The Future of British Foreign Policy: Security and Diplomacy in a World After Brexit

Review of Hill, Christopher. The Future of British Foreign Policy: Security and Diplomacy in a World After Brexit (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019)

On January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom formally left the European Union. For most observers, Brexit Day meant the conclusion of a long drawn out negotiation process lasting for more than three-and-a-half years after the initial Brexit Referendum.[1] Yet for others, it symbolized a momentous change in the future course of European politics. Despite the initial optimism that the UK’s departure signified a major milestone in its new relationship with the EU and broader international system, the complexity of its ongoing trade negotiations with the EU suggests that uncertainty about the UK’s future will persist into the foreseeable future. While British policymakers remain focused on the immediate challenges of the trade negotiations, there are still lingering concerns about Brexit’s impacts and the future of British foreign policy.

Few are better suited to address the lingering concerns of Brexit and the future of British foreign policy than Christopher Hill. A prominent academic in European international politics, Hill is currently the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Bologna and an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Cambridge. He has written extensively about British foreign policy and, more recently, the implications of Brexit on its future.[2] In his most recent book, The Future of British Foreign Policy: Security and Diplomacy in a World After Brexit, Hill relies on both his distinguished academic career and extensive background in British foreign policy to answer some of the remaining questions about the UK’s global standing in a post-Brexit world.

As the title of his book implies, Hill seeks to offer insight into how Brexit will change the UK’s global standing and foreign policy strategies, if at all. Wasting no time, Hill introduces his argument in the opening pages of his book and asserts that the UK’s “historical, geographical and cultural destiny” is to be entangled with the affairs of Europe irrespective of its negotiated exit from the EU. [3] Thus, for Hill, the more critical issue to consider is the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the European states, regional organizations, and the broader international system. For close followers of Hill and his writings, the argument made in The Future of British Foreign Policy may seem familiar. Earlier iterations of Hill’s argument has appeared in a few op-eds, academic journals, and edited volumes in recent years.[4] However, Hill masterfully expands upon his earlier works in this book and offers his most compelling argument yet.

Cognizant of the hazards of writing about the self-described “moving target” that is Brexit, Hill opts to take a “historical and thematic” approach in structuring his book to hedge against future political developments when making his argument about the future of British foreign policy.[5] Still, despite the substantial detail Hill offers in his historical context, The Future of British Foreign Policy is not an introductory text for casual readers and requires more than a passing familiarity with the topic of British foreign policy.

Roughly speaking, the first half of the book focuses on the historical approach to identify general trends in British foreign policy and the UK’s tepid relationship with European integration. Hill’s historical approach contextualizes the thematic approaches in the latter half of The Future of British Foreign Policy, as it returns to the main question Hill raises in his introduction. That is, how will Brexit affect the UK’s future relationship with Europe and the international system, and what will the nature of that relationship be? Hill argues that, on the surface, not much will change. Instead, the UK’s “a la carte” approach to foreign engagement by selectively choosing which policies to cooperate on with the European Union will likely persist into the future, albeit with much more diplomatic friction in the post-Brexit world.

Hill remains skeptical on the question of the UK’s renewed global ambitions in a post-Brexit world. After assessing some alternatives, he concludes that agreements with the United Nations Security Council and renewed relations with the Commonwealth States or states within the Anglosphere are insufficient (or unlikely) to replace the EU. While Hill does concede there are some conceivable benefits to forging new bilateral agreements, he asserts that the significant asymmetries which favor some major powers, including the United States and China, will disadvantage the UK.[6] It is here that Hill’s prediction seems to be extraordinarily prescient. In particular, its recent reversal of a decision to allow Huawei into domestic 5G infrastructure following diplomatic pressure from the US, and the subsequent vague threats of retaliation from China illustrates the risks of bilateral agreements and the UK’s decreased leverage in the wake of Brexit.[7] Hill concludes by asserting that British foreign policy will remain regionally focused due to both resource and geographic constraints, in addition to its inherently regional interests.[8]

So then, does The Future of British Foreign Policy withstand 2020’s tsunami wave of change? Naturally, there is some risk in writing about events that are still unfolding, and 2020 has already proven to be almost entirely unpredictable. Even at the time of publication of Hill’s book, few were optimistic that Prime Minister Johnson would successfully negotiate the terms of Brexit. While it still may be too soon to pass judgment, Hill’s book holds up well so far. In particular, Hill proves to be especially perceptive in his assessment of the clear asymmetries that disadvantage the UK in its future bilateral agreements. With the UK and EU still engaged in trade negotiations, it remains unclear if Hill’s prediction for the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU will not dissolve at some point. Yet, there appears to be some truth to his conclusion that, while the UK and EU will continue to be, in some manner, involved with one another, both British and European foreign policies will be worse off as a result of Brexit.

[1] Frank Langfitt, “Brexit Day: What To Know When The UK Leaves The EU” NPR, January 31st, 2020,

[2] Christopher Hill, “Christopher Hill’s Biography,” Johns Hopkins SAIS, April 18th, 2020,

[3] Hill, The Future of British Foreign Policy, 18.

[iv] Hill outlines his argument in a 2019 op-ed for The Guardian, and a similar argument also appears in the edited volume Brexit and Beyond: Rethinking the Futures of Europe. For more see: Christopher Hill, “What next for British foreign policy in a post-Brexit world?” The Guardian, August 18th, 2019, and Christopher Hill, “Turning back the clock: the illusion of a global political role for Britain,” in Brexit and Beyond: Rethinking the Futures of Europe, eds. Benjamin Martill and Uta Staiger (London: UCL Press, 2018), 183-192.

[5] Hill, The Future of British Foreign Policy, vi-vii.

[6] Hill, The Future of British Foreign Policy, 112-13.

[7] Alexander Smith, “After months of U.S. pressure, U.K. bans China’s Huawei from its 5G network,” NBC News, Jul 14th, 2020,

“Huawei: China attacks UK’s ‘groundless’ ban of 5G kit” BBC, July 15th, 2020,

[8] Hill, The Future of British Foreign Policy, 116, 118-19, 126-27.

Matthew Jones
Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is a SAIS M.A. candidate with a concentration in Strategic Studies and International Economics.