Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: Boris Johnson has a pragmatic yet extraordinary plan for Britain's global role after Brexit

Key Points
  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson released a new strategy paper that seeks to define Britain's role in the world now that it has left the European Union.
  • The U.K. would place highest priority on ties with the U.S. while at the same time "tilt" its international focus toward the Indo-Pacific.
  • The paper takes the U.K. in the right direction to ensure its outsized global role as a medium-sized European country with world-leading security agencies.  
  • It also shows a keen understanding of the most pressing global challenges, making it must-reading for Biden administration officials.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a televised press conference at 10 Downing Street on February 22, 2021 in London, England.
Leon Neal | Getty Images

Has British Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally found his country the global role that has eluded it since it lost its empire?

Has the irreverent, ambitious, moppy-haired leader of the United Kingdom — the biographer, admirer and sometimes emulator of Winston Churchill — provided the blueprint for his own shot at greatness?

Or are Johnson's critics right that this week's release of "Global Britain in a Competitive Age" — the impressive, 114-page guidance for the future from Her Majesty's Government — is brave but insufficient cover for the historic Brexit blunder that will forever stain his legacy?

One thing is for sure. This document came as a welcome reminder of British strategic seriousness following further yammering about national decline after Oprah Winfrey's sit-down with rogue royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (which included a visit to their California farm and its rescue chickens).

Johnson's paper also comes as a belated effort to answer Dean Acheson's stinging West Point speech of nearly six decades ago in 1962, where he argued: "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role."

Post-Brexit economic 'liberalization' should help the UK make a comeback: Invesco
Post-Brexit economic liberalization should help the UK make a comeback: Invesco

At the time, the legendary U.S. diplomat was praising the "vast importance" of the UK's application to become part of the then-six country European Common Market, which it would only join eleven years later in 1973.

 His words humiliated then-British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and electrified the Fleet Street media.

"The attempt to play a separate power role," said Acheson, "that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a 'special relationship' with the United States, a role based in being head of a 'commonwealth' which has no political structure, or unity, or strength – this role is about played out."

One wonders what Acheson would say today, more than a year after the United Kingdom left the European Union, 47 years after it joined, and with its current Prime Minister Boris Johnson searching yet again now for that elusive role.

It is a fair bet he would be encouraged by the Integrated Review's ambition, clarity and detail. Though at the same time he would question how little attention it gives to what he considered the central role of the European dimension to Great Britain's role.

Perhaps the pain of divorce remains too near for sound reflection.

Still, this paper takes the United Kingdom in great many of the right directions that could ensure its outsized global role as a medium-sized European country with world-leading security and intelligence agencies.  

It also shows a keen understanding of the most pressing global challenges, making it must-reading for Biden administration officials. It's inspiring as a rallying point for fellow democratic countries.

Potential successor of Angela Merkel will need time, senior economist at Deutsche Bank says
Potential successor of Merkel needs time, senior economist at Deutsche Bank says

"History has shown that democratic societies are the strongest supporters of an open and resilient international order," wrote Johnson in the paper's forward, "in which global institutions prove their ability to protect human rights, manage tensions between great powers, address conflict, instability and climate change, and share prosperity through trade and investment."

Most notable among Johnson's new ambitions for Great Britain, as he put it in his foreword for the paper, is to "secure our status as a Science and Tech Superpower by 2030."

Eight pages detail how the U.K. intends to do that by expanding research and development spending, bolstering its global network of innovation partnerships and improving national skills – including though a Global Talent Visa to attract the world's best and brightest.

"In the years ahead, countries which establish a leading role in critical and emerging technologies will be at the forefront of global leadership," the paper says, identifying quantum computing, artificial intelligence and cyber domains as areas of focus.

Without dusting off the overused term "special relationship," the U.K. would place highest priority on ties with the United States ("none more valuable to the British people") while at the same time "tilt" its international focus toward the Indo-Pacific.

Johnson has invited the leaders of Australia, South Korea, and India to attend his G7 summit in June, and he is visiting India in April to step up efforts to deepen relations with the world's largest democracy, which was under the British Raj until 1947.

There is much more in the pages of what is being billed as the U.K.'s most significant strategic rethink since the Cold War, which will be followed this week by its military dimension. The bumper sticker is that the U.K. will be "a problem solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective."  

UK's vaccine campaign has lifted optimism, Legal & General CEO says
UK's vaccine campaign has lifted optimism, Legal & General CEO says

Many will argue that this paper can't undo the strategic error of BrexitThey point to the inevitable, long-term hit to the British economy, both to London as a financial center and to the U.K. as a domestic manufacturing base for European markets.

They question whether the U.K, with a population that is 0.87% of the global total and an economy that is sixth in the world, will ever have influence to rival what it enjoyed as one of the leaders of a European Union with its total of 5.8% of global population and 17.8% of the world economy.

That said, if Johnson's purpose was to vindicate his Brexit decision, the paper comes at a good time. Criticism is growing of E.U. leadership and bureaucracy in its handling of Covid-19 and vaccine distribution, and the United Kingdom is performing well by comparison.

What is most significant about the document is its pragmatic, non-ideological and intelligent framework for the future. There is none of the Boris Johnson bluster in a paper designed as "a guide for action."

One can see the fingerprints of the man chosen by Johnson to lead the review, the 40-year-old historian John Bew. Johnson recruited him for his broad perspective, at the same time steering away from the more conventional choice of a senior government official or politician.

Most significantly, the Integrated Review has turned "Global Britain" from a much-maligned slogan to an extraordinary plan.  If the United Kingdom can execute against it, the former empire may have found a global role equal to its resources, capabilities, ambitions — and the historic moment.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.