The UK government’s “Global Britain” strategy, which aims to propel the nation towards a dynamic future outside the EU, has got off to a slow start with the country falling out of the top 10 in a leading ranking of diplomatic powers.
The latest edition of the Lowy Institute think-tank’s global diplomacy index, which measures the size and reach of countries’ diplomatic networks, ranks the UK 11th out of 61 states. This position represents a drop of two places since the index was first released in 2016 and ranks Britain behind Italy, Spain and Brazil.
China has overtaken the US as the country with the largest diplomatic network, with 276 diplomatic posts around the world — three more than Washington — and ahead of third-ranked France. Beijing ranked behind both countries when the index was first published three years ago.
The number of UK embassies has remained steady at 149 since the 2016 rankings were released. But the government has closed or downgraded 11 consulates and diplomatic offices, including posts in St Petersburg, Russia and Alexandria, Egypt, according to the Lowy index.
“While the stakes of Brexit are highest for the UK, it has been slow off the mark in preparing its diplomats for Brexit,” said Bonnie Bley, research fellow at Lowy.
“By contrast, Ireland and the Netherlands have taken determined steps to boost their networks as part of their Brexit strategies, adding eight and seven posts respectively.”
Ireland is ranked 40th on the index with 87 overseas posts but experienced the largest boost to its diplomatic footprint, rising from 43rd in 2017. Its foreign minister has attributed this expansion to its “Brexit strategy”.
The size of a country’s diplomatic network is only one indicator of the effectiveness of its diplomacy. Membership of international bodies, including the UN Security Council, as well as the scale and make-up of military forces are considerations. But in an increasingly interconnected world, analysts say diplomatic connections are rising in importance.
The global diplomacy index was first published by Lowy in 2016 when the UK ranked ninth in the world. A year later it slipped to 10th.
The latest fall in the rankings follows the launch of the government’s “Global Britain” strategy, which it says is about reinvesting in the country’s international relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating the UK is open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage.
Ms Bley said Britain’s foreign service was sending fewer diplomats overseas, opting instead to have non-resident diplomats or locally engaged staff. She said the reforms to the service suggested the government was becoming more cost conscious, although it could also point to a disconnect between the government’s stated post-Brexit diplomatic ambitions and the resources allocated to them.
The UK Foreign Office disputed the data, saying the UK had 278 overseas posts spanning 177 countries and territories and nine international organisations. “As we continue with our largest expansion in a generation to deliver Global Britain, our overseas network will become the largest of any European country,” it said.