A general view of the front of 10 Downing Street in London
Britain's role in the world has undergone historical changes as its position in the global international order has changed. Getty Images/Reuters

The question of Britain's role in the world is complex and multifaceted. In today's globalised and interconnected international order, nation-states cooperate and compete to influence one another across a variety of domains, from climate change and human rights to military power and artificial intelligence.

Recently, members of the House of Lords met to discuss the question of Britain's changing role in the world. As the global international order evolves to become more competitive with past hopes of "the end of history" and the triumph of liberal democracy a distant memory, the question of Britain's changing role is key for anyone interested in foreign policy.

Historically, Britain has played a key role in the shaping of the international and global world. Being the largest empire in history, the British Empire constitutes perhaps the most notable historical example of British power and influence. By 1913 it ruled over 400 million people across the world.

However, in his opening remarks in the House of Lords, the Lord Bishop of St Albans explained that "long gone are the days where we could boast that Britannia rules the waves." Clearly, whatever role Britain should aim to play, we are limited by our position in the global international order. Today, the dominant powers are the United States and China. In terms of GDP, both powers dwarf the next largest countries.

The Lord Bishop also referred to the historical changes which have shifted Britain's role in the world. He mentioned the "contraction of the British Empire, two world wars, the emergence of the commonwealth, and our renegotiated relations with mainland Europe post-Brexit," explaining the importance of continual adaptation in a world that continues to evolve and change.

So what role does Britain play today in the global international order?

Britain as a 'great power'?

The Lord Bishop's comments beg the question of whether Britain remains a great power. Whilst the Lord Bishop does not refer to the notion of a "great power", the implication seems to be that Britain is not sufficiently powerful to qualify as one in today's international world.

The idea that Britain is not the global force it once was is echoed by comments made by other Lords in the debate. The Lord Bishop of Leeds argued that the idea that "the UK is still a world-beating power that can function alone in a world" is redundant. Given the limitations of Britain's position in the global international order, Lord Bishop emphasised the importance of partnerships in Britain's foreign policy strategy as a gateway to "future progress and prosperity."

Similarly, Lord Browne of Ladyton implied the limited power of British foreign policy. The idea of a "global Britain" is proposed in the Integrated Review 2021 (IR2021). However, Lord Browne referred to the declaration of a "new global Britain" as "rhetorical inflation". In contrast, Lord Browne argues that in reality as the global international order evolves the capacity of Britain "to decisively influence the world diminishes."

However, these comments don't tell us what Britain's exact status and role is in the world.

In his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Professor John Mearsheimer argues that great power is a state that is capable of putting up a "serious fight in an all-out conventional war against the most powerful state in the world" (p.5). Moreover, to be capable of doing this, a nation-state must have sufficient hard power capabilities. Hard power equates to material power and contrasts with soft power (the power of influence and attraction). Mearsheimer defines power in hard terms as "... nothing more than specific assets that are available to a state" (p.57).

Whilst this definition might be a useful analytical category, it does not amount to a "role". It merely tells us what a state is capable of in terms of hard force. It doesn't tell us what the purpose of a nation-state is in the global political order (i.e., the role it plays).

And in any case, whilst Britain may possess a nuclear deterrent and the fifth most powerful military out of 145 nation-states according to the 2023 GFP review, it is unclear whether in practice British forces would be able to meet Mearsheimer's criteria for a great power status in an all-out conventional war with the most powerful country in the world. Given Britain's close relationship with the United States (the country with the greatest firepower according to the 2023 GFP review), history won't be providing us with an answer to that question anytime soon.

Another key factor is our economic power, which is a key constituent of material capability and hard power. Given the extent of economic globalisation and material interdependence, the relative position of a nation-state economically within the global political order is arguably just as significant in today's world as its relative military position. Compared to the rest of the world, Britain is ranked sixth in terms of nominal GDP. One and two are the US and China respectively, followed by Japan, India, and Germany.

However, whilst it is dubious to say that Britain has the material power capabilities to qualify as a "great power", does that mean that Britain cannot be a "global power"? Arguably a nation-state with influence around the world (i.e., a global power) doesn't necessarily have to be a great power.

One interesting contribution to the House of Lords debate was from Lord Bilimoria. He referred to the significance of British Prime Ministers throughout international history. For example, the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and former US President Ronald Regan, the success of Tony Blair as PM before Iraq, and the economic leadership shown by Gordon Brown amongst G20 leaders following the global financial crisis back in 2008.

Lord Bilimoria's comments elude to the idea of Britain as a country with influence around the world. In his view, whilst "not a superpower", Britain is "very much a global power", with membership in "the G7, the G20, NATO, the Five Eyes, AUKUS and now the CPTPP."

