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Will 2021 Determine the Future of ‘Global Britain’?

Barbara Woodward, Britain’s new ambassador to the United Nations. She spoke to the media virtually on Feb. 1 about her country’s focus as Security Council president for the month. One topic, Myanmar, had been scheduled for a session later this week. The military coup pushed that discussion to Feb. 2. 

February marks the beginning of a yearlong period that could make or break Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy, also known as “Global Britain.” This month, Britain presides over the United Nations Security Council, then the Group of 7 meeting, in Cornwall in June, and in November, the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow.

“I think the UK really sees this year as an opportunity to help shape global events,” Barbara Woodward, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue. Woodward is newly arrived from Beijing, where she was her country’s first woman ambassador to China.

Britain has moved on from Brexit and is now asserting itself as a full member of the international community, despite the country lacking a clear strategic vision or a coherent implementation of “Global Britain,” according to a recent report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

In the Security Council, this new assertion means balancing the interests of Washington and Europe, while also aiming to be relevant in developing countries.

The Biden administration will likely give the US-UK relationship new life. “We certainly want to work closely with the United States,” Woodward said to PassBlue. “President Biden has already had a conversation with Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson, [and] Foreign Secretary [Dominic] Raab has had a conversation with State Secretary [Antony] Blinken. So those connections are already being made. But we’ve also got very strong connections with European partners.”

Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group and a Briton, echoes this idea. “The natural British approach at the UN is always to stay as close as possible to the US,” he says, “but over the last year since Brexit, and with the Trump administration taking increasingly difficult positions on Iran and Covid-19, the UK discovered that it couldn’t simply line up with the Americans. Through 2020 on Iran, for example, the UK was working closely with France and Germany to limit the Trump administration’s efforts to kill off the Iranian nuclear deal.” Gowan thinks that with the Biden administration, the UN will see the UK “rebuild ties with the US.”

As Council president, Britain’s priorities are straightforward: Covid-19 and its effects in conflict zones, Feb. 18 (a follow-up to the UN secretary-general’s call for a global cease-fire to help fight the pandemic); the link between climate change and security, Feb. 23; “the core business of the Security Council around conflict,” as Ambassador Woodward puts it, in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Central African Republic, Somalia and Iraq; and terrorism’s threat to international peace and security. The topic of Myanmar was scheduled for debate in the Council before the Feb. 1 coup, so the agenda item was moved up to Feb. 2, in a format still to be decided. (See the program of work.)

Britain is a top financial donor to the Covax initiative, the international vaccine alliance, which is helping developing countries gain access to the world’s various vaccines. In January, Downing Street reached its goal of securing $1 billion in pledges to the cause, which Britain has promised to match (£1 for every US$4 pledged by other donors).

“It’s important for two reasons,” Ambassador Woodward said. “The first is the obvious moral reason — there’s no reason for anyone to get the vaccine before anyone else. The other one is the purely practical reason that none of us is safe until all of us are safe.”

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about Britain’s goals in February, with insights from Richard Gowan, download the latest episode of  PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, on SoundCloud, Google Podcasts, Patreon, iHeart Radio or Amazon Prime Music. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.) The ambassador also briefed the media virtually on Feb. 1.

Britain’s Ambassador to the UN: Barbara Woodward, 59
Ambassador to UN Since: December 2020
Languages: English, Mandarin, Russian, French
Education: M.A. in history, University of St. Andrews (1979-1983); M.A. in international relations, Yale University (1988-1990)

Her story, briefly: Britain’s recent decision to shift Woodward from China to the UN, as China is perceived as a rising power internationally, cannot be random. “I’m sure my foreign ministry always makes strategic decisions,” she says of her appointment to the UN. “In this case, there certainly was an overlap between a job that I am thrilled and honored to have, and a question of strategy.”

Woodward spent a total of 12 years in China, as an ambassador from 2015 to 2020, as an English teacher early in her career, in the 1980s, and from 2003 to 2009 as a political counselor, which included the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Sports are one of her passions. They also help get her through tense diplomatic negotiations, she says. “Partly, it’s just about fitness. The fitter I am, the more resilience I have when we get into tough negotiations. We have to work long hours sometimes, so I think that fitness and stamina are really important. But it’s also at the same time, I think, very relaxing.”

Woodward says she has already connected with other women ambassadors at the UN and was pleased to see more of them joining the Security Council in 2021. “I think we should keep pushing,” she says. “If you look at the Security Council now, with the arrival of India, it represents about 3.5 billion people in the world. So that’s quite representative. But with only four women [serving as ambassadors], you’re not really drawing on your full diversity in the world. I think it’s really important that we continue to push in those areas and bring the complementary skills and attitudes that half the world’s population has.”

Woodward has also been posted to Russia and the European Union, and is fluent in French, Russian and Mandarin. Her language skills will likely be useful on the Council, whose work environment is different from her previous one in China.

“My learning curve is still pretty vertical,” she says, “but I’m still being hugely helped by colleagues here in the mission. [In China] I was running a mission of about 1,500 staff spread across five offices. But all of us focused on various aspects of the UK-China relationship. Here in New York, I’ve got more than 190 counterparts to get to know. I’ve got an agenda that ranges across the whole of foreign policy.”

Woodward spoke to PassBlue on Jan. 28. Her remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity.

The UK now has one of the highest rates of death from Covid-19 per capita globally. Why is it important to help other countries fighting Covid-19, instead of focusing entirely on the crisis at home? Two reasons: the first is moral — there’s no reason for anyone to get the vaccine before anyone else. But the other one is the purely practical reason that none of us is safe until all of us are safe. So the UK, which is a very large global humanitarian donor, has not only made our own contribution to Covax, but last September, Prime Minister Johnson put out a challenge that we would match donations to Covax. In January we announced during the secretary-general’s [virtual] visit to London that we’d reached our $1 billion target. That’s not the whole amount needed. We do hope that other countries will continue to step forward. . . . And now I think the challenge is, we have that money, and we need to work with Covax to get the vaccines out beyond the global north, as it were, and that will, I hope, come through in the next week or 10 days.

Do you see Britain’s relationships with other countries changing this year? I think the UK really sees this year as an opportunity to help shape global events. We have our Security Council presidency coming up in February, and we will take over the chair of the G7. This year we’re also chairing COP26. We are leading in terms of our contributions to Covax and other events. And we are strong advocates of multilateralism. We were very clear about that during the secretary-general’s visit to London earlier this month, and my foreign secretary is very committed to the UK being a force for good in the world. We certainly want to work closely with the United States. President Biden has already had a conversation with Prime Minister Johnson, [and] Foreign Secretary Raab has had a conversation with State Secretary Blinken. So those connections are already being made. But we’ve also got very strong connections with European partners. So the three have been working closely on questions — you’ll have seen the statement that we put out when Iran announced its intentions to increase its enrichment [of nuclear fuel]. So I think there are strong relations with Europe. Our foreign secretary has just been to Ethiopia and Sudan, and being out in Africa [makes us] a truly global player. We’ll be seeking to work closely with all partners, and [hoping] to deliver results that are good for the security and prosperity of the UK, and good for global progress, too.

Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister: Boris Johnson
Foreign Affairs Minister: Dominic Raab
Type of Government: Constitutional monarchy headed by the prime minister
Year Britain Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the permanent-five members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)
Current Closest Allies on the Council: Europeans and US
Population: 66.6 million

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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