Politics, Analysis, Europe

OPINION - Keir Starmer looks to 'steady the ship' in UK foreign policy

Labour Party's foreign policy promises under Starmer do not differ much from the Conservatives, who have been ousted after 14 years in power

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey  | 06.07.2024 - Update : 07.07.2024
OPINION - Keir Starmer looks to 'steady the ship' in UK foreign policy

- Starmer will support improving post-Brexit ties with Europe, potentially reducing trade barriers and coordinating on security and migration, yet without rejoining the E

- The author is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region.


Keir Starmer’s victory as the United Kingdom (UK) prime minister on July 5, comes with a host of expectations, both domestically and in foreign policy. Yet those expecting swift and significant changes in Britain’s foreign policy will likely be disappointed.

On paper, Labour Party's foreign policy promises under Starmer do not differ much from the Conservatives, who have been ousted after 14 years in power. Indeed, Starmer and his ministers have offered little to no criticism of the previous government’s foreign policy stances.

There are two main reasons for this expected continuity. Under Conservative governance, Britain has faced worsening economic conditions, with most Britons feeling the pinch of rising living costs. With Starmer now inheriting a challenging domestic situation, he needs to prove he can revitalize the nation, having called for "an age of national renewal" in his first speech as prime minister. Such an ambitious goal of stabilizing the economy will likely take a while, probably even consuming his entire five-year term in power, if he can achieve it at all. As a result, any drastic shifts in foreign policy won’t be a near-term priority.

However, Starmer has also positioned himself as a centrist and vocal supporter of upholding the United States (US)-led world order. Both Starmer and his new Foreign Secretary David Lammy have promised to uphold London’s transatlantic partnership with Washington, regardless of who wins the next US presidential election later this year. On the one hand, Starmer will likely drop any rhetoric of "Global Britain" - a notion which characterized the Conservatives’ post-Brexit foreign policy agenda. On the other, his government may still look to maintain a proactive role on the global stage while being a close "junior partner" of Washington.

A realignment with Europe

Europe will almost certainly be an immediate focal point of Starmer’s foreign policy. Starmer will support improving post-Brexit ties with Europe, potentially reducing trade barriers and coordinating on security and migration, yet without rejoining the European Union (EU). His efforts to strengthen ties with European leaders will be evident at the European Political Community Summit meeting on July 18 in the UK. Within Europe, his appointment as premier was well received. Many EU leaders congratulated Starmer, likely hoping for smoother UK relations after Brexit's turbulent management under the Conservative Party.

That also comes with promises to deepen the UK-EU security coordination, especially with Ukraine in mind. Starmer is expected to uphold Britain’s firm material and political support for Ukraine, as well as maintaining London’s robust sanctions regime on Russia. Showcasing how this policy aligns with Europe and the US, Starmer told US President Joe Biden that Britain’s support for Kyiv is “unwavering.”

As of 2024, the UK has pledged a total of £12.5 billion (over $16 billion) in support to Ukraine, with £7.6 billion ($9.3 billion) allocated for military assistance. Starmer will likely continue that support in line with NATO allies, having declared his “unshakeable” commitment to NATO.

Beyond Europe

Britain’s presence in the Indo-Pacific will likely remain, although it will perhaps be less of a priority for Starmer. Launched under Boris Johnson’s leadership in 2021, Starmer hasn’t suggested any plans to scale back its navy’s deployment in the region, at least for now.

Starmer has expressed support for AUKUS, the submarine production agreement with the US and Australia, which is also designed to counter China’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific. He’ll likely continue maintaining Britain’s partnerships with other key regional allies, such as Japan.

However, there are stark concerns that Britain is overextending itself with limited resources. Such constraints, to say nothing of its already substantial commitments to Ukraine, may compel Britain to limit any further expansion in the Indo-Pacific.

While seeking to back up the US in the Indo-Pacific, London will still need to balance its relationship with China, which has increasingly deteriorated in recent years. As the US-China trade has ramped up under Biden’s presidency, Washington has also persuaded some allies, including the UK, to decouple from China. Under the Conservative government, Britain pledged to remove all Huawei equipment from 5G networks by 2027, a move reportedly influenced by US pressure. Yet Beijing also remains Britain’s largest source of imports, making it an important economic partner for the UK.

Starmer has already pledged an “audit” of Chinese ties within the first 100 days of taking office. Yet, it remains to be seen if the UK will defy US pressure and avoid imposing further trade restrictions against China.

David Lammy recently stated Labour’s policy towards China would aim to “compete, cooperate and challenge.” That means there will probably be a continued balancing act with China and no substantial changes, while the US and UK will continue defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Middle East

In the Middle East, Starmer will almost certainly further double-down on aligning with Washington. That will include hesitancy over recognizing a Palestinian state and upholding firm support for Israel, despite legal and political pressure to suspend weapons sales to Israel over the Gaza war.

After all, Starmer has expressed pro-Israel opinions before and during Israel’s offensive on Gaza, including its “right to defend itself,” despite timidly calling for a cease-fire as Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe worsens. It’s therefore unlikely Britain will change its actions towards Israel/Palestine without Washington’s approval.

Given Starmer’s messaging before becoming prime minister, London will also likely continue aligning with the US on Iran, including sanctions, siding with Israel in any further tensions with Tehran, and a possible UK designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “terrorist organization.” Starmer will likely continue assisting the US in countering Yemen’s Houthis’ attacks on Red Sea trade, which have occurred since December 2023 following the Gaza war. Such actions would include intercepting Houthi drones and possible further raids on Yemen.

Ultimately, while addressing economic matters at home remains a priority, Starmer also appears committed to maintaining Britain’s traditional support for the US on various foreign policy matters. With that in mind, the result of November’s US Presidential elections – be it a Joe Biden or Donald Trump victory – will also be highly consequential for London’s foreign policy.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu

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