Britain as a 'global power'

The comments of Lord Bilimoria echo the position of the British government who have also eluded to the idea of Britain as a global force. In a broader outline of Britain's national security and international policy, the 2021 Integrated Review (IR2021) establishes "a vision for Global Britain". The review does not refer to Britain as a great power but as a "global power". Moreover, the contents of IR2021 have been key in the development of British foreign policy.

Firstly, Britain has a role to play as a global trading nation. The paper refers to Britain as a "European country with global interests", emphasising the importance of economic partnerships with "dynamic parts of the world" including "the Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Gulf", which are important for Britain's future alongside our economic connections with Europe.

Indeed, this year Britain gained admission to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade pact formed by 11 nation-states across the Asia Pacific and the Americas. In the foreword to the Integrated Review Refresh 2023 (IR2023), an update to IR2021, British PM Rishi Sunak explains his pride in Britain's successful tilt to the Indo-Pacific region, referencing CPTPP in his comments.

IR2021 also notes that the Global Britain approach is one which prioritises diplomacy. For example, it articulates the objective of working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in addition to CPTPP. ASEAN is a group of 10 nation-states in the Indo-Pacific region that cooperate both politically and economically.

Sunak also explains in the foreword of IR2023 that Britain has achieved "dialogue partner status" with ASEAN. As part of formalised diplomatic engagements, dialogue partner status entails Britain attending annual meetings of Foreign and Economic ministers. The partnership facilitates cooperation on a wide scope of issues, including trade, investment, climate change, the environment, science and technology, and education.

Furthermore, Britain's global role also has a geo-strategic dimension. Sunak mentions the AUKUS defence partnership with the US and Australia as a source of strength in "Atlantic-Pacific links." AUKUS entails a commitment by Britain and the United States to assist Australia in the development of nuclear-powered submarines.

Given the speed with which the world has evolved to become increasingly "multipolar, fragmented and contested", the IR2023 was published to refresh Britain's foreign policy agenda following the original publication of IR2021. Its creation was motivated by a deepening of the pace of key international trends originally identified in IR2021. They include changes in "the distribution of global power", competition of a "systemic" nature over the characteristics of the global international order, fast-paced changes in technology, and "worsening transnational challenges".

The updated IR2023 report goes on to mention the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has significance in the context of British and NATO approaches to deterrence and defence. According to IR2023: "Our collective security is now intrinsically linked to the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine." Crucially, the report highlights Britain's "leading" role in supporting Ukraine. In terms of military aid, Britain is the second largest donor to Ukraine, with "£2.3 billion in humanitarian and military assistance" allocated to the conflict in 2022. In the IR2023 report, the government have pledged to match or exceed this in 2023.

In the words of Sunak, supporting Ukraine "is not just about our values." It is also about the wider security of Europe. However, the reference to values is important. Britain's global role is not just about consolidating economic partnerships across the world and protecting the security of Europe through exercising strength as a military power. Britain's role is also normative, concerning the norms and values of the global international order.

One of the objectives set out in the original IR2021 report was for Britain to shape "the open international order of the future". Given the more interdependent and competitive global political order, it states that Britain must be more proactive in its pursuit of this objective. A key part of this is ensuring that Britain is a "force for good" in the global political order, prioritising human rights and assisting "open societies".

International development vs military spending

As Britain adapts to the changing global political order and seeks to influence its future, one area of debate concerning Britain's role as a force for good is over the allocation of spending. In the integrated review the government proposed to increase defence expenditure "from 2 per cent of GDP to 2.5 per cent".

In terms of Britain's international military role, the IR2023 highlights the ambition of the government of Britain to continue to play a "leading position in NATO". Accordingly, the report outlines that the defence budget will be credited with "£5 billion of additional funding over two years", with nuclear resilience and conventional stockpiles constituting "priority areas".

However, the Lord Bishop of St Albans spoke critically of the government's decision to decrease "spending on overseas development assistance from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent". In his remarks, he referred to Britain as "a country that has been at the forefront of international development and human rights", arguing that the British government have presided over "a deliberate policy shift away from assisting foreign countries to develop to increasing our military capability instead." Moreover, in his view, increasing development aid back to the 0.7 per cent mark would "help promote security around the globe".

Lord Browne also criticised the cut in the foreign aid budget, arguing that Britain's commitment to international development represents a key constituent of our soft power. In other words, Britain's reputation as a force for good in the world.

However, in his speech to the think tank Chatham House, International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell highlighted "Britain's historic commitment through the international system to those who dwell in the poorest and most challenging of circumstances". Arguably, whilst there may be a cut in spending, this does not mean that Britain does not have a role in the world as an advocate of international development. The Lord Bishop's criticism pertains to the level of commitment to the role relative to other priorities like military strength in the context of NATO.