To hear Sir Simon McDonald, the head of the U.K.’s diplomatic service, tell it, Britain’s present role in the international arena was defined after the Second World War, during which the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the dominant global players. “Seventy years later,” he told the BBC series, “we are still in that second group of countries: globally active, influential with the two biggest players, but not able to do very much just by themselves.”
It’s this role that ardent Brexiteers, including former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, are certain Britain can retain, chiefly by strengthening trade links with countries around the world. “By Global Britain, I meant a country that was more open, more outward-looking, more engaged with the world than ever before,” Johnson wrote of the slogan meant to define the U.K.’s post-Brexit foreign policy, which he helped popularize. “It meant taking the referendum and using it as an opportunity … to find friends, to open markets, to promote our culture and our values.”
Read David Frum on ‘Mr. Brexit’
Some within Britain’s diplomatic corps, however, have warned that the U.K.’s global role is already not what it used to be, and stands to deteriorate even further after it leaves the EU on March 29, 2019. “We’re not the same country we were in 1945,” Harriet O’Brien, a British diplomat based in New York, says in the BBC series. “In some ways, we don’t have as much influence in the world. So we do, I think, punch above our weight.”
Of course, not everything will change. Britain will still retain its leading positions in other international organizations, including the G7 and NATO. It will also keep its prized permanent seat on the United Nations’ Security Council.
But even if its membership in certain organizations doesn’t change, its ability to exert its influence within them could. In Brussels, some U.K. representatives have bemoaned their loss of influence well before their country has even left the bloc. Britain has taken other blows to its prestige as well, including the loss of its seat on the bench of the International Court of Justice for the first time last year.
Read: It’s a very awkward time to be a British lawmaker in Europe.
And when it comes to present and future world crises, British leaders have publicly grappled with not being able to command the same foreign-policy authority it once had. “We have to be careful not to overestimate our influence,” Hunt told the House of Commons last week when asked about Britain’s draft resolution calling for a cease-fire in the ongoing war in Yemen.
The last time Britain seemed so unsure of its place in the world, it had lost its empire after World War II. Then the American statesman Dean Acheson warned London against overestimating its power alone. “Britain’s attempt to play a separate power role … apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being the head of a Commonwealth which has no political structure or unity or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship,” Acheson said in 1962. “This role is about played out.”
More than a half century on, Britain will need to find its role once again.