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Rishi Sunak’s Britain

One of the most memorable papers analysed in my foreign policy classes as a postgraduate student of International Relations at the London School of Economics,…

One of the most memorable papers analysed in my foreign policy classes as a postgraduate student of International Relations at the London School of Economics, and which also inspired one of my presentations, proposed a stimulating solution to Britain’s global decline. The paper—co-authored by one of my professors, Tarak Barkawi—argues that Britain must embrace its past to relaunch itself. A strategy the authors call the Brown Britain.

Barkawi’s imagination of a strategically adrift Britain, as simplified in a previous commentary, is “a hybrid country between East and West, a country whose communities embrace a variety of experiences of empire.” He was alarmed that the British foreign policy elite had been alternating between treating the minority communities as outsiders and requiring the “immigrants” to identify or integrate with a specific British identity, a white British identity. 

While Barkawi’s paper isn’t a call for a brown man as the political figurehead of Britain, the emergence of Indian-born Rishi Sunak as Britain’s Prime Minister this week aligns with the solution he devised in the paper. Even if this could be a false alarm for a benign immigration policy, which some anticipated, Sunak seems like the British political establishment is prepared to heed Barkawi’s advice to let go of the racial hierarchy that had treated its old colonies as inferior and outsiders, and a time for the convergence of cultures and acknowledgement of the people, histories and economies of its former colonies in the country’s quests for soft power.

Since China became a threat to the Western-led liberal international order, the consequent crisis has propelled a search for strategies to retain and maximize power. Britain, unfortunately, has been the worst victim of the changing world. Britain rode on the wave of the industrial revolution to emerge as the world’s superpower in the 17th century and went on to build the largest empire in history, dominating the world until the end of the Second World War.  This is the history that stirs the people’s nostalgia to assume the world is as it was yesterday, and that Britain’s place at the high table is probably guaranteed. 

Even though Britain, along with their European powers ravaged by the war, was spoon-fed to life through the American postwar recovery intervention, the Marshall Plan, and has thus functioned as America’s offshore balancer—a power stationed to check the rise of potentially-hostile powers—in Europe, it never regained the power to dominate even in Europe. This is the geopolitical disadvantage that has inspired Barkawi to reflect on what the British leadership must prioritize to evade erasure on the international scene. 

The French policy of assimilation, to a certain extent, served the purpose idealized in Barkawi’s proposal for Britain—the recognition of the colonies as an extension of France instead of treating the subaltern component of the society.  Even though France’s diplomatic dabbling in its African colonies became parasitic, especially the moment it became a prime suspect in most of the coups in the region, its strategic identifications with its colonial past and history gave it leverage in its diplomatic dealings and to maintain influence in the worlds 

This explains why Emmanuel Macron’s obsession with creating a monolithic French identity contradicts the strategies that have kept Paris standing tall for this long. It’s self-sabotaging to suddenly embark on erasing the identities of French minority communities, especially the Muslims who have become the villains of a country they helped build. But it’s a catastrophic decision for a country that had the opportunity to take over leadership of Europe ever since Britain began to succumb to post-Brexit realities. 

France could’ve easily explored its colonial past and multicultural advantage by projecting soft power to lead Europe instead of going to war with itself. This is the strategy Barkawi proposed to guide Britain out of hibernation as it collapses within and suffers outside. Germany doesn’t have the cultural advantage of being under-utilised by Britain and currently misapplied by France, but it has the economic power to overtake its confused regional rivals. 

The triumph of Sunak’s emergence isn’t about accommodating immigrants, but a confirmation that Britain is a sum of its colonies, and India is one of them. And so is Nigerian-born Kemi Badenoch who campaigned for the PM position about two months ago. Soft power, for Britain, isn’t just about attending fancy conferences to revitalise the Commonwealth relations, but the reality that the election of Sunak underscores—the brown or the black communities as just as British as the whites. If China could find its way to the heart of Africa by stoking south-south sentiments in its economic statecraft, Britain only needs to come down this racial hierarchy to re-establish a benign image in the old colonies.

Because the British colonial policy of association wasn’t deployed to proselytize embracing the British identity as the touchstone of human civilization as the French did in wooing their colonized subjects, it created the most diverse empire the world has ever seen. This multicultural outlook didn’t shrink when the empire shrank, and it won’t disappear as right-wing extremists instigated Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The tragedy of Britain’s domestic politics, is the delusion that the country is still a frontline power and even more so in isolation. 

As Sunak sets out to make history, he’s inheriting a country to which his kind is still not the convention. But, whichever the case, the message of a multicultural Britain has been sent. The task ahead of the British public and political leaders, especially after the ill-advised Brexit, now is to determine whether they intend to be a relic or re-assert their soft power in a world incapable of solving the China challenge. 


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