David Cameron called it the Global Race. Boris Johnson championed Global Britain. The first era was pre-Brexit; the latter an explicitly post-Brexit national ambition. Either way, both leaders were responding to a very real challenge.
Britain needs to move with the times. And the times are changing. Pretty rapidly. Recognising that, and responding accordingly, opens up opportunities, and mitigates threats. Not doing so magnifies risks.
Leave aside, for a moment, the merits or otherwise of Brexit, which have been well-rehearsed. The following list – regardless of Britain’s allegiances and alliances – provides a state-of-the-world snapshot of today:
China is far more important than it was 20 years ago, in every sphere.
The twentieth-century hegemony of the United States is waning (albeit from a very commanding position).
Asia is increasingly significant. India is about to become the world’s most populous country.
The longer-term big demographic development will be the huge rise in the number of people living in Africa.
Europe’s share of the global population and economy are on a downwards trajectory. Ageing societies present big financial (and healthcare) issues for most developed economies. Technological advances have transformed communications and working practices, and made physical distance matter less. And with technology, there is much more to come.
The world order that will emerge from this period of dramatic change is contested and uncertain. The countries (mainly in the west) that have enjoyed greatest prosperity and influence cannot take their status and comforts for granted. For Britain, business as usual is not an option. Or, at least, not an attractive, affluent or safe option.
This new context presents domestic challenges for any British government. It also requires us to think more creatively about our place in the world.
Our closest connections have tended to be with either our geographic neighbours or English-speaking nations with which we enjoy deep historic ties. There is nothing wrong with that, but it represents a limited world view. On our continent, for example, the European Single Market is the biggest market in the world (for now), but 94 per cent of people do not live in the European Union.
Even if we show willingness to cast our gaze further, one continent that consistently escapes our attention is Latin America. It is quite far from us, and relatively few Britons have been there. It features little in our news bulletins or wider national discourse. Business leaders flying out of London tend to travel west or east rather than south. Unlike in Africa, there is very little Commonwealth presence in Latin America, while the historic links are old and we are largely ignorant of them.
These are all plausible explanations for our indifference towards Latin America, but they are not good reasons. We are missing a considerable opportunity.
From a British perspective, this is a culturally familiar continent. The people speak European languages. With a few glaring exceptions, the countries are not only democracies, but also have proper civic societies, with free speech, free media, and the rule of law. Music, sport, fashion, media: they all translate between Britain and Latin America, in both directions. Indeed, Latin American interest in our politics, Royal family and popular culture are all remarkably high.
In the great, unfolding, geo-political battle of ideas, between an open, liberal vision of government and society, and a more authoritarian and prescriptive template, Latin America, overwhelmingly, is in the right column. The world would feel very differently balanced if it were not. We should nurture and nourish our shared outlooks, and certainly not neglectfully take them for granted.
Latin America also possesses many commercial opportunities for Britain. Its lithium and copper reserves are of central importance to the ‘green transition’. It has an abundance of conventional energy and produces a huge surplus of food. There are globally competitive businesses in technology, finance, advanced manufacturing and medical research. A growing Latin American consumer class has an appetite for discretionary spending on branded British products.
A globally orientated Britain, thinking beyond our normal confines, should see great commercial opportunities here, and there are existing success stories. But the overall trading picture is underwhelming.
Britain is Brazil’s sixteenth biggest trading partner, for example. It would be a stretch to make the top five (in a field now dominated by America and China), but top ten feels perfectly plausible. We are behind our peer group. We can be more collectively ambitious.
We do over three times more trade with Belgium (population, 12 million) than we do with the trio of Latin American G20 countries (Brazil, Mexico and Argentina – combined population, 387 million) put together. That could be an argument for staying in the European Single Market, or an argument for looking beyond it. Either way, Britain can do better.
Ah, people say, but Belgium is much closer to Britain. That is true, and geography is a factor, but geography matters less than ever before, and Britain’s economy is skewed towards services (rather than long-distance transportation of goods). Large Latin American economies should be attractive markets for British financial and professional services. Yet in the rankings of British services exports alone Brazil comes in at 36, Mexico 45 and Argentina 69.
Improving our performance requires the ongoing support of British trade promotion officials, but the task of lifting our collective sights cannot just be left to the government. There are ‘global’ British businesses that have a big presence in the USA, Europe and Asia, but are hardly present in Latin America (or anywhere else much south of the equator, except Australia).
Not many people would argue that Latin America should top the league table of places commanding British attention. Of course. Ukraine/Russia, the EU, the USA, China, Japan, the Middle East, the Commonwealth – they are all important, and it is not always possible to do everything all at once.
But Britain – diplomatically and commercially – is an internationally-minded nation, with a genuine global disposition which stretches back centuries and is embedded in our institutions and psychology. Latin America might not warrant a place at the top of our league table, but it deserves to be on it.
We should be able to answer the question ‘What is Britain’s ambition for its (post-Brexit) relationship with Latin America?’. And the answer should be imaginative and ambitious. It should focus on what could be done, not just on what has previously been done.
Britain’s future networks, wealth and status are not pre-ordained. Our destiny is ours to create. We have it within our power to enlist the countries of Latin America as great friends and partners of an emboldened Global Britain.