Squaring the Circles: The Future of Churchill's Foreign Legacy

Foreign Affairs & Security
Monday, August 1, 2016
Hector Marchetti


Winston Churchill envisioned British foreign policy after the Second World War within three interlinked circles of the Commonwealth, the United States and Europe. What, then, does Brexit mean for Britain’s role in the world?

The three circles doctrine was intended to guarantee Britain’s place at the forefront of international affairs by continuing the Empire’s global reach. Churchill even implied that Britain’s influence in each circle was increased by being able to draw power from the other two.

Traditional ties across the world, cultural affinity in the Anglosphere, and being part of the devastated European continent led to involvement within all three circles immediately after the Second World War. However, the magic of Churchill’s name – like a Caesar – left a sacrosanct relic in British foreign policy which justified indecision as the Empire slowly fell without a new direction.

This lack of purpose has caused relations within all three circles to fluctuate continuously ever since. The sceptred isle has remained adrift, forlorn but proud in its old quest to find a new role in the world.

Brexit now provides opportunities for Britain to rediscover itself.

The nations of Europe remain allies and cousins with strong commonality; it is inevitable that their bounty, troubles and even enemies will be shared. Nonetheless, the British people have rejected political union in its current federalist conception and so should seize the chances to reengage with the rest of the world.

Across the Atlantic, the United States continues as the bastion of the West, its vigil critical to Britain’s defence and security. The special relationship assiduously cultivated by particular Prime Ministers and Presidents has enabled Britain to exert objectives beyond a small island nation. Despite this, the political relationship has only been as special as the personal one between Churchill and Roosevelt; Thatcher and Reagan; Blair and Bush.

Under Cameron and Obama, this was downgraded to an “essential” relationship.

As a superpower, the United States sometimes possesses divergent interests to Britain and is able to call upon oft-times closer allies like Israel or South Korea. Beyond the politicking, the Anglosphere holds a rich heritage and pre-existing attachments which enable the development of closer societal relations. Although, as any conservative knows, this will take time to flourish.

The Commonwealth is currently the most verdant circle, but chances to deepen ties have been neglected in past decades. This has occurred as a result of both Britain’s own economic downturns leaving it with less to offer, and European Economic Community rules having raised discriminatory barriers to migration. Therefore, the Commonwealth nations decided that they could seek prosperity elsewhere.

There is now great potential to encourage mutual diplomatic and economic influence through closer cooperation with the Commonwealth in a renewed, stronger framework. In particular, utilising soft power to develop joint education and research & development programmes would make for an excellent starting point.

The colonial history which can be twisted by agitators to self-flagellation and spiral towards discord must not deter any such endeavours. In spite of this, revising Commonwealth arrangements to the benefit of all 53 member states, given their lack of political and economic convergence, will be a long process.

However, global politics has changed significantly since Churchill formulated his three circles. The roles of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and United Nations have greater salience in world affairs. Thus, looking through the lens of the three circles may obfuscate other possibilities.

Recent deals with Tajikstan, China and India demonstrate a strand of mercantilism reminiscent of the Georgian-era trading nation. Despite the necessity to negotiate trade deals across the world in preparation for leaving the European Union, the creation of a separate International Trade Ministry appears to support the existence of such a trend. Yet, the assertion of homo economicus writ large on the world stage belies Britain’s own national principles which have previously been – and might be again – beholden in courting other powers.

In an inversion of the doux commerce thesis, diplomatic relations based upon economic gain alone would be hollow. The lack of genuine amicability would leave a material dependence to manipulate when it would strategically suit the other nation.

Instead, while the capacity of intergovernmental institutions in global politics has grown since Churchill’s era, Britain has always remained at their forefront. With one of the world’s largest economies; militaries; Commonwealth membership; a United Nations Permanent Security Council seat; seats at the International Monetary Fund and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; Britain is now uniquely positioned to act across the world as a nation and within the forums of nations.

Britain ought therefore to be both simultaneously insular and gregarious. The nation’s own interests must first be prioritised, while its influence across the world can be used to promote these objectives with friendly countries through trade and the principles which have guided Britain for so long: rule of law, humanism, scientific pursuit and peacekeeping.

Britain needs its traditional allies. The United States and Europe will be steadfast. Yet, British foreign policy must now transition from Churchill’s three circles to focus on the Commonwealth. This new narrative must also explore bilateral relations across the world and use seats in intergovernmental institutions to advance these aims.

Britain must pearl-dive into its history for inspiration, with the potential to once more become a global nexus.

Hector Marchetti is a Research Fellow at the Bow Group