Barbara Woodward pointed to the United Kingdom’s permanent seat on the powerful U.N. Security Council, its presidency this year of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations, its membership in the Group of 20 leading economic powers and NATO, and its hosting of the next United Nations global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
“Don’t underestimate the power of the relationship with the EU,” she stressed in an interview with The Associated Press this past week. “There’s a lot of values and principles which we share with European partners which I think will stand us in good stead.”
Britain’s long and sometimes contentious divorce from the EU became final on Dec. 31, a split that left the 27-member bloc without one of its major economic powers and the U.K. freer to chart its future but facing a world trying to confront a deadly pandemic and cope with rising unemployment, growing divisions between haves and have-nots, and a climate crisis.
An article in the U.S.-based World Politics Review in October identified three visions for Britain s future: “Catastrophists who argue that the U.K. has become completely irrelevant on the international stage as a result of Brexit; the nostalgics, who see a powerful Britain through the lens of a great colonial power; and the denialists, who refuse to accept that Britain must adapt to a changing global context.”
Authors Ben Judah, a British-French journalist and author, and Georgina Wright, a Brexit researcher at the Institute for Government a U.K. think tank, said that since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016 “it is undeniable that both British leadership and influence over global affairs have taken a hit.”
“In international circles, it has become fashionable to be overly dismissive of Britain’s weight in world affairs,” they said. “Yet the country continues to carry weight.”
Woodward, who came to the U.N. after more than five years as ambassador to China and previously served in Russia, agrees.
“We’ve had a pretty introspective three years with Brexit negotiations and managing COVID,” she said, but with the upcoming climate summit and Britain’s presidency of the G-7 as the group grapples with economic recovery from the pandemic, “I think we’ve got quite a big role to play.”
She said Prime Minister Boris Johnson is “very keen on multilateralism.” On Dec. 31, as Britain was leaving the EU, he said the U.K. is now “free to do trade deals around the world, and free to turbocharge our ambition to be a science superpower.”
Early this month, the Economist magazine said the U.K. has the opportunity “to cut a dash on the world stage,” with its G-7 presidency — including possible invitations to Australia, India and South Korea to attend the group’s sessions — and hosting the climate summit in Glasgow, “the most important diplomatic event of the year.”
Johnson is expected to visit India and be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s guest of honor on Republic Day on Jan. 26, “part of a much-touted `tilt to the Indo-Pacific,’” the Economist said, adding that Britain has also opened discussions to join the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and is pushing to become a “dialogue partner” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Woodward said the U.K.’s exit from the EU makes the United Nations and Britain’s permanent Security Council seat “more important because the U.N. has always been the biggest multilateral forum.”
She pointed to Sunday’s hybrid commemoration of the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London 75 years ago which Britain is hosting, saying the world is very different today “but so many of the divisions are perhaps even deeper now.”
In the coming year, Woodward said, there are three major issues that need to be tackled:
—Vaccinating rich and poor people everywhere against the coronavirus and taking action to revive economies devastated by the pandemic.
—Making climate change a top priority, focusing on preventing temperature rises, and raising the billions needed to make progress;
—Dealing with a range of global security problems.
Woodward said Iran will be a central security issue whether or not U.S. President-elect Joseph Biden goes through with his inclination to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal that President Donald Trump pulled out of. She cited the Iranian role in other conflicts including in Yemen and Syria.
There are also security problems elsewhere in the Middle East and in Africa, where terrorist attacks in the Sahel are especially worrying, as well as security questions around protecting digital data.
“I think the relations that the new (U.S.) administration decides to have with all of its allies — European partners, NATO allies, how it builds a relationship with China, will be critical, as well as how we work together in the U.N. Security Council,” Woodward said.