergent strategies. Whereas the US has been compelled to adopt a more rigid in the Asia-Pacific region owing to its double role as regional balancer and regional hegemon, the UK has been enabled to be more flexible. In particular, the United Kingdom is steering a middle course between what could be defined as a “OECD-style” approach—based on flexibility and an accommodative posture—and what could instead be named a “UN Security Council” approach, which is informed by a rigid formalization of and commitment to hierarchies.

Further, the UK has energetically undertaken to establish a wide network of bilateral economic, commercial, and diplomatic relationships, especially with East Asian countries. Such networking suggests that the UK has embraced a realistic view of the importance of emerging powers. First, the “British pivot” towards Asia has occasioned a geographical shift of UK diplomatic personnel, by virtue of which the country has accommodated 300 new staff in ministerial offices and 70 staff in old and new national headquarters in Asia. Second, the UK has put great emphasis on “economic diplomacy” with East Asian countries, diplomacy meant to facilitate and promote new investment and economic opportunities. Third, regional and international organizations, such as the Pacific-Alliance, ASEAN and African Union (AU) have progressively acquired relevance as multilateral fora to strengthen cooperative relations between member states and Britain. Finally, the UK is relying more heavily on “soft power” capability and its project not only to harmonize economic interests but also, in Ms. Woodward’s words, to induce China to more incisively contribute to the security system.

Ms. Woodward made clear that although the UK could be charged with charting a new unilateral foreign policy in the region, Britain is not distancing itself from its special relationship with the United States. Nor is it in the process of abandoning the European Union, despite the local press’s coverage. Nonetheless, Britain privileges bilateral—if not unilateral—solutions to coping with emerging powers over multilateral courses of action within the EU, which is testimony to an undeniable willingness to remain free of communitarian restraints. Further, with such a stance the UK hopes to make the most of contingent opportunities to shake off the 2008 economic crisis off, so as to exit recession, relaunch investment and create jobs.

Ms. Woodward thus proposes that Britain does not envision the EU as an emerging power due to its institutional intricacies, lack of competitiveness and negligible economic weight relative to UK’s market (in fact, China holds a much greater market share than Germany in Britain). It remains to be seen whether and how the UK will be able to muster the political will to remain in an integrative, thus virtually constraining, environment as that of the European Union. At the same time, the UK continues to bolster a more accommodative and flexible foreign policy towards emerging powers, which have the potential to serve Britain’s impending needs and to compete with the EU economically. What the British government calls as a “cross-government approach” to international relations may be mistaken for one of ambivalence, at least from an economic standpoint, unless the UK will attune its national interests to the EU’s interests.