This Key Issues 2017 article looks at the future of UK foreign policy post-Brexit and the conflicts and issues facing the incoming Government.

UK foreign policy and Brexit

The foreign policy implications of Brexit for the UK are still far from clear. In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, Lord Hennessy said: “Never in our peacetime history have so many dials been reset as a result of a single day’s events.”

The outgoing Conservative Government said that, while a good post-Brexit relationship with the EU is very important, Britain’s political and economic future will be ‘global’; that the UK will retain the capacity to intervene around the world; and that Brexit will not harm the UK-US ‘special relationship’. But others fear that a UK outside the EU will struggle to maintain its influence, anticipating that post-Brexit foreign policy will need to combine damage limitation with fresh thinking.

Donald Trump

Campaigning for the presidency, Donald Trump advocated an “America first” foreign policy; NATO was “obsolete,” allies would pay for their defence, and international interventions not obviously in the US national interest would be avoided. He also offered rapprochement with Russia and made defeating ISIS and other jihadi terrorist groups a top priority.

He promised in February 2017: “We build a military might so great – and we are going to do that – that none will dare to challenge it. None.”

Building unchallenged military superiority and then showing more restraint in deploying it may be difficult. One of Trump’s highest profile acts was the cruise missile strike on Syria in April 2017.


In Syria and Iraq, ISIS has lost territory and about half its fighters since its peak, according to the US-led coalition. The Syrian government, helped by Russia and Iran, has improved its position markedly, re-establishing control over Aleppo. It now looks unlikely that the Syrian government will fall.

Nevertheless, a political settlement remains distant. Any post-settlement government that resembled the present one would lack legitimacy; the Syrian government is responsible for far more deaths in the conflict than
any other protagonist.

The Russian/Iranian alliance that seems to have saved the Syrian government may come under strain over a final settlement.

Meanwhile the resulting refugee crisis is the biggest of our time and the UNHCR is short of funds.

Accountability is another question. In December 2016 the UK co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution establishing a new ‘International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism’ to collect and analyse evidence of serious international crimes committed in Syria. But without Syrian agreement or Security Council authorisation there is very limited scope for using that evidence in an international court or tribunal.


During the 2016 US election campaign, Donald Trump indicated that if he won, he might tear up key elements of traditional US policy toward China. Soon after his election, he questioned the validity of the ‘One China’ policy, which in 1979 led the US to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and switch recognition to the People’s Republic.

So far little has really changed in the US-China relationship. The ‘One China’ policy has been re-affirmed. Chinese president Xi Jinping and President Trump met. There is greater cooperation over North Korea.

Some have been reviving ideas of a ‘grand bargain’ between the countries. However, many issues where interests diverge widely – for example, the South China Sea – remain. The relationship could turn sour again.

North Korea

The new US administration is increasing pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

There do not appear to be military options for the US without mass civilian casualties. For all the current sabre-rattling, tougher UN sanctions seem more likely – and perhaps an eventual resumption of negotiations. The new president in South Korea wants to dampen down tensions.

Much hinges on how far China is willing to go along with growing US pressure. Traditionally, it has valued North Korea as a ‘buffer state’ between it and the West, fearing regime collapse above all else.

While Beijing can severely damage the North Korean economy through tougher sanctions, it is uncertain how far this would change Kim Jong-Un’s behaviour. There is a real risk of catastrophic miscalculation by one or more of the parties.


The Institute for the Study of War predicts that a major conflict between the US and Iran is likely in the next five years.

Donald Trump has described the Iran nuclear deal as “disastrous” and said scrapping it was a top priority. Pressure from conservatives in Washington to impose further sanctions could scupper the deal. European countries are likely to argue for keeping it.

Hassan Rouhani, figurehead of the nuclear deal in Iran and of opening up to the West, easily retained the presidency in the May 2017 election.


In March 2017 the Taliban captured Sangin, scene of over 100 British deaths a decade ago. In April, the worst Taliban attack since 2001 killed 140 Afghan soldiers in Balkh province; the Defence Minister and the army Chief of Staff resigned – all that before the Taliban’s spring offensive began. The Afghan branch of ISIS also mounted attacks against both the Taliban and pro-government forces.

Meanwhile, splits in the government continue to threaten its effectiveness; the Afghan National Security Forces only control slightly over half of the territory. The US military leadership has asked for a few thousand extra troops.

A huge bomb dropped by US forces on an alleged ISIS base suggested, like Trump’s action in Syria, that his administration could intervene more decisively.

Afghanistan civilian deaths and injuries


The internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya is not establishing its authority over the country; it does not control important institutions like the state oil company or the central bank, nor has it been recognised by the House of Representatives.

UN engagement with Libya has faltered in recent months, while Russia has increased its support to General Haftar’s Libya National Army, the main rival to the GNA.

The EU seeks ways to control irregular migration through Libya; 1,089 people have been registered missing or dead in the Mediterranean so far this year. The plight of migrants from south of the Sahara inside Libya has also been highlighted, with reports of open slave markets.


ISIS is forecast to lose most of its remaining territory in Iraq and Syria before long. That will be a success for the international coalition, but questions remain about what will happen to the organisation and its personnel when there is no longer an ‘Islamic State’. It may turn into a more traditional terrorist organisation – inspiring, facilitating and organising attacks in the Middle Eastern and European countries where most of its fighters came from.

Leaders are well aware of the dangers of dispersal, but success in detaining ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria as the caliphate disintegrates is likely to be patchy. Could the end of the ‘Islamic State’ mean an increase in lone-actor terrorism such as the horrific attacks of spring 2017? Investigators have discovered ISIS had a more direct role than previously thought in recent events like the Nice lorry attack.


Hopes of improved relations with the US have been clouded by the US cruise missile attack on Syria and by stronger than expected US commitment to NATO. Trump’s pledge to increase defence spending is also worrying Russia, given its economic difficulties and the consequent stall in its military modernisation.

If the Syrian intervention has encouraged the West to take Russia seriously (the US sent a representative to the Russian-backed Astana peace talks), there are opportunities to repeat that process – in Ukraine and Georgia,
for example.

No one thinks that Putin will lose the 2018 presidential election, but protests organised by Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption politician, showed that real resistance to Putinism may be growing, particularly among the young.

The 0.7% aid target

Despite an ongoing campaign for its abandonment, there remains broad political support across the UK for the UN target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid, enshrined in UK law in 2015.

This consensus could come under renewed strain if a serious economic downturn occurs in the UK, or if there are further controversies over fraud or waste.

There also remains plenty of scope for future disagreement over where and how UK aid should be spent, and by which Government department. DFID’s share of spending has decreased in recent years as UK aid has become more closely linked to the ‘national interest’.

Nuclear disarmament

The nuclear disarmament regime is increasingly under pressure as the nuclear weapon states pursue modernisation and North Korea develops a nuclear weapons capability.

Historically, many have looked to the US and Russia for leadership on this issue. President Trump, however, has expressed support for nuclear modernisation and cast doubt on the US-Russian New START treaty, which expires in 2021. The current US nuclear posture review will set the tone for future nuclear relations, although hopes of a follow-on treaty are already starting to fade.

Frustrated with the lack of progress on disarmament, negotiations are underway in the UN General Assembly on a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty. However, none of the nuclear weapon states, including the UK, are participating, which raises questions over what those talks can actually achieve.

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.

Image: Foreign Office doorway by Rev Stan. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)