The UK is in a pivotal position to play a leading global role in reducing conflict and fragility and to contribute to a more just and peaceful world.
The present time offers a unique opportunity for the UK to forge its particular role, following Brexit, the creation of an integrated Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) and the ongoing UK Government Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. The latter offers a first-of-its-kind ‘big picture’ review that aims to shape the UK’s role in the world, from development to defence, for decades to come.
Focusing the UK’s role in the world
We have to accept that there are limits to the UK’s resources and influence, particularly in an environment of economic recession, increasing geo-strategic competition and the erosion of global institutions.
There is no doubt that hard trade-offs will have to be made, and the UK will need to choose its particular focus and unique selling point within the global community.
Fortunately, the UK is uniquely placed to do this. It can maximise its resources by doubling down on its recent history of commitment to human rights and the rule of law, peace-building, humanitarianism and resilience-building — not to mention its UN Security Council membership and experience of strong bilateral and multilateral relationships.
Promoting international institutions and humanitarian law
Given its position on the Security Council, the UK can assume a global leadership role promoting multilateralism and partnership, rooted in human rights and the rule of law. In particular, the UK should uphold international humanitarian law (IHL) and remain loyal to other vital commitments such as the protection of women and girls set out in UNSCR 1325.
But while existing IHL and Security Council resolutions are robust, better application and enforcement is needed.
The UK should advocate for enforcement, monitoring and awareness-raising mechanisms under the Security Council’s resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, joining the French government’s offer to suspend the use of the veto in cases of mass atrocities.
This should be in addition to providing ongoing support for principled and independent humanitarian action to meet the needs of those affected by conflict.
UK influence should therefore be geared towards protecting and sustaining cooperation and multilateralism, recognising that to address global security threats we need like-minded partners.
A joined-up approach within the UK government is essential for impact and credibility
Further integration within the UK Government will be critical to creating greater coherence and benefits for the UK’s work on conflict and fragility.
The FCDO can break down old silos and create a potent mix of integrated Foreign Office contextual expertise with political economy experience from the Department for International Development. It can also draw on the UK government Stabilisation Unit and continue to engage independent experts (as via the Conflict Stability and Security Fund).
A more multidimensional and holistic analysis of security challenges can only yield smarter solutions.
Working in an integrated way across government will require more attention to effectively managing trade-offs and tensions that could emerge from balancing UK values and national interests, including trade.
Yet ultimately, coherent and principled action always fosters the greatest impact and respect, domestically and internationally. The UK government should act consistently with its principles across all aspects of its role in the world, so a values-based approach across government should be at the centre of the UK’s overriding national interest.
Ensuring long-term and sustainable solutions
Conflict prevention and resolution boils down to long-term commitment. As Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen have demonstrated, today's conflicts are increasingly protracted and complex. An average of eight armed groups were involved in a given civil war in 1950, increasing to 14 by 2010. As we have seen in Syria and Libya, the more groups that are involved, the more protracted violence will be.
The UK cannot and should not get involved everywhere. But where it does engage, it must plan to do so for the long-term, thinking more strategically about where and how to leverage its expertise, relationships and influence. This is key for the current Integrated Review, which should eschew short-term decision-making and instead develop long-term thinking to address root causes in the UK’s approach to conflicts for the foreseeable future.
Promoting a coherent, just and sustainable approach to justice, peace and security should be the main objective of foreign, security, defence policy and actions. An overly securitised approach to terrorism and global stability has all too often been short-sighted.
In particular, the UK should reduce reliance on overly blunt and often ineffective counter-terrorist approaches. It must place greater emphasis on conflict prevention, peace-building and justice to tackle the root causes of insecurity.
A more just and peaceful world is fundamental to the future of humankind and our planet. UK leadership can contribute much to this end and can ensure that it continues to be seen as a significant force for good in the world if it retains its commitment to international norms and multilateralism, and stays true to its long-held values on the global stage